Potential Conflicts of Interest

In an era of great and growing dissatisfaction with the media, it is imperative that journalists avoid conflicts of interest, defined as situations in which there are competing professional, personal and/or financial obligations or interests that compete with the journalist’s obligation to his outlet and audience.

Writing about friends and family members: Most newspapers bar reporters from writing about, or including quotes from friends or family members, although there may be some exceptions, if the reporter is open about it. In an autobiography or memoir, obviously it is fine. Even here, however, there is an obligation: the writer should be transparent and stipulate the relationship, whatever form that may take. When a reporter is sent out to sample opinion or find an expert, those sources should not be relations, unless the journalist can honestly claim the relationship won’t sway what he writes one way or the other. In other words, would the reporter pull punches because he’s a friend of the source? That’s why it is usually a good idea to stay clear of using friends and relatives in articles in most instances.

Press junkets: Most reputable news organizations prohibit contributors from participating in press junkets, which are trips offered to journalists that are paid for by the entities the reporters cover, i.e., movie studios, electronics companies, government agencies.

Accepting hospitality: If a reporter is interviewing a CEO at a company or at the executive’s home, it is fine to accept a sandwich and a soft drink. At a restaurant, however, the reporter should pay for the meal or drink. Drinking alcohol on the job can be problematic. The Kalamazoo Gazette fired a reporter and photographer in 2005 for participating in a drinking game while researching a story on problem drinking on college campuses. An editor claimed the transgression compromised the paper’s integrity.

Gifts: Journalists generally should not accept any gifts from sources or from the subjects of their stories. Sometimes sources will send tokens of their appreciation after the fact, which is to say after publication. Every media outlet has its own policy on accepting such gifts. At the Department of Journalism, students will be asked to return all such tokens, if possible, if worth more than $25. If abroad in cultures where refusing hospitality could be interpreted as rudeness, it may be permissible to accept food, private lodging and/or small tokens of affection or gratitude. Similarly, in some cultures (Japan, for example) it is appropriate for a reporter to present a small gift to a source before the interview starts, especially if the interview is being conducted in the source’s home. As always, use common sense.

Free tickets: While some publications, like The New York Times, prohibit their reporters from accepting free tickets to a performance they are writing about or reviewing, most others allow staff writers and freelancers to procure press passes to movie screenings, concerts and theatrical productions. The policy in the Department of Journalism is: A student can accept free passes to an event she is covering as part of or preparation for a story, but should not take a free ticket to another event beyond the one being reviewed, written about, or used as background material. The same goes for review copies of books, compact discs, DVDs and access to subscription-only web sites.

Paying sources: Most reputable news organizations do not pay sources for information. To do so can undermine the integrity of the information.

Quid pro quo: A reporter should not guarantee an interview subject favorable coverage in exchange for access.

Investments (stock, bonds, venture capital): Journalists must avoid all financial entanglements (stock ownership, financial transactions, etc.) with the people and companies they cover.

Political and charitable donations: If a reporter donates to a politician running for office (say, the mayor) he shouldn’t also cover the election — that includes not only the mayor but also her opponents. Be forewarned: If you donate money to a politically active organization (Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association) your objectivity may be called into question if you write about issues of interest to these organizations.

Blogs: Nowadays it’s common for journalists — and journalism students — to blog and to comment on the blogs of others. What you choose to blog about and what you write for publication could potentially raise ethical concerns. For example, if you blog about a hard news story you published on stem cell research and bash governmental policy, readers could conceivably question your objectivity. Be aware that whatever you write may remain in cyberspace in perpetuity, revealed with a simple Web search. If you post malicious, immature or prurient material, or engage in online “flame wars,” you could inadvertently undermine your credibility and ethical standing. A rule of thumb: since everything you write online is, in effect, published, the NYU Journalism faculty urges you not to write anything that violates the rules of honest and decent journalism.

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