Gary Hill is the Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. We asked him about what obligations citizen journalists like Andrew Shelffo have to disclose conflicts of interest. He wrote:
I should state at the outset that I have no independent information about the situation you describe, so rather than respond specifically, I’ll respond generally. Our organization is, of course, the Society of Professional Journalists. In that capacity we encourage journalists to avoid any direct or perceived conflicts of interest whether financial or otherwise. Our obligation should be first and foremost to get the truth to our readers. We think steering free of conflicts is the best path, but also call on journalists to disclose unavoidable conflicts. Disclosure helps readers decide if a writers motives are pure. Our standards are voluntary. Even professional journalists are not subject to any “rules” imposed by our organization. However they may be subject to rules by their employer that fall right in line with what we recommend.
Citizen journalists (bloggers, if you prefer) are subject to even fewer rules or guidelines than professional journalists and we defend their right to have this type of free speech. Still we think it is good practice for them to follow the same voluntary guidelines that are found in the SPJ Code of Ethics. It will only enhance their credibility over time if they avoid conflicts, disclose those conflicts they can’t avoid and clearly spell out what is news, opinion or advertisement.
I think most people expect bloggers to be closer to columnists are editorial writers than they are straight news reporters. They have a point of view and they marshal their facts to support that point of view. I also think people would be dismayed to find out that the opinions expressed were influenced by money.
Here are excerpts from SPJ’s Code of Ethics we found relevant to our current debate with Mr. Shelffo. Journalists are urged to:
- Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
- [B]e free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
- Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
- [Be] accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
- Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
- Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
We invite readers to review our dialogue with Mr. Shelffo over his refusal to deny ties to Capital Video, and judge if he is in conformity with SPJ’s recommended ethics.