Category Archives: Academic writing

Online news undergoes a reprofessionalization. Amen.

For more than a decade now, a steady refrain in the online media has been that the traditional practice of journalism was dying, the victim of technological advance and cultural insurgency.

It wasn’t just the economic collapse of the legacy press. The most widely followed online news sites were increasingly populated by articles, pictures, and audio tracks selected not by living editors but by continuous, automated samplings of user behavior and mathematically ingenious hunches about reader interest.

News itself was being reimagined as no longer mainly the job of salaried reporters. It was more and more the work of impassioned civilians equipped with handheld devices and driven by curiosity and a commitment to public illumination.

As a political matter, that meant the day when a newsroom elite superintended civic awareness was over. News consumers would now rely on their social media pals for guidance on what to pay attention to, and the power to create and sustain networks of attention was now in the hands of ordinary people.

This was all thought to be a very good thing, since it not only universalized a hugely expanded population of people as news sources. It also spread the net much wider so that realities that might have escaped notice became news. “Journalism gets better the more people who do it,” as one writer put it, paraphrasing New York University media theorist Jay Rosen.

The outlook was buoyant, even euphoric, and it was tempting to overlook what might be lost in the rush to the online news millennium—accuracy and taste, for starters. More troubling, where was the quality? Even with a decade of citizen mobilization behind us, it’s hard to point to genuinely good journalism that was truly attributable to this turbo-fed democratization, no matter how lavishly admired it has been.

Now, that’s not to say that great news tips and evocative videos haven’t come from civilians with the right tools, in the right place, at the right time. We’ve seen that in the past year in the awareness of police killings of young black men in this country. Nor is that to ignore instances of exuberantly successful mass mobilization – such as when some 20,000 Britons scoured the personal spending of their parliamentarians in 2009 under the auspices of the Guardian newspaper.

But by and large, the most dramatic impact of the digital explosion on journalism has been to widen the world of sources, not to transform the rituals of newsgathering. Quality journalism has remained, defiantly, a professional practice. The value of meticulous attention to accuracy, of careful confirmation, of sifting competing claims about truth and significance, of respect for privacy, of concern to avoid harm where possible—these cornerstone principles of traditional journalism (however often they’re violated) have not been replaced in the millennial rush to a digital populism.

So it comes as welcome news that some of the most successful web-based news operations are surrendering the algorithms that they’ve been using to make editorial decisions, and will now, as Wired magazine reports, “use real, live humans to curate the news, entertainment, and content they’ll deliver via their platforms.” Continue reading

A Robust Future for Conflict of Interest

This was first published in: Christopher Meyers, ed., Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach. NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Conflict of interest has become a centerpiece in the claim by Internet-based commentators to moral superiority over their legacy news media counterparts. The insistence of so-called mainstream journalists that they are free not just of private material entanglements but of personal sympathies that might tilt their reporting and commentary is brandished as a prime exhibit in the indictment of the media establishment as hypocritical, secretly biased, and unworthy of public trust.1

Much of the criticism comes under the banner of transparency and accountability, and centers on narrow matters such as alleged partisan leanings among reporters. That trivializes the matter. The exuberant rise of New Media and the steady collapse of established media business models are raising issues related to independence and conflict of interest in much more profound ways than allegations over mere campaign giving would imply.

As I will suggest, innovations such as online advertising tied to specific editorial content, highly targeted websites intended to nurture demographically attractive micro-publics, nonprofit funding of editorial initiatives, and an increase in amateur or non-fulltime journalists all are potentially problematic in ways that pre-Internet formulations of conflict of interest do not fully anticipate.

So conflict of interest has a bright future. It also has an illustrious past. Indeed, it is virtually a cultural archetype of journalistic corruption: the business writer who covers a company in which she owns shares, the politics reporter who accepts a weekend junket from a wealthy office-seeker, the publisher who kills an embarrassing story about an advertiser arrested in an anti-prostitution sweep, the media company that diverts resources to promotional coverage of the products of a corporate affiliate.

NATURE OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST: At its broadest, conflict of interest comprises a variety of situations where undeclared obligations or loyalties exist that might plausibly stand between journalists or journalism organizations and the public they principally serve. Those obligations engender a set of rival objectives, usually unknown to the audience, that the journalist would reasonably be expected to be mindful of and be inclined to help fulfill, and which could, accordingly, influence her reporting or its presentation.2

Although the traditional notion of “interests” suggests a material stake rather than a personal bond, the conception here is not so narrow; any affiliation that the person values may suffice to produce a conflict.
Conflict of interest has recently come to be applied still more broadly to a wide array of mental predispositions and sentiments that might conceivably have a discernible effect on the journalist’s output.3 A key question is when such loyalties, affections, sympathies — an inescapable consequence of living in society — do indeed create conflicts that are ethically problematic for journalists.

Plainly, not all do. For that matter, material holdings may not either. It is easily imaginable that even a journalist who has what certainly seems to be a financial stake in the subject of a story might attach so little importance to the apparent entanglement that the reporting would be unaffected.

ROLE OF JUDGMENT: So how then does a potential influence become ethically problematic? How is it expressed? Here, it seems appropriate to posit a mediating agency that gives the influence practical consequence, which Meyers and Davis4 do by assigning a pivotal role to judgment. Accordingly, conflict of interest does its harm less by giving the journalist another constituency to serve than by affecting the way she thinks, by impairing her judgment. Because of the conflict, the reporter looks for different matters to report, selects different facts, presents them differently, pursues angles she might not otherwise care about — in sum, performs a range of professional operations differently and creates content that is different from what a journalist free of the conflict would produce.

The strength of this formulation is that it frames the consequences of a conflict of interest in a way that seems intuitively true: After all, a conflict need not turn the reporter into a straight-line agent of the problematic influence.5 It works both more subtly and more comprehensively, by re-sensitizing the reporter, recalibrating cognition, redirecting attention, promoting an off-stage constituency not so much to serve, as to be mindful of and to care about.

Such is the value of recognizing the role of judgment and recasting the harm done by conflict of interest as consisting of impaired judgment — and of content that, consequently, is transformed.

But a danger with this construct is that if not handled properly it changes the subject. It shifts critical attention away from the corrupting force of the outside influence and the propriety of the reporter’s engagement with it, and onto the journalist’s internal capacity to cope with that influence and safeguard his work from its effects. Ethics yields to psychology. Instead of an inquiry into values and loyalties we have interrogation on motives and susceptibilities. Plus, the construct invites evasion and denial, since the reporter is the main authority on whether his judgment is altered. Perfectly outrageous influences could be defended as ethically permissible in light of the individual’s purported integrity and strength of character.

PLAUSIBILITY: So how should judgment fit into the conflict of interest model without tipping into that psychologistic trap? Here, the notion of plausibility — combining both reasonableness and likelihood — seems helpful. Accordingly, conflict of interest exists when it is plausible that the influence would impair the journalist’s professional judgment to the detriment of her public service obligations.6 It therefore requires two conclusions: that it is reasonable to expect the outside interest to have an influence, and that the influence would be deleterious. This formulation explicitly acknowledges that the finding that a conflict exists requires an outside determination of plausibility; disharmony cannot be inferred automatically from the existence of overlap between professional duty and other interests.

A final point on the moral harm done by conflicts. Because conflict of interest impugns not just the communicator’s performance but her motives, the damage it does goes beyond the possible distortions or inaccuracies a given conflict might engender in a single story. The notion has power as an exemplar of cultural villainy because it implicates the fundamental trustworthiness of communication. Trusting somebody, as Annette Baier reminds us, is quite different from relying on them for a particular service. It is an expression of confidence not just in the technical competence but in the good will of the other, especially when the power, knowledge and capacities of the two parties are widely unequal and when the trusted party necessarily operates within a wide grant of autonomy and self-direction.7 Little strikes quite so devastatingly at the basics of communicative trust than the suspicion that messages are motivated and shaped by a self-serving agenda that the other person is deliberately concealing.

‘APPARENT’ CONFLICTS: How does this discussion illuminate the perplexing status of “perceived” or “apparent” conflicts of interest? Contemporary codes interpret conflicts expansively to embrace activities whose effects on journalism are hard to discern and which may not constitute ethical breaches at all.8 Among them are actions that might expose employers to public reproach, dilute their brands, deny them credit or payment for outside work their employees do, and otherwise put them at a commercial disadvantage — without, however, necessarily influencing the information and commentary delivered to the public, which constitutes the journalist’s main duty and ground for ethical criticism.

So this usage is widespread, and its popularity is troubling. Perceptions, after all, are not usually considered valid reasons for moral action unless they are accurate. Moral philosophers from Plato on have insisted on the fallibility of perception and the need to subject it to rigorous verification and thought. The alternative is to say, in effect, “There’s nothing wrong with the action except that others might view it as objectionable.” Such a statement privileges the opinion of outsiders as ethically authoritative, rather than as a view that needs to be tested and, if ill-founded, disputed or disregarded. Sometimes “the public” is wrong, sometimes “the public” may not even be audible above the clamor of denunciations whose real purpose is to disable a news organization.

In our formulation, if it is not plausible that the activities or relationships that seem problematic would have a discernible impact on the quality of journalism delivered to the public, there is no conflict of interest, real or potential. The problem is a misperception and, as Michael Davis argues, the solution is to show that it is a misperception so that a reasonable outsider will agree. In his discussion of “apparent” conflict of interest, which he defines as a situation where no conflict exists but an outsider might justifiably suspect one, resolution requires “making available enough information to show that there is no actual or potential conflict.”9

SCOPE OF CONFLICTS: Powerful — perhaps the most powerful — conflicts arise not from outsiders bearing threats or blandishments, but from within normal journalistic practice.10 The logic of conflict of interest implicates routine features of the organizational sociology of contemporary journalism. The beat system, whose operating rationality entails nurturing a stable network of productive source relationships, creates strong incentives to use or withhold information to sustain those relations.11 The White House correspondent who learns the aging president cat-naps during Cabinet meetings understands reporting that fact may cost him his access, and consequently, his highly esteemed beat. The desire for personal, professional advancement itself constitutes an interest that may well come into conflict with the duty to report publicly significant facts. Consider the ambitious columnist who vets potential topics with an eye to those that will get him on TV talk shows and thence onto the lucrative speaker circuit.12 Or the city editor who hungers for a big prize, and devotes an outsized proportion of her staff to a glamorous project at the expense of coverage of matters of continuing, but less prize-worthy, importance.

If we look beneath the level of professional practice to the institutional political economy that enfolds the newsroom,13 what makes conflict of interest even more insidious is that its logic incriminates the economic essentials of news as a business. A commercial news operation, especially if chiefly dependent on advertising rather than circulation revenue, is under unrelenting pressure to assess coverage options by their appeal to demographically desirable markets, not by their value in nurturing an informed and sovereign citizenry. Redeploying newsroom resources away from foreign bureaus to lucrative home furnishing sections, or taking precious time within a half-hour evening program away from news and selling it to advertisers, may have reasonable economic justification, but are nonetheless responses to conflicts of interest.

Those vexing elements related to the organizational sociology and political economy of journalism are captured in the formulation offered by Black, Steele and Barney: “Conflicts of interest occur when individuals face competing loyalties to a source or to their own self-interest, or to their organization’s economic needs as opposed to the information needs of the public.”14 That formulation correctly describes realities inextricably woven into the contemporary practice of journalism, where journalists routinely confront competing loyalties to sources and their organization’s economic needs and face pressure to privilege those relationships over their primarily public duty.

In that respect, the problem of conflicts derives from the reality that the people who produce journalism are embedded in the organizations that employ them and the communities they serve. They practice journalism within partly overlapping layers of obligation and loyalty — personal, professional and institutional. Journalists, in everything they produce, must balance the demands of multiple constituencies: sources, colleagues, bosses, competitors, family, posterity and, above all one hopes, the general public. All, it is important to remember, may have legitimate claims on the journalist’s loyalty.15 The interests of each sometimes overlap and sometimes clash, and those areas of agreement and discord are etched onto the journalism that results. Journalists suffer or benefit from the coverage they offer in ways that may not be apparent, and their anticipation of those consequences cannot help but color their professional output.

Journalism need not be corrupt. But as a truth-telling practice it is inevitably a negotiated approximation, and the notion that it can be practiced within a zone of undiluted dedication to the public good is impossible to support. Instead, it seems fair to say that conflicts of interest are an unavoidable feature of the terrain that journalists navigate, which cannot be eliminated, but must be managed, more or less successfully, more or less honestly and ethically.

Identifying conflict of interest as a distinct concern first required articulating broader principles of communicative ethics, such as independence and fair-mindedness. Until those emerged as values, the notion of a conflict could have no normative edge; a hidden loyalty cannot constitute a conflict unless there is some principal obligation it conflicts with. Moreover, on the level of political culture, only after the idea was advanced that the journalist had some public duty did it make sense to deplore private influences that might subvert it.

Although the term itself dates only from the mid-20th Century,16 early expressions of the doctrine of journalistic objectivity suggest a sensitivity to what we now call conflicts of interest. In his history of journalism ethics, Stephen Ward identifies, starting in 17th Century England, two sources of objectivity as a professional norm.17 First was the rise of periodic publishing, an economic model based on building return business. The publisher’s wish not just to reach today’s readers but to ensure they come back for the next issue spawned standards of reliability and trustworthiness that, though not explicitly couched in conflict of interest language, are functionally equivalent to a claim to be approaching the public with clean hands.

In the following century, Ward argues, that marketplace incentive was joined to a second source, an emerging conception of the informed public as a political force, allied to and nourished by a press whose leanings were subject to open speculation and critique.18 The press, admittedly, was riven by contending allegiances, but the notion that it had a principal obligation to the public was born in this period, and a fuller conception of conflict of interest became possible. In his 1800 work, Tunis Wortman explicitly connected impartiality with resistance to contending pressures: “Neither fear on the one side, nor hope of reward on the other, should intimidate or influence its enquiries… The moment that corrupt or foreign considerations are suffered to bias, or stain their pages, they become injurious to the genuine interests of the society.”19 In the United States the idea that journalists have a primary loyalty to the public good took modern form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, apace with the appearance of news media as profit-seeking industrial enterprises, the rise of the mass-circulation advertising-support model, and the movement of journalism toward self-identification as both a professional practice and an instrument of popular sovereignty.20

It has been argued that concern about “institutional conflicts of interest” — powerfully corrupting pressures on journalists that originate within their own businesses — arose only a century later, with the late 20th Century emergence of media conglomerates whose wide-ranging manufacturing and sales operations regarded their affiliated news divisions as a potential source of “synergies” — or PR support.21 While the potential for improper influence undoubtedly grew with the industrial diversification of news owners, fear of the corrupting influence of undisclosed private loyalties arising from the owning institutions themselves was voiced much earlier.

The first industry-wide ethics code, that of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ in 1923, warned: “Promotion of any private interest contrary to the general welfare, for whatever reason, is not compatible with honest journalism. …. “22 A decade later, the American Newspaper Guild’s ethics code identified several areas related to conflicts of interest, such as taking money for publicity work and covering matters that clash with the policy of newspaper owners.23 The Journal of Mass Media Ethics, launched in 1984, reported in its first issue that most ethics codes assigned central importance to conflicts of interest, especially such matters as extracurricular political involvements and outside income.24

A TYPOLOGY: The way in which conflict of interest has metastasized into a catchall charge leveled against a great number of activities — from bumper stickers to moonlighting — suggests more systematic analysis could be useful. Accordingly, I suggest analyzing journalistic conflicts along two dimensions: The degree to which they are endemic to the practice of journalism or the business in which it is embedded, and the degree to which they are directly consequential, meaning they are likely to have discernible effects on what the journalist does.

Dimension 1: From endemic to extraneous: Conflicts are endemic to the degree that they arise from the nexus of institutional, professional and personal relationships in which the journalist works. They are extraneous to the degree that they originate outside those relationships.25

Examples of endemic conflicts: As discussed earlier, reporters’ reliance on sources may oblige them to ignore newsworthy stories that, if published, would damage valuable relationships that enhance the reporters’ effectiveness and enable them to advance professionally.26 That is a conflict inherent in the terrain on which journalism is practiced, hence endemic. Similarly, the TV station manager who kills a story because it would imperil a valuable advertising contract is responding to a reality internal to the reality of ad dependency: Advertisers may withhold support from media outlets whose coverage they view as harmful. That does not mean the station manager’s decision is ethically sound, which it almost certainly is not. My point is that it is a response to a conflict endemic to commercial news.27

By contrast, consider a reporter’s decision to campaign on her own time for a political candidate she favors. That is not a response to challenges or opportunities inherent in her work as a journalist. Likewise, if a reporter buys property whose value might be influenced by things she writes, the purchase is not one of those tough decisions that she must weigh as part of her job. The conflict arises from goals external to her journalism, and, in the terms proposed here, is extraneous: Nothing in the practice of journalism itself engenders it.

Dimension 2: From conflicts with clear impact to those without: Some conflicts seem more laden with consequence than others. But while it is easy to offer examples of loyalties or obligations that seem certain to affect reporting, the opposite case is harder to imagine. Is a non-consequential conflict ethically problematic? Is it a conflict at all?

The question is a reasonable one, yet, as we have seen, news organizations routinely promulgate rules that forbid ties of dubious consequence. A sports writer is disciplined under a conflict of interest prohibition for attending a political fundraising concert even though she will never write about that or any other campaign event (or even about the music.) A politics reporter faces limits on her financial portfolio not because investments might predispose her to write one thing rather than another, but because her employer craves a reputation for integrity. Are such restrictions justified as responses to conflicts of interest?

While it is important to be skeptical about the appropriation of ethics language for the purpose of workplace supervision and brand management, there may still be a principled reason to forbid some entanglements that have no direct, immediate and substantive effect on the journalist’s output: They may still clash with the reporter’s duties in real ways.

Consider outside commitments that may induce a reporter to privilege certain obligations that ought to be subordinated to a primary duty to inform the public — celebrity journalism, for instance, where journalists are rewarded with lavish fees on the national speaker circuit once they establish themselves by appearing on high-profile news talk shows. They have a huge careerist incentive to anticipate, in their day jobs, the kind of topics and treatments that will make them talking heads on TV. That unacknowledged agenda might plausibly guide their journalism toward covering some things and not others.

Similarly, book publishing or blogging, in which the journalist is seeking to turn her reporting into a vehicle for other business ventures or professional avenues, are vulnerable to criticism on conflict of interest grounds. In those instances, as with the classic conflict, the journalist allows a set of interceding loyalties to stand between content and audience, burdening her professional activities with undisclosed purpose and entitling her to rewards unrelated to her obligation to serve her public ably and independently.28

Such conflicts have no clearly discernible impact on a particular area of coverage and represent no specific, undisclosed loyalty or obligation that the reporter might be advancing through textual framings, omissions or distortions. Yet they frame larger alignments that, it is reasonable to presume, affect the journalist’s judgment when it comes to the way she carries out her professional duties. So the argument that they may still be conflicts of interest seems sound.

Hence, we have two dimensions of conflicts: The degree to which they arise from the ways in which journalism is practiced and institutionalized, and the degree to which they have discernible, direct consequence on information and commentary delivered to the public.

HANDLING CONFLICTS: This typology offers clues as to how to handle conflicts of interest and mitigate the harm they cause. In general, conflicts can be eliminated, disclosed or managed. How effective — and how available — those remedies are depends on the specifics of the conflict, and whether it is endemic or extraneous, consequential or non-consequential.

Elimination: Clearly, this is the most effective response to a genuine conflict of interest. It could mean severing the outside relationships or commitments that are problematic, or reassigning or modifying the specific duties that produce the conflict.

By their nature, non-endemic conflicts are easiest to eliminate without harming important processes or relationships. The real estate reporter need not buy the property in the neighborhood she covers. The publishing company can still publish if it does not buy naming rights to the new stadium that will be financed by a bond issue that its newspaper is urging voters to approve.

That is not to suggest that such conflicts can be eliminated without cost, which may well involve abridging customary freedoms. Even if getting rid of non-endemic conflicts may not threaten business as usual, doing so still comes at a cost, which may not be trivial. That makes it necessary to consider whether they are sufficiently vexing or consequential to bother.

Endemic conflicts are far more intractable. How can anyone eliminate the editor’s desire to pursue prize-winning coverage, the publisher’s incentive to deploy staff on new sections that draw fresh advertising, the news director’s hunger for sensational items for sweeps week, the corporate manager’s insistence on cutting statehouse bureaus to raise the news division’s contribution to the consolidated bottom line?
Endemic conflicts, by and large, cannot easily be eliminated.

Disclosure: What Louis Day calls the “moral minimum,”29 disclosure amounts to alerting the public to otherwise hidden loyalties or obligations that might influence what they see or hear.

It is rarely a satisfactory response for several reasons. First, disclosure typically cannot be specific as to how the outside entanglement might shape the journalism. If readers are supposed to be forewarned to possible bias by knowing that the writer used to work for the subject of the story, they may still not have a clue as to what direction that bias may lean. (Indeed, the writer herself may not be sure.) Second, even if the disclosure did suggest a broad direction of improper influence, it does nothing to rid the report of it or to indicate the extent of its reach.30 Third, as noted, rival loyalties may manifest themselves not so much in discernible bias, but in impaired judgment. Disclosure does not enable readers to compensate fully for that impairment.31 Fourth, some powerfully consequential conflicts may be impossible ethically to disclose. Take the negotiation with a source that obligates the reporter to withhold a good story now in hopes of a better story later. The reporter must keep that negotiation secret, yet the agreement compromises her duty to report publicly significant information.32

How does disclosure relate to the typology of conflicts? Disclosure is most practicable with conflicts that are non-endemic — that is, do not arise from fundamental journalistic processes — and most illuminating with conflicts that are plainly consequential, where the link between conflict and content is clearest. It does little to mitigate endemic conflicts, in part because they are likely to be both difficult to convey and so sensitive that few organizations would disclose them. If used as a response to conflicts that are not clearly consequential — meaning they affect predisposition and context, not the substance of available work — disclosure is liable to be either unintelligible, impracticable or both.

Managing Conflicts: Earlier, I suggested that conflicts of interest are an inescapable feature of the terrain on which journalism is practiced, and derive, in part, from the reality that journalists work within a nexus of interwoven and overlapping obligations, most of them perfectly legitimate. The conventional responses to conflicts — elimination and disclosure — work best with conflicts that are the least vexing: Those that are non-endemic, meaning they do not arise from either the nature of the work, the character of its commercial setting or the boundaries of its institutional structure, and which are plainly consequential, in that they clearly relate to content the journalist produces.

Endemic conflicts work a subtler, longer-term and ultimately more corrupting influence on the independence of journalism, and typically have consequences toward the less discernible side of the scale.

Accordingly, other responses may be appropriate, including:

FOSTER IN-HOUSE DISCOURSE: Internal discussion of conflicts may produce benefits quite different from those of public disclosure. (Perhaps the public should know and take part in this, but the key point here is to encourage self-awareness and self-criticism among journalists themselves.) The problem of conflicts of interest is one that journalists experience directly and personally. They should be encouraged to address such questions as: “What are the best stories you know about but cannot write? Why not?”

PROVIDE INTERNAL OVERSIGHT: Does anybody watch for sacred cows? Are they not persistent threats to journalistic independence? If the organization has a news ombudsman or public editor, is that person a customer-service supervisor and a public complaints department — or is she empowered to look for ways in which, say, institutional or commercial inducements are allowed to shape coverage? Endemic conflicts of interest require vigilance and a determination to guard against their corrupting coverage to the detriment of the public need for significant information.

SEGREGATE FUNCTIONS: A typical professional conflict of interest arises when the same individual is expected to fulfill more than one role in regard to the same client.33 News organizations, in the name of calibrating editorial operations to business goals, have in recent years given senior editors financial incentives linked not to journalistic success but to cost containment or even revenue enhancement.34

Managing endemic conflicts honestly requires making them manifest and addressing them forthrightly. As unfashionable as this conclusion might be, this argues for reasserting the traditional church-state distinction and re-segregating news from commerce.

SUPERINTEND DUTIES: Creating fixed areas of editorial responsibility — e.g. beats, specialist editors, section chiefs — encourages staff to develop enduring loyalties to particular outside constituencies, and in some cases even to view their own prospects as dependent on the success of those constituencies. A reporter assigned to a presidential campaign might well view her future and her candidate’s future as intertwined; both, after all, might land in the White House. Staff should be rotated regularly; fixed beats should be understood as a potential boon to expertise, but a constant threat to reportorial independence and an incubator for endemic conflicts.

WIDEN OMBUDSMANSHIP: The test I suggested for whether a conflict exists is whether it is plausible to conclude that the relationships would have a discernible impact on the journalism the public sees. But determining plausibility requires both standards of reasonableness and people to apply them. Plus, since the undertaking is intended to keep journalists’ behavior consistent with public expectations of probity and independence it might be valuable to create permanent in-house panels comprising journalists and outsiders to fill the ombudsman’s role in regard to conflicts, evaluating cases and, when appropriate, issuing findings. Those findings could be made public or, if the conflict at issue is one that cannot ethically be disclosed, kept private. 35

CONFLICTS IN THE EMERGING MEDIA REGIME: While resisting conflicts of interest remains a cornerstone of the ethic that is normally thought constitutive of journalistic professionalism, that view is not universally shared among the rapidly growing corps of New Media practitioners whose work — reporting and commenting on matters of public significance — is essentially journalism. Some see the conflict rules of legacy media as a fig leaf that conceals, poorly, an arrogant refusal by journalists to own up to the inherent biases they are prone to and help propagate. (Others argue that bias is inherent in all cognition and expression, and the solution is disclosure and transparency.)

But the changing economic model of Internet-borne journalism lacks the clarity of conventional news operations and the cultural safeguards that have arisen to provide journalists with, for instance, some insulation from commercial pressure. Undisclosed payment in exchange for influence appears to be en route to becoming not just incidental, but common to some successful blogs.36

New varieties of endemic conflict are arising with the emergence of Internet-based news media and the migration of legacy media online. That migration involves not so much a straightforward transference to an electronic distribution platform as a cascade of transformations affecting most everything news media do, from fact gathering to revenue generation to editorial imagination. What follows are some notable new areas where conflicts of interest seem unavoidable.

CALIBRATED ADVERTISING: Online tracking technologies enable news managers to determine with unparalleled precision who is clicking through to which coverage. Through so-called third-party cookies they, or their revenue-side colleagues, can also learn a great deal about the online – and offline – behavior of those same readers, and can thereby assemble a profile of demographic and psychographic desirability for purposes of selling advertisers adjacency to coverage likely to draw a suitable crowd. 37

Hence, the revenue potential of particular elements of coverage are knowable as never before. The promise is tantamount to the Holy Grail of commercial news — the ability to monetize coverage in a tightly focused, granular fashion, to know that an article or video report on, say, the latest home fitness machines will draw so much ad revenue, and to make editorial coverage decisions accordingly.

Such behavioral surveillance is difficult to square with a practice that professes to respect privacy, but our concern here is with the sharp conflict between rival resource allocation choices — to coverage either with or without clear revenue payback. When the editorial options that are left orphaned include matters of civic importance, the conflict is between business prudence and public service.

USER-GENERATED CONTENT: The push to integrate audience segments into the process of producing journalism — also known as crowd-sourcing — creates incentives to enfranchise people who have the requisite skills, motivations and technical capabilities at the expense of others, and privilege coverage areas that are likely to appeal to population groups that are easier to mobilize and draw reporting and analytical support from. The 2006 Fort Myers, Florida, case, in which the local paper orchestrated an impressive outpouring of citizen zeal, is illustrative. The stories concerned excessive impact fees charged residents of a local town in connection with their power company’s expansion. The ensuing investigation was fueled by — and largely conducted by — an outpouring of amateur help in gathering and analyzing evidence of municipal irregularities, and led to a rollback of assessments.38

This seems to exemplify the kind of coverage most ripe for crowd-sourcing: An issue where the main challenges are empirical and narrowly analytical, rather than conceptual and political, and where the motivation of the amateur labor base — saving money, in this instance — is strong. The danger is that assigning priority to projects susceptible to crowd-sourcing could mean giving short shrift to highly worthwhile inquiries whose constituencies are less easily mobilized, less mainstream, and less richly skilled.

Integrating outside amateurs can also mean introducing new sources of conflicts of interest: Individuals who have conflicts of their own, or whose collaboration might derive from loyalties or obligations among existing staff. Such was the problem in an ill-starred 2007 project at the Los Angeles Times in which illustrious outsiders were solicited to serve as guest editors of a new Sunday section. The first amateur editor, it turned out, was a movie producer who had had a professional relationship with the girlfriend of the Times editor who led the project, who resigned in the aftermath. The entire project was scrapped.39

VERTICALITY: Mass circulation media are seeking to splinter their broad audiences into market slivers that correspond to categories that are meaningful and useful to advertisers. Those categories may be geographic in nature — neighborhood-based, for instance — or may relate to specific interests, age groups, ethnicities, and the like. The consequences are apparent in Dallas, where the monopoly metro newspaper has 50 microsites, and Cincinnati, whose newspaper has spawned 129 micro web sites. Is this problematic? It might be. It involves harnessing journalism to the purpose of identifying and targeting sub-populations because a constituency of potential advertisers wants to reach them without paying for audience overlap.40
It also involves developing tightly targeted information based on particularities that distinguish one population subset from another.

Conflict arises, as with the problem of calibrated advertising, between the broad conception of public service and the highly particularized iteration of journalism as an informational wedge that pries open access to people of determinate value to marketers.

WORKPLACE TRENDS: Several such trends — the increasing role of unpaid commentators, reductions in fulltime newsroom staffs, a greater use of part-time contributors and consulting analysts, use of outside materials (e.g. video news releases)41 suggest a common theme: The predominant reliance by news media on paid staffs of fulltime journalists and the materials they produce is changing. News organizations are growing more porous, and the traditional clarity of anti-moonlighting rules42 is being eclipsed by an era in which many journalists will construct careers around serial moonlighting.

NONPROFIT FINANCING: The growing weaknesses of the advertising-support model have prompted a search for nontraditional funding sources, notably from philanthropies and foundations. The 2007 creation of Pro Publica was a significant moment, in which an entirely new organization conceived around a specific kind of journalism — investigative reporting — came into being through a single, bold act of private largesse.43 The more typical pattern is for foundations to bankroll reporting on a given subject, influencing not what journalists report, but what they report about.44

It is inconceivable any funder would be wholly indifferent to the journalism its money makes possible, and it is unlikely that deeply committed foundations will not have some idea of the sort of findings they want to pay to help produce. Paradoxically, the very fact that nonprofits do not intend to use programming as a lure for commercial messages, but explicitly seek to make certain programming possible, may make the potential for improper influence greater than with commercial advertisers.

The continuing problem is to safeguard a professional space for independently gathering and sharing publicly significant information and comment. Conflict of interest is a concept that captures some of the most potent threats to that space. Finding ways to avert, brand and neutralize the harm of such conflicts remains one of the most difficult challenges facing U.S. journalism at the dawn of the new millennium.



1. See, e.g., “Journalists as People,” On the Media, National Public Radio, transcript, Sept. 10, 2004. [Online] Available:, [June 18, 2008]. “Jeff Jarvis on Transparency versus Objectivity,” Big Think. [Online] Available: May 8,2008. [June 18, 2008]. Jeff Jarvis, “The objectivity myth,”, Feb. 19, 2008. [Online] Available: [June 18, 2008].
2. This interpretation, which emphasizes attitude and predisposition not material interest, is similar to that advanced by Christopher Meyers, who writes “that the effect upon judgment is more important than is the type of gain received,” in Meyers, “Clinical Ethics Consulting and Conflict of Interest: Structurally Intertwined,” Hastings Center Report 37, no. 2 (2007). Meyers pointed me to the work of Michael Davis, especially, “Introduction,” Conflict of Interest in the Professions, ed. M. Davis and A. Stark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 8-21. The classic conflict, for Davis, is one where someone is in a professional relationship that requires her to exercise judgment on behalf of another person, yet at the same time has a special interest that is likely to interfere with “the proper exercise of judgment.” (8)
A possible problem here, however, is that the analysis presumes it is possible to tell good judgment from bad judgment. Similarly, in introductory notes to Kenneth Kipnis, “Conflict of Obligation and Conflict of Interest,” in Ethics and the Legal Profession, ed. M. Davis and F. A. Elliston (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986) 283-299, the editors write that conflicts occur “when someone cannot satisfy one obligation without failing to satisfy another.” (280) Here again, the line between satisfying one obligation and failing to satisfy the other is thought to be clear, and the relation between the two zero-sum. Similarly, Andrew Stark argues that the influence of conflicting interests is readily detectable in the work of judges and reporters because “there is an empirical reality, a fact of the matter, against which their reporting or judging can be measured to see if it moved off course.” (Stark, “Comparing Conflict of Interest across the Professions,” in Davis and Stark, Conflict of Interest in the Professions, 345.)
Our conception of conflicts does not require such clarity because, as a practical matter, the influence of the conflict on a journalist’s performance may not be unambiguous and, indeed, may not be sufficiently harmful to constitute failure to serve the primary interest. But it would still be a conflict, I will argue, if it is plausible to conclude its influence is detrimental to the primary duty. To what degree that detriment amounts to “failure” to deliver the expected service varies. The detriment may not take the form of impaired service; consider the reputational harm to a journalist whose friendships with sources yield privileged access and exclusive coverage. (See note 6 below.)
3. The persistent controversy over “media bias” represents a further iteration of the customary notion of the conflict of interest. See, e.g., Bernard Goldberg, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (New York: Regnery, 2001), and Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News (New York: Basic Books, 2003.) Here ideological predisposition or political sympathy is elevated in importance to where it is assigned a rough equivalence to material interests in its potential to corrupt. Our position is that preferences and opinions are not equivalent to interests as considered here, unless they are embraced as sufficiently obligatory that it would be plausible to expect them to influence professional performance.
4. Davis, “Introduction.”
5. For a narrower conception, which defines interests by their direct link to action, see Sandra L. Borden and Michael S. Pritchard, “Conflict of Interest in Journalism,” in Davis and Stark, Conflict of Interest in the Professions: “An interest is something we pursue, act in behalf of, or act for the sake of.” (80)
6. Note that the formulation includes detriment: It requires that a conflict of interest be harmful to journalism’s primary duty, which is public service. The notion that for something to be ethically problematic it must require a harm seems axiomatic. But the injunction, for example, to “act independently” (Society of Professional Journalists, “Code of Ethics,” [Online) Available: [June 28, 2008]) makes no mention of tainted coverage or any specific detriment. Can there be conditions that do no discernible harm and yet are still properly characterized as conflicts? Suppose a journalist’s personal relationship with a source wins her unusual access; the public benefits from disclosures it would not otherwise get. Does that friendship therefore not constitute a conflict of interest? I say yes. Our argument is that it would still be problematic. True, evidence of public benefit would be a partial defense. But in a larger sense the relationship would remain a detriment: The reporting itself is likely to suffer from favoritism; if the relationship were kept secret it would be a frontal assault on the obligation to reveal circumstances pertinent to important coverage, and if disclosed it would set unpalatable precedents about the proper relationship between personal ties and coverage and undermine the confidence of potential sources in the impartiality of the journalist.
7. Those are the elements of trust relationships as described by Annette Baier, “Trust and Antitrust,” in Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 95-129, which treats trust as a moral fundamental. Davis too notes that a trustee, unlike an agent, is not under the direct control of a principal and has a considerable range of autonomy (in “Introduction,” 8.) The inequality between journalist and public — what Baier calls “asymmetry” — is an important aspect noted by Borden and Pritchard (in “Conflict of Interest in Journalism,” 76.)
8. The Society of Professional Journalists code admonishes: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” in Jay Black, Bob Steele, and Ralph Barney, Doing Ethics in Journalism: A Handbook with Case Studies 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1999), 149. (A useful selection from codes is at 145-160.) Similarly, Wilkins and Brennen reflect this dual thrust in current codes: “Conflict of interest is one of few areas of professional ethics where perception of ‘reality’ has equal standing in a moral sense with the actual reality. The goal here is twofold: first, to circumscribe the sorts of influences that can erode professional judgment, and second, to maintain the bond of trust and authority between professionals and the larger society.” In Lee Wilkins and Bonnie Brennen, “Conflicted Interests, Contested Terrain: Journalism Ethics Codes Then and Now.” Media Ethics Division, AEJMC 2003 Annual Conference, Kansas City, Mo. [Online] Available: 183-216. [June 28, 2008]. Also published in Journalism Studies 5, (no. 3, 2004), 297-309.
For a more recent compendium of codes, see: Dale Jacquette, Journalistic Ethics: Moral Responsibility in the Media (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007), 282-291. The New York Times code offers an especially expansive reading of conflict of interests. See Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments, [Online] Available:
9. Davis, “Introduction,” 18. However, even if outside activities do not constitute a conflict of interest, they may still be objectionable on reasonable, professional grounds. If they keep the journalist from doing her job effectively and she is unwilling to curtail them, she might have to be reassigned or dismissed. Suppose the activities are so prominent and controversial that some potential sources are deterred from talking to the reporter and some potential readers distrust or disregard what he writes. The schools writer who is a high-profile abortion rights activist might find her ability to report and to reach her readers impaired. (See the Vero Beach, Fla., case, described by Deni Elliott, “Freedom of Political Expression: Do Journalists Forfeit Their Right?” Journalism Ethics Cases Online, Indiana University School of Journalism, [Online] Available: The reporter’s outside commitments may have nothing substantive to do with matters she covers. But if their notoriety shuts down incoming channels of information and prompts listeners to close their ears, her journalism will be harmed. Journalists are communicators, and they must have people willing to talk to them and listen to them. Still, that is a judgment on workplace practicalities, not a verdict on ethical wrongdoing, and if management is bowing to bigotry or ignorance in the name of eliminating a conflict of interest it may be committing an injustice and compounding it with a high-sounding misrepresentation.
10. Some formulations downplay or ignore conflicts engendered by the practice of journalism itself: “Conflicts of interest in journalism arise in circumstances in which there is reason to be concerned that the judgment and performance of journalists might be unduly influenced by interests they have that lie outside their responsibilities as journalists.” Borden and Pritchard, “Conflict of Interest in Journalism,” 74 (emphasis added.)
11. Edward Wasserman, “The Insidious Corruption of Beats,” [Online] Jan. 8, 2007. Available: [June 27, 2008].
12. See James Fallows, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 83-126.
13. Michael Schudson offers the useful analytical distinction in media studies between the levels of organizational sociology, which examines how work is performed and authority applied within media institutions, and of political economy, which concerns the larger boundaries and inducements associated with broad lines of institutionalization and principles of economic operation. See his “The Sociology of News Production Revisited (Again),” in Mass Media and Society 3rd edition, ed. James Curran and Michael Gurevitch (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 177.
14. Black, Steele, and Barney, Doing Ethics, 15.
15. As Borden and Pritchard note, the secondary interests that conflict with the journalist’s primary public service obligation are in themselves legitimate ones and would be perfectly allowable if not for the conflict (“Conflict of Interest in Journalism,” p. 80.)
16. Davis finds the term itself dates to a 1949 New York federal court case, and says the Index of Legal Periodicals had no heading for the term until 1967. (Davis, “Introduction,” 17.)
17. Stephen J. A. Ward, The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond (Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), chap. 3. These historical arguments are summarized in Ward’s essay in this book.
18. Ibid., chap. 4.
19. Cited in Jacquette, Journalistic Ethics,12. Wortman original available: (June 12, 2008).
20. For accounts see Ward, Invention, chap. 5; Michael Schudson, The Sociology of News (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), chap. 4; and Jeremy Iggers, Good News, Bad News (Boulder, Colo., 1999), chap. 3.
21. Charles Davis and Stephanie Craft, “New Media Synergy: Emergence of Institutional Conflicts of Interest,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 15, (no. 4, 2000), 219-231.
22. American Society of Newspaper Editors, “Code of Ethics or Canons of Journalism,” [Online] Available:
23. In Lee Wilkins and Bonnie Brennen, “Conflicted Interests, Contested Terrain: Journalism Ethics Codes Then and Now.” Media Ethics Division, AEJMC 2003 Annual Conference, Kansas City, Mo. [Online] Available:, 183-216. Also available in Journalism Studies 5, (no. 3, 2004), 297-309.
24. Ibid.
25. Andrew Stark captures part of the distinction I propose between endemic and extraneous in his discussion of in-role (“professional”) and out-of-role (“personal”) conflicts. (“Comparing Conflict of Interest across the Professions,” in Davis and Stark, Conflict of Interest in the Professions, 335-351.) He offers the example of a government bureaucrat who supports a new program because she believes that support will advance her career. That careerist ambition, which arises from within her role as a civil servant, compromises her professional judgment. What I am calling endemic conflicts includes those in-role conflicts, but also comprise institutional conflicts arising from the organizational and political-economic levels of news — say, a decision to shift editorial resources onto coverage likely to lure new classes of advertising — which are matters outside the discretion of the individual journalist and distinct from her professional role.
Endemic conflicts include those created when a professional plays more than one role with respect to the same principal. Such is the case with the legislator who is expected to be both a special interest advocate and public interest arbiter (Ibid., 336-337.) Similarly, in the case of the TV station that kills a story to appease an advertiser, case the sole principal, arguably, is the public, but the station faces conflicting public roles: as a news purveyor and as a business entity obligated to act responsibly toward its employees (e.g. avoiding decisions that drive down revenues and cost jobs), stockholders and advertisers.
26. See Note 11.
27. Is endemic/extraneous also a distinction between avoidable and unavoidable conflicts? There is a surface similarity. But “avoidability” is a judgment I would rather not apply here. True, endemic conflicts are harder to avoid. Can anybody report sensitive information without engaging in horse-trading with a source? Can a station manager keep from recognizing that financial harm might come from embarrassing a big advertiser? Avoiding either endemic conflict is costly in narrow terms of operational efficiency. But avoiding non-endemic conflicts carries costs too, although who bears the costs may differ. Take the reporter’s outside electoral advocacy: If the reporter were solely a journalist, such activity would be easily avoided. But the reporter is also a citizen, and restricting her carries the cost of curtailing a right to political expression we normally cherish. To be sure, the conflict is avoidable — but only when the cost of curtailment is regarded as acceptable. Avoidability thus rests on an ethical priority that we assign to the duties associated with her role as a professional journalist. We need not make that judgment in order to determine that those conflicts are extraneous to the journalist’s duties.
28. Such a conflict may well be institutional, not individual. In a disquieting 2006 instance, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf included in his memoir an allegation that immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a senior U.S. official told a Pakistani defense official the United States would bomb Pakistan if U.S. forces were denied access to suspected Al Qaeda staging areas. The anecdote was mentioned prominently in a CBS News press release released on a Thursday, which triggered a question the next day at a joint press conference in Washington held by presidents Musharraf and Bush. There, Musharraf said he would not discuss the matter until his appearance Sunday on “CBS 60 Minutes.” That interview was timed to help the Monday morning launch of book sales by CBS’ sister company, publisher Simon & Schuster. (See Edward Wasserman, “Holding News until the Time is Right,” Oct. 2, 2006 [Online] Available: [June 28, 2008]). A situation that raised similar questions arose in regard to Bob Woodward’s 2006 third book on the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).The book contained sensational material that was in the possession of Woodward and, by extension, his employer The Washington Post, for some considerable period before it was made public.The question is whether Woodward and the Post had an obligation to go public with such disclosures when they were confirmed and otherwise publishable, instead of holding them back to maximize sales of Woodward’s book. In this regard, assuming Post management was kept informed as to his findings — as both parties agreed — the Post’s institutional behavior was even more problematic than Woodward’s. At a minimum, the newspaper acquiesced in an arrangement that denied its readers the timely disclosure of publicly significant information that was in the hands of one of its star employees, whose reporting was a benefit that Post readers could reasonably trust the paper to provide. See “Coverage of Bob Woodward’s New Book,” CNN Reliable Sources, Transcript, Oct. 1, 2006. [Online] Available: [June 27, 2008].
29. Louis A. Day, Ethics in Media Communications, 2nd ed. (New York: Wadsworth, 1997), 195.
30. A point made by Wilkins and Brennen, “Conflicted Interests.” Also, consider the case of Maria Bartiromo, the CNBC anchor who interviewed the chairman of Citigroup on-air, after telling her audience that she was a shareholder in his company. See Martha Graybow, Reuters, “CNBC Tightens Rules on Stock Ownership,” USA Today, Jan. 13, 2004, [Online] Available: [June 28, 2008]. Did Bartiromo’s disclosure neutralize the potential harm done by her holdings? Admittedly, it would tip off her audience to the reasons for any puffball questioning of Citicorp boss Sanford Weill, and might prompt some to suspect her investment might have sharpened her desire to get Weill on-camera to begin with. But it does not indicate which other companies or individuals Bartiromo might steer coverage toward or away from, or which areas of business activity she might be sensitive to  in short, to the whole range of market-related happenings she might well view differently because of her investments, current and prospective. Would she remind viewers of her Citicorp holdings before reporting on any of hundreds of entities that compete with one of its subsidiaries?
31. “The question which any conflict-of-interest situation raises, of course, is whether a professional’s judgment has been impaired or compromised.” (Stark, “Comparing Conflict of Interest,” 344.) Similarly, Davis argues, even though disclosure eliminates the problem of deception, “Conflict of interest can remain a technical problem after it has ceased to be a moral problem.” (Davis, “Introduction,” 12.)
32. That said, even when disclosure is not feasible the willingness to come clean may still be a valuable moral exercise. Such willingness may be an illuminating test to self-administer before entering an arrangement that might constitute a conflict of interest. The authors of Doing Ethics suggest a reporter ask himself: “Am I willing to publicly disclose any potential conflicts?” (Black, Steele, and Barney, 119.) The question is reminiscent of Annette Baier’s expressibility test, which holds that people in a trust relationship should be able to disclose to each other the bases of that trust. They may choose not to do so, but if they believe they could without undermining the relationship, the trust, arguably, is morally sound. (Baier, “Trust and Antitrust.”)
33. For the problem of professions that fuse judging with advocacy and the desirability of segregating the two, see Stark, “Comparing Conflict of Interest,” 337. It is notable that news organizations that are scrupulous about keeping reporters from writing commentary may require editorial chiefs to take part in sales or marketing decisions with the explicit purpose of tilting coverage toward areas likely to lure the right shoppers. That bias is rarely seen as problematic.
34. See, e.g., Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser, The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril (New York: Vintage, 2003), 93.
35. That ombudsmen should be outsiders rather than journalists is argued by Christopher Meyers in “Creating an Effective Newspaper Ombudsman Program,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 15 (no. 4, 2000) pp. 248-256. The idea is that they otherwise would be “deeply enmeshed in the profession’s ethos,” unable to critique it as appropriate. The variation I’m suggesting sees advantages to internalizing a process of negotiation over standards between professional and public. As to sanctioning authority, I agree with Meyers that ombudsmen should have it, but I see no likelihood editors or senior producers would ever let them. Creating ombudsmen panels, as suggested here, even if they had only deliberative and advisory powers, could still be a major step toward creating the “ethical climate” Meyers advocates.
36. Josh Friedman, “Blogging for Dollars Raises Questions of Online Ethics,” Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2007 [Online] Available:,1,2985214,full.story. Also, see comments of Federal Elections Commissioner Bradley Smith in Declan McCullagh, “Newsmaker: The Coming Crackdown on Bloggers,” C/Net, March 3, 2005 [Online] Available:, and the self-regulation proposal of Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, “Credentials and Access Program,” posted Dec. 14, 2006. Available: Also, Edward Wasserman, “Selling the Blogosphere,” Oct. 17, 2005 [Online] Available:, and “Can the Internet Be Saved?” Dec. 25, 2006 [Online] Available: [All June 28, 2008].
37. For efforts to integrate conventional sources of personal data, see: Kevin J. Delaney and Emily Steel, “Firm Mines Offline Data to Target Online Ads,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17, 2007, B1.
38. For background on Fort Myers project, see: Jeff Howe, “The New (Investigative Journalism,” posted November 6, 2006, on Crowdsourcing: Tracking the Rise of the Amateur, [June 17, 2008]. See, more generally, Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired Magazine 14.06, June 2006 [Online] Available: [June 17, 2008].
39. James Rainey, “Times Opinion Chief Quits,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2007, [Online] Available:,1,211948,full.story?coll=la-headlines-frontpage. [March 24, 2007].
40. Sue Clark-Johnson, “2007 Knight-Batten Symposium Keynote Speech,” Sept. 17, 2007, The Institute for Interactive Journalism. Available: [June 17, 2008]. Also Edward Wasserman, “Narrowing the Vision,” The Miami Herald, April 14, 2008, 19A.
41. Diane Farsetta and Daniel Price, “Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs,” Center for Media and Democracy, Nov. 14, 2006. [Online] Available: [June 18, 2008]. For use of “analysts” and independent commentators, see David Barstow, “Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” The New York Times, April 20, 2008, A1, and Edward Wasserman, “Get Rid of Unchallenged Consultants,” The Miami Herald, April 28, 2008, 19A.
42. See Yehiel Limor and Itai Himelboim, “Journalism and Moonlighting: An International Comparison of 242 Codes of Ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 21 (no. 4, Jan. 2006) 265-285. Their survey found roughly half the codes address moonlighting; of those, three-quarters ban all government work – perceived as the most sensitive source of conflict — and 21 percent prohibit any employment that might engender conflicts of interest.
43. Richard Perez-Pena, “Group Plans to Provide Investigative Journalism,” The New York Times, Oct. 15, 2007. [Online] Available: [June 18, 2008].
44. See Carol Guensburg, “Nonprofit News,” American Journalism Review, February/March 2008. [Online] Available: [June 23, 2008]. Also “Commercial Public Radio?”, “Local Radio Stations,” “How Strong the Firewall?” 3-part series on public radio underwriting, Marketplace, Public Radio International, May 24, May 31 and June 7, 2004. [Online] Available: [June 28, 2008]

Plagiarism and Precedence

From Media Ethics Magazine, Fall 2006, Vol. 18, No. 1

The topic of plagiarism draws strong opinion, as it should, and the current notoriety of theft by reporters (1) obligates those of us who try to flesh out journalistic rights and wrongs to offer some sensible observations about originality and intellectual honesty in the newsroom. That’s a special challenge when the subject is a practice — journalism — whose core obligations consist, to a considerable degree, of judiciously taking things from one place and presenting them, faithfully and accurately, in another.

Since journalism comprises an energetic and disciplined process of, at the minimum, empirical appropriation, the problem is to figure out when that appropriation is conducted in ways that are ethically permissible and when it isn’t.

The recent exchange between professors Peggy J. Bowers and Douglas Perret Starr (MEDIA ETHICS, Spring 2006, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 8, 9, passim) offers a valuable point of departure. Much of it consisted of a thoughtful reminder of the harms wrought by theft in the realm of ideas. Prof. Bowers was especially eloquent in her denunciation of plagiarism as something of an ontological crime, almost an intellectual body-snatching. It robs creators of reasonable association with their creations, along with just recognition for them, and it undermines fundamental endeavors through which we, as humans, define ourselves and try to contribute to the play of discourse.

My intention here is to try to focus on the specific realities of journalism. My argument will be that the principles of intellectual originality that derive from creative fiction and academic inquiry need some customizing to be appropriate to journalism. I will propose a formulation that incorporates standard elements of plagiarism and adds to them a specifically journalistic component, which involves a professional obligation to acknowledge precedence.

This obligation, in my view, serves not only the legitimate goal of crediting original achievement by other journalists, thereby stimulating more of the same, but also the equally pressing public interest of illuminating the vital social processes through which important contemporary realities are identified and exposed.

What I hope to do is to close the circle between, on the one hand, what is both right as a pre-professional duty and honest as a matter of professional practice and, on the other, what ultimately serves the public. I will argue that the intellectual theft among journalists that causes the greatest harm entails a bogus claim of originality that denies the public insight into how key facts come to light. That false claim facilitates a narrowing of social discourse, to the benefit of market-dominant news organizations and the detriment of the public.

In short, it’s not when quotes are cribbed, bad as that is, but when stories are stolen, that the most egregious journalistic pillaging takes place. And for all the clamor about plagiarism, existing standards of attribution are largely silent, or at best incoherent, when it comes to that level of theft. (2)

Here’s a preliminary schema that, I think, allows us to begin formulating rules to govern the particularities of journalistic plagiarism, defined here as a variety of ethically impermissible appropriation in which sourcing is undisclosed and credit is therefore denied. Accordingly, plagiarism incorporates elements of some or all of the following:

– It involves a false claim to expressive innovation or to first discovery and disclosure. This claim is usually implied — by an absence of attribution — rather than asserted. It may cover conceptual originality (purporting to describe something in a novel way), empirical enterprise (purporting to unearth previously non-public facts), or both.

– The innovation or discovery has to be fairly recent. We must allow that hidden facts, once published, in time join a store of public knowledge. Thus, reminding readers how they first came to light may fade in urgency, from a duty to a courtesy.

– Concealment of origin is deliberate. The plagiarist knows full well where he or she got the quote, information, description or insight.

– It involves a denial of credit, in the dual sense of credit — not just an acknowledgement, but an honor, a salute. That implies the information is credit-worthy, which means it’s non-trivial and meets a materiality threshold.

Here are the harms that make plagiarism ethically impermissible:

First, the concealment is deceptive in itself, and because journalism is constituted around obligations of truth-seeking and truth-telling, as an untruth it violates core professional norms.

The concealment is deceptive in a second sense, in that it overstates the authenticity of the plagiarized account by misrepresenting the authority on which the account is based. If the story relies on information cribbed from a source that I, as a reader, mistrust, I’m prevented from judging the veracity of the story appropriately.

Third, the deception impedes verification and obstructs accountability by hindering the process by which information would otherwise be confirmed. The plagiarism keeps other journalists from determining how solid the account actually is. They can’t back-check sources because the sourcing has been obfuscated.

Fourth, in the case not of empirical theft but of unattributed use of fresh literary expression, verbatim passages, metaphors and the like, the plagiarist lays claim to imaginative insights he or she didn’t author. That theft inflates the putative author’s own quality of insight, deprives the originator of credit that he or she deserves and that the public would benefit from knowing about, and thereby reduces the incentive for others to aspire to originality.

To these I would add a fifth class of harm. This relates to what I would qualify as improper journalistic appropriation but which is not normally considered plagiarism:

In the case of whole stories re-reported and presented as scoops, the theft ratifies a structure of institutional dominance that enables louder voices to exploit their market strength by falsely asserting a commensurate superiority in journalistic enterprise. The public is led to ignore and undervalue energetic reporting by weaker rivals (trade publications, local news organizations or, increasingly, Internet-based insurgents) that nourishes and renews the stock of public knowledge.

Let me elaborate.

For starters, let’s return to the point that journalism, as normally practiced, is not an especially original kind of discourse. (3)

By and large, journalists are forbidden to originate things. They are professionally obligated not to invent characters or plots. And, unless they’re commentators or editorialists, they’re not supposed to express their own ideas. When they do, they may be accused of being improperly opinionated. Their whole métier is to capture and convey realities, words, ideas from elsewhere.

Hence, we’re grateful for the journalists’ initiative, curiosity and insight — a point I’ll return to in a moment — and we expect them to traffic in novelty and to tell us things we don’t already know. But we don’t value journalists, as we do poets or professors, for their originality. On the contrary, we hope that the journalist’s account remains ruthlessly faithful to source material, and we honor that fidelity as accuracy.

Journalism, in that respect, is quintessentially derivative. Strictly speaking, the journalist who’s being original, in anything like the sense that we would use to praise a novelist, is guilty of fabrication and should be fired.

That does not mean that plagiarism is irrelevant to journalism; and, as I discuss below, journalism contains vast scope for enterprise, curiosity, energy and creativity. But it does mean that any guidelines we might adopt to govern journalistic plagiarism must do nothing to inhibit the aggressive capture of relevant and non-original facts that is intrinsic to the practice.

They may also need to acknowledge the relatively limited scope for scrupulous attribution that news forms permit, quite unlike the line-by-line precision demanded of scholarly expression. (4) So what should the prohibition on plagiarism mean for journalists?

Obviously, at its most basic, journalistic plagiarism forbids un-credited reuse of what intellectual property law would describe as unique expression. Oftentimes, in groping for a particularly apt way to describe a reality, journalists come up with characterizations that are indeed original. These tours de force deserve credit, and the downstream scribes who help themselves to such creative work as if it resided in some public neighborhood of the intellectual either are doing wrong, just like the historian who lifts carefully crafted passages from source materials without acknowledgment.

Admittedly, even this principle may not always be easy to apply. Innovative expression lapses into cliché rapidly in the Internet age of non-stop borrowing and lending. The first reporter who likened an ill-prepared official at a press conference to “a deer in the headlights,” or who described some minor disaster as “a wake-up call,” may have imagined he or she had come up with a startling new image; but in no time that fresh, irreverent description had become a staple, which a Google search would turn up in hundreds of other accounts. The empirical task of pinpointing the moment of invention rapidly becomes insurmountable and, I submit, the whole endeavor becomes pointless.

Plus, confining plagiarism to original expression lets off the hook the many reporters and editors who surrender their responsibility to decide independently what matters most in the events they cover to news organizations deemed more authoritative. “What is the Times [or Post, or Telegraph, or rival network] leading with?” That has long been a routine question in press rooms where reporters from competing news organizations work against deadline.

The kindest way to construe such a question is that it represents a measure of intellectual humility, a deference to superior news judgment. The less charitable construction is that it signals a willingness to borrow the insight of a presumably more knowledgeable reporter or editor, and to replace, without admitting it, one news organization’s supposedly independent judgment with the conclusions of another.

Is that plagiarism? It doesn’t meet our criteria, since it doesn’t involve innovative expression or un-credited initial discovery. Yet it represents a covert waiver of independence that is no less deceptive to the public, and an intellectual reliance that is all but parasitic.

Similarly, the reporter who unearths a previously undetected contradiction between claims and realities would normally be worth crediting. Say a public official characterizes the roots of a policy initiative in a self-serving but misleading way; a reporter who has covered that policy exposes the falsity of the official’s account. But the other news organizations that then replicate that reporting would typically not say how they became aware of the underlying back-story. Nor would they be accused of plagiarism, since they stole neither innovative expression nor previously undisclosed facts. Instead, what they stole was the entire story. We’ll return to this problem in a moment in our discussion of precedence.

So the ban on theft of original expression advances our discussion of journalistic plagiarism, but not very far. The examples of appropriation adduced above feel wrong, yet they are, regrettably I think, well within the bounds of normal journalistic practice.

To determine whether they are indeed impermissible we need to figure out what is ethically troubling about them. And here I think that the wrong has to do not just with the harm done to the un-credited originator, but with the deception done to the people who read or see the work that’s derived from it. The dimension of plagiarism I want to address isn’t some private bit of larceny involving a pair of writers, one ripped off by another; it’s a deception worked on the public.

Usually, deception is of concern when the speaker leads the listener to believe things that the speaker knows or believes are false. Here, instead, I’m not concerned with substantive falsity. My concern is the epistemological deception that occurs when the audience is deliberately misled as to what the journalist actually knows and how he or she knows it. At issue in this deception isn’t truth or falsehood, but authenticity.

At the most basic level, that gives us a handle on criticizing what was once a widespread practice of re-publishing information that had already appeared elsewhere without indicating where. Suppose I quote somebody as saying something that person never said to me. I found the quote in another publication and used it. My reader, however, naturally assumes that the accuracy of the quote is something I can personally vouch for, which isn’t true.

The credibility of the quote is based on an implied claim of veracity for which I, the reporter, have no first-hand basis. The account is believed because of a false implication of authenticity, and the reader who accepts that implication is being deceived.

A different kind of epistemological deception is practiced when the process by which important realities are identified is readily known and deliberately concealed.

These are whole stories broken by smaller news operations and re-reported by much larger ones, which typically say nothing about where they got the stories. Suppose the reporter for a specialized newsletter, a news-hungry Web log or a community weekly, breaks a story of wide consequence. The news organization with a bigger platform or a louder megaphone might assign a reporter to that story, and come up with a substantially similar account, which it would publish without acknowledging how it first became aware of the story.

Note that the original story isn’t being stolen, at least not in a literal sense. Nor is its authenticity in doubt: The sources it is based on are re-interviewed (a task made immeasurably easier once they’ve been publicly named), the documents reviewed or otherwise freshly verified, and the writing is original.

Sure, the professional achievement represented by the first story is concealed, and the offending publication, by failing to own up to its debt, is misleading its readers by implicitly making unfounded claims about the quality and comprehensiveness of its coverage.

But why should that matter?

First, the most important dimension of what I’d call real journalistic originality is ignored. The combination of conceptual and empirical enterprise that constitutes true journalistic initiative is concealed. Hence, it’s an offense to the professional effort that engendered the scoop.

Second, denying credit to the smaller rival whose importance is discounted as a “tip sheet,” as if its only public value is as a virtually in-house resource of the market-dominant organization, deprives it of the audience it might otherwise draw. The news-attending public ends up with a thinner variety of informational options.

Third, withholding credit insulates journalists from competition to which they ought to be exposed. At present, the reporter for a large-circulation operation who stumbles on a valuable story by monitoring the trade publications that plow his or her beat would be commended for sharp reporting. Duplicating the story would suffice to prove the reporter was on top of the beat.

If, instead, that same reporter were professionally obliged to acknowledge where the story came from, he or she would be duty-bound to work harder to avoid getting beaten the next time. Plus, merely duplicating the story would not be acceptable; the reporter would have to advance the story, by probing its implications, deepening the initial reporting and, all in all, producing superior journalism.

Fourth, concealing a story’s origin deprives the public of valuable information about how social realities come to light. How we know what we know — the social epistemology of the story — is obfuscated.

“The media” has become a confused catch-phrase for an array of news-producing capabilities. In reality, the media consist of a powerful and hierarchical constellation of organizations, driven by differing commercial, professional, audience and ideological pressures. They are powerful instruments of social self-awareness, and the public benefits by developing a sophisticated understanding of who they are, what their strengths are, and which ones produce the most valuable and informative coverage in given areas. Although the current clamor for transparency is generally applied to questions of whether to expose internal newsroom procedures (5), what I’m describing constitutes a dimension of transparency with much wider public consequence and potential value.

Finally, for all those reasons, the ultimate import of the current concerns about plagiarism seems to me to lie in developing and promulgating a thoroughgoing professional duty to honor precedence.

Respect for precedence would mean that journalists should credit work that precedes and materially contributes to their own. Obviously, we would have to acknowledge some materiality threshold, and have to accept format-bound restrictions on attribution and commonsense limits imposed by the passage of time.

But the core principle is acknowledgment of intellectual interdependency, an awareness that good journalism necessarily builds on other good journalism, that the origin of that preceding journalism is a fact that belongs in the public domain, that both journalists and the public benefit from making the process of social self-awareness visible and accessible.

As a last point, let me acknowledge that I have posed this precedence issue largely in terms of small voices being drowned out by louder ones. But doesn’t this obligation flow both ways? And if so, must every evening network newscast that is spawned by a story in that morning’s New York Times or Wall Street Journal acknowledge as much? Aren’t market-dominant organizations that are routinely pillaged for leads by lesser news staffs entitled to the same consideration that I’ve proposed the small fry deserve?

I think the answer is “yes.” Indeed, concealing the origin of coverage that truly sets the public agenda may constitute an even greater harm than that done when the enterprise of small and scrappy news outfits is filched. What’s concealed in the former case is dominance and vast influence, something that should be central to what news strives to expose.

To conclude, plagiarism is fully entitled to the heat and light of sharp ethical discussion. My suggestion here is to widen the definition of originality away from notions that work more effectively in the realm of fiction and academic elaboration to a reformulation that ensures that the most valuable dimensions of journalistic originality are protected and promoted. That would mean a robust obligation to acknowledge precedence, and ensure that journalists whose work nourishes the work of others get the credit they deserve.

(1) Notable recent instances involved The New York Times’ Jayson Blair; Tom Squitieri, the Pentagon correspondent for USA Today (who had apparently confirmed the quotes he reused with the people who were quoted); Detroit Free Press sports columnist and best-selling author Mitch Albom; and reporters with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Wired magazine, and a growing list of other news organizations. (See also article by John Seigenthaler in this issue of MEDIA ETHICS)

(2) See e.g., Society of Professional Journalists ethics code, and The New York Times code, which forbids plagiarism without explanation or elaboration.

(3) I have made variations of this argument previously. See: “What is ‘original’ journalism anyway?,” The Miami Herald, May 30, 2005 (distributed by Knight Ridder Tribune wire, archived at; “Respecting Precedence,” The Business Journalist (Society of American Business Editors and Writers, April/May 2006, available at

(4) There are stylistic problems associated with overcoming format-based restrictions on how much attribution news reports can contain. This issue falls outside my topic here. I’m interested in exploring the intellectual debts that journalists incur and how they should be acknowledged. The cosmetics of crediting both honestly and gracefully are a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. But URLs such as those in note 3 above admittedly are a challenge.

(5) See, e.g., Smolkin, Rachel, “Too Transparent?” American Journalism Review, April/May 2006, available at:

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va. He may be contacted at

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.1,16-21.

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