Conflict of Interest: How Journalists Avoid It

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

You can [get intimate with] an elephant if you want to, but if you do you can’t cover the circus. — The (Abe) Rosenthal Rule

A conflict of interest arises when someone who is expected to act impartially has a personal stake in an issue (emotional, financial, etc.). In every case, a conflict of interest is a real problem — even if nobody misbehaves.

Thus, a lawyer who has defended a client in the past cannot be hired to prosecute that same client; a surgeon should not operate on a family member, and a reporter should not cover any news story in which he or she has a personal stake.

Of course reporters can join political parties. They can vote. They can have opinions, They can exercise their first amendment right to free speech.

Sometimes journalists are called upon to present their opinions in an editorial or personal column. But most of the rank-and-file journalists who are doing their routine jobs are charged with reporting who said or did what, and providing facts that help the public understand the significance of the news.

The late Abe Rosenthal, former editor of the New York Times, “once told a reporter who demanded to exercise his rights by marching in a street demonstration he was assigned to cover: ‘OK, the rule is, you can [make love to] an elephant if you want to, but if you do you can’t cover the circus.’ ” (via Wesley Pruden).

The point of “the Rosenthal Rule” is not to penalize any one political viewpoint; rather, the cub reporter who wanted to march in a protest has such a strong personal connection to that issue that it made him unsuited to write neutral, fact-based stories on that issue.

A conflict of interest is still an ethical problem even if nobody misbehaves and nobody means any harm.

If Mr. Brady agrees to judge a baking contest, and his housekeeper Alice enters the contest, both Mr. Brady’s reputation as an impartial judge and Alice’s reputation as a cook are at risk. Mr. Brady has a conflict of interest. Even if it turns out that Alice really does bake the best pie, and Mr. Brady honestly awards her the first prize, it may still look like the only reason she won is that she works for the judge. (If her pie really is the best, some other fair pie-taster would also have picked it. If Mr. Brady is really honest, he would not want to put Alice in the position of her rivals complaining that she only got the prize because her employer was also the judge.)

Likewise, if the mayor’s daughter uncovers a scandal on the city council, readers will expect her to try to make the mayor look good. Even if the reporter is completely thorough, readers will filter her words through their understanding of the reporter’s obligations to her father, and thus the reporter’s credibility may suffer.

In the summer of 2007, journalist Mirthala Salinas broadcast a report that Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villariagoa had separated from his wife.  The problem?  Salinas was the other woman. While it is possible that she just showed up for work one day and someone just handed her the story to read, her direct, personal connection with the story – or even the appearance of a conflict of interest — can damage the credibility of the whole news organization.

If your spouse works for ConglomCo Pharmaceuticals, and someone calls you up with a tip that ConglomCo is dumping illegal chemicals in the water reservoir, you should transfer the call to your editor.  Even if the next thing the caller says is that aliens whispered the tip to him in a dream, if you hang up on him, it might look like you are protecting your spouse’s job.

Often the possibility of a conflict of interest is less obvious, and the answer is “it depends.”

For a university news organization, student-athletes are welcome to write for any section in the paper, including sports; however, they cannot cover their own teams.

Should someone whose roommate is a student government officer be assigned to cover a student government meeting?  Should a non-catholic (who may have never attended a Catholic mass before) be assigned to cover the opening liturgy at a Catholic school?  On the other hand, would a cradle Catholic be disinclined to cover the reaction of the population that is not Catholic?

As you can see, the question of conflict of interest is complex.

Should a reporter with small children in daycare be assigned to a story about a new scientific study on the effects of daycare on child development?  Should an atheist cover a story that involves religion?  Should pack-a-day smokers cover health issues?  Should pacifists cover wars?

As with the exaggerated quote about elephants, the point is not to control the reporter’s off-the-job actions or personal beliefs; rather, the point is to ensure that the editor knows of any potential conflict of interest, in advance, so that a story can be reassigned or carefully vetted for signs of bias.

The antagonistic relationship between Donald Trump and the entire profession of journalism make this issue one worth serious, ongoing consideration.


2009 — originally posted in a glossary for a journalism class.
Jan 2017 — updated and posted here.