Conflict of Interest: What Does it Mean?

By Nancy Matchett

A reporter who covers town meetings wonders whether it is appropriate to pursue a relationship with a councilmember’s daughter.

A community activist learns that the editor of the local newspaper plans to run for town supervisor, and asks whether this is OK.

An editor discovers that one of her reporters is covering an issue he previously wrote editorials about, and wants to check whether her instinct to give the story to someone else is correct.

And a publisher posts a notice that “no anti-fracking info [is] welcome,” overturning the paper’s previous policy of printing flyers on both sides of the issue. This prompts at least one reporter to resign, and she wants to know whether we share her concern that the new policy poses a threat to journalistic integrity.

All of these AdviceLine cases raise the general question, “What counts as a conflict of interest?” Interestingly, the SPJ code is relatively silent on this.

It does say that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,”and “disclose unavoidable conflicts.” But the code does not provide further details about what would make a conflict unavoidable, nor does it offer a precise definition of what it means to say a conflict of interest exists.

This is not a criticism of the code itself; it is a reason why ethical professionals sensibly seek advice from time to time.

Conflict of interest is an example of an “open concept.” While it’s possible to give some textbook examples, there is no single definition that adequately covers all cases.

At best, there is what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance” among the various situations in which the concept is appropriately used. When dealing with an open concept, testing your thinking against other professionals’ reactions is one of the best ways to ensure that you have fully understood what the concept means.

Whether a real conflict exists will also depend on facts about the particular individual whose interests potentially conflict. All of us have different abilities to bracket off our emotional attachments and understand conflicting points of view. So while one reporter might be able to draw a bright line between objective reporting and editorial work, another might find it impossible to report seriously on the arguments made by those with whom he disagrees.

One of the things AdviceLine respondents try to do is make sure callers are attending to this kind of detail. But even when it’s plausible to say that only the journalist herself knows whether a real conflict exists (the first three cases above could be examples of this), the need to avoid perceived conflicts of interest remains.

Why should journalists avoid perceived conflicts of interest even when no real conflict exists? The answer comes from reflection about the profession’s societal role. The average citizen isn’t in a position to know which reporters and editors can fight which forms of temptation.

And even the most seasoned journalist occasionally might be mistaken about his or her own ability to resist. To protect the profession’s integrity, it’s better for everyone involved if journalists avoid anything that looks remotely like conflict of interest. Only then can journalists and readers alike be confident that the profession is fulfilling its broader obligation to seek and report the truth.

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