Hard-news reporters should approach stories objectively, setting their own prejudices and preconceptions aside in order to discover the truth about whatever they're covering. An important part of objectivity is avoiding conflicts of interest that might influence a reporter's work.
Examples of Conflict of Interest
Avoiding conflict of interest is sometimes easier said than done. Here's an example: Let's say you cover city hall, and over time you get to know the mayor well because he's a big part of your beat. You may even grow to like him and secretly wish for him to be successful as the town's chief executive. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but if your feelings begin to color your coverage of the mayor, or renders you unable to write about him critically when necessary, then clearly there's a conflict of interest - one that must be resolved.
Why must reporters be mindful of this? Because sources often try to influence journalists in order to get more positive coverage.
For example, after interviewing the CEO of a major airline for a profile, I got a call from one of the airline's public relations people. She asked how the article was going, then offered me two round-trip tickets to London, courtesy of the airline. It's hard to say no to free airline tickets, but of course, I had to refuse. Accepting them would have been a big-time conflict of interest, one that might have affected the way I wrote the story.
In short, avoiding conflicts of interest requires a conscious effort on the part of a reporter, day in and day out.
How to Avoid Conflicts of Interest
Here are six ways to avoid such conflicts:
- Don't Accept Freebies or Gifts From Sources. People will often try to curry favor with reporters by offering them gifts of various sorts. But taking such freebies opens the reporter up to the charge that he can be bought.
- Don't Donate Money to Political or Activist Groups. Many news organizations have rules against this for obvious reasons - it telegraphs where the reporter stands politically and erodes the confidence readers have in the reporter as an impartial observer. Even opinion journalists can get into trouble for giving money to political groups or candidates, as Keith Olbermann did in 2010.
- Don't Engage in Political Activity. This goes along with No. 2. Don't attend rallies, wave signs or otherwise publicly lend your support to groups or causes that have a political bent. Non-political charitable work is fine.
- Don't Get Too Chummy With the People You Cover. It's important to establish a good working relationship with the sources on your beat. But there's a fine line between a working relationship and a true friendship. If you become best friends with a source you're not likely to cover that source objectively. The best way to avoid such pitfalls? Don't socialize with sources outside of work.
- Don't Cover Friends or Family Members. If you have a friend or relative who is in the public spotlight - let's say your sister is a member of the city council - you must recuse yourself from covering that person as a reporter. Readers simply won't believe that you'll be as tough on that person as you are on everyone else - and they'll probably be right.
- Avoid Financial Conflicts. If you cover a prominent local company as part of your beat, you shouldn't own any of that company's stock. More broadly, if you cover a certain industry, say, drug companies or computer software makers, then you shouldn't own stock in those kinds of companies.