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Could trying too hard to avoid a conflict of interest actually be unethical?

by on March 27, 2013


After todays discussion in class I began to think more about the ethical implications of some of the situations we discusses. For a lot of the situations we talked about in class, people seemed to conclude, myself included, that in some situations it is best to just avoid the story or stay away from the issue if a conflict of interest is probable to arise. However, is this really being ethical? If you have a great story, but got it from a source that happens to be a friend or a family member, wouldn’t it be unethical to withhold that story? As we discussed personal relationships are bound to arise with a source occasionally, and if you happen to obtain newsworthy, or even vital, information through a personal relationship, doesn’t the public still have a right to know?

I also began to think about how the sometimes over-the-top effort to remain unbiased and avoid conflicts of interest could compromise a journalist’s personal morality. As a journalist, in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest you may have to avoid standing up for a cause that you are passionate about; and wouldn’t that be unethical?

The Society of Professional Journalists presents this example in its ethics case studies, representative of what many journalists would consider a classic example of a conflict of interest. 

In June 2006 Frank Whelan, a features writer who also wrote a history column for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, and his partner of 25 years, Bob Wittman, were the co-grand marshals of a gay pride parade. The main problem here for Whelan was that his newspaper prohibited employees from being involved in “public demonstrations in favor of or opposed to a cause.” However, even if that rule had not existed, many would have argued that as a journalist it was unethical of him to promote one cause and not another.

But Whelan, like every other journalist, is still a person. He is a gay man and has been in a relationship longer than most married people have been. He obviously has a strong opinion on the matter and a strong reason to; whether or not he had participated in the parade he would still hold that opinion. So does it really make a difference that he was involved in the parade?

So my question is, as a journalist is your obligation to avoiding a conflict of interest more important than your obligation as a person to stand up for what you believe is right? When you decide to become a journalist are you agreeing to adhere to a certain standard of ethics that may not be what you would follow personally?

What do you guys think?


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  1. I definitely agree that it seems unfair to not be able to publicly support causes that you believe in if you are a journalist. Everyone is multifaceted and wants to be able to have other interests and objectives outside of their career. I’m starting to realize, however, that there are a lot of personal sacrifices that come with being a journalist. Standing up for one cause or another compromises your objective bystander role in society. While you may feel strongly about a cause, you do not really have the luxury of being able to wear your heart on your sleeve if you are a journalist. That’s a condition that we are going to have to accept if we do decide to become journalists. I’m starting to realize more and more that being a journalist is a 24/7 occupation, and if you are going to be a traditional news writer, you probably will not be able to be an objective writer by day and an impassioned activist by night.

  2. I think when you study to become a journalist, we are warned against all of these conflicts of interest that we aren’t suppose to discuss or project into our work, but this seems so unrealistic in today’s world. Everything is online now, and what a journalist does on social media or even what they publish online or comment on online can be taken as a bias. When we were talking in class about conflicts of interest, I think a lot of us, including myself, were taken back by the amount of information a journalist is suppose to keep undisclosed about themselves. I also was thinking about Jay Rosen’s idea of total objectivity. It is impossible to write as if you are completely objective and have no opinions or takes on stories- as journalists, as people, we all have different takes on the same story, and that shows in our writing. I think trying to mask all of our “biases” by refraining from the use of social media as a social tool is unreasonable. Of course, there need to be boundaries in the world of social media, though. I do think that when you become a journalist and join a news organization, that it is acceptable for that news organization to ask you to refrain from using social media in a way that may jeopardize that news organization’s credibility. But, to treat the journalist as a fly on the wall kind of reporter and not a person is unrealistic. We all have biases, and pretending like we, as journalists, do not have any opinions or “likes” is worse than revealing those biases, I think.

  3. katherinepclark permalink

    I agree with Lindsay that being completely objective is impossible. I do think that avoiding conflict of interest stories is important so that the reporter’s opinions aren’t portrayed in the article, but I do not think journalists should be prohibited from supporting a cause, or something they believe in if it has nothing to do with the topic that they write about. For a news reporter, this could be difficult because if you do support a cause, and then later need to write something for that cause then people will see it as a conflict of interest. I think journalists should be able to participate in causes that they believe in, and cheer for sports teams that they like, but I do not think they should write the stories about those teams and causes. It is a difficult part of being a journalist, and it does limit what a reporter can write about because of the chance that they will create a biased representation in their articles. Even when reporters are not allowed to participate in something they believe in, their bias and opinions are still there, they just are not making it known to the public. There is always a chance for someone’s opinion to show through an article with the quotes that are chosen, and the writing itself.

  4. I agree that we have to avoid any conflict of interest when we are tasked to cover any story, particularly spot stories or story that would require your commitment for 2-3 months or so. You would want to open yourself to new things and and new knowledge about the issue which is the main reason why you should not have any preconceived notions or stigma about the issue, hence avoiding any conflict of interest seems to be very relevant here. However I also think that if you are doing a long-term coverage on something, you would have to have an inclination or passion to cover that story because you want to be committed to something that you believe in. I am personally very inclined to documentary production, and to cover a certain story would require me to spend 1-2 years at least with my subjects in order to produce a good piece. After a while I realize that my works do have the same thematic grounds so I’m assuming that I do have certain beliefs about the issues that I am subtly advocating for, and that’s prevalent in my work.

    I think there are different kinds of stories that would require different levels of commitment and I agree that if you’re covering something that you’re unfamiliar with, you want to open yourself to many possibilities to learn something new which is why you should not start by interviewing somebody you already knew and to avoid any conflicts of interest. And this is particularly important to spot news or certain issues that deal with an on-going debates. But if you want to work on something long-term, you would need to have a significantly deep interest in the issue and you’d usually want to advocate for something that you believe is the truth, or would give “voice to the voiceless.” I’d want to cover stories about international students because I DO believe their stories are not being represented much, and this is the truth, and this is my interest, and I have experience and understanding about being one. Is it not ethical that I’m trying to give voice to them just because I am an international student and that I have a strong interest in the matter and that I belong in international students group? Should people who are not represented well in the media just wait to have a journalist who knows nothing about their cause addressing their concerns?

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