Best Practice: Disclosure by a Journalist

In the world of native advertising, sponsored content, journalists supplementing their income with paid speaking gigs and the freelance economy, it’s hard sometimes to know where “news” content is coming from and what has influenced it. The personal disclosure statement is a helpful tool in identifying potential sources of influence and conflict of interest.

Trust matters

David Akin

David Akin

David Akin is a capable journalist who found himself, along with 200 others, out of a job when the Sun News Network ceased broadcasting last week. I’ve followed his Twitter feed, Facebook profile  and online writing for several years. So, when news broke that Sun News Network, where he hosted a nightly news program, had abruptly shut down, I wondered how this would affect him. Yesterday morning, he posted a piece on the Maclean’s site about Sun News and its controversial programming. And at the bottom of the post, he included a link to DavidAkin.com. I clicked on it out of curiosity to see what is there. Basically, it’s an online business card site. But with one very important distinguisher. One of the clearest disclosure statements I’ve seen from a journalist. Here’s Akin’s disclosure in full:

DISCLOSURE: I am a freelance journalist and, as result, the journalism I do is paid for by the news organizations that purchase it. I receive no fees, considerations, etc. for organizations or individuals I write about or speak about. I may, from time to time, accept speaking engagements from non-news organizations. I will endeavour to keep a list of those here. I am not, nor have I ever been during my 30 years as a professional journalist, a member of any political party. No member of my immediate family is a member of or campaigns on behalf of any political party. Neither I nor anyone in my immediate family own shares or equity in any corporation or business. Any investments I have are in widely-held mutual funds. If you think other disclosures are appropriate in this space, I’d like to hear from you. All of my contact details are always at www.davidakin.com.

Pretty clear. No equivocation. Akin clearly draws a line about what he does and doesn’t do. The man’s not for sale to corporate interests. In this era of equivocation about journalistic standards, David Akin’s disclosure stands out like a breath of fresh air. I wish every journalist could be this straightforward in their disclosure.

Context

Jay Rosen has taken a diary approach to his disclosure.

Jeff Jarvis discloses business and media ties, investments and a wide variety of potential sources of influence on his views.

Richard Gingras and Sally Lehrman wrote about the steps that might be taken to earn trust in journalism.

What ethical standards should we expect of journalists?

When you open your morning newspaper or turn on the evening television news, do you expect to receive independent and impartial reporting on events from newspeople free of unacknowledged biases? Well, if you live in Canada,  you may have to reset that expectation.

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This basic assumption of conflict-free news media has been called into question by reports that CBC news anchor Peter Manbridge and on-air columnist Rex Murphy have benefited from paid speaking engagements with organizations they cover in the news. According to the reports, both Murphy and Mansbridge have accepted paid speaking engagements from Canada’s oil industry. And neither Manbridge nor Murphy disclosed this when moderating or participating in discussions of energy policy, the oil sands development or the oil industry.

This story emerged from the reporting of a handful of bloggers and online news sources – most notably Jesse Brown and Andrew Mitrovica.  Mitrovica raised questions about Rex Murphy’s relationship with the oil industry in a story on ipolitics.ca. Jesse Brown picked it up on his Canadaland podcast and Canadaland blog.

Remarkably, CBC attempted to stonewall the issue. Initially, they refused to answer substantial questions about Murphy’s actions. When pressed over a couple weeks, they published aggressive counter arguments in blog posts by Jennifer McGuire, editor in chief of CBC news, and Peter Mansbridge himself. Rex Murphy took to his column in the National Post to print a rebuttal.

Then, on March 12, the CBC’s Ombudsman Esther Enkin presaged a dramatic shift in the standards of acceptable behaviour in her review of the situation. While finding that both Murphy and Mansbridge were onside with the CBC’s policies, Enkin challenged the policy itself. She stated,

Whether there is a real or only an apparent conflict of interest, in matters of journalistic integrity it amounts to the same thing….  since taking money leads to a perception of a conflict of interest, CBC management might want to consider, in the review they are undertaking, whether even with disclosure, it is appropriate for CBC news and current affairs staff to get paid for their speaking engagements. … At the least, management should think about the appearance of getting paid by interest groups who are likely to feature prominently in the news, or who are involved in public policy debates.

and concluded,

Given that Journalistic Standards and Practices spells out a commitment to independence, and the Conflict of Interest guidelines encompass perception of conflict as well, it is inconsistent with policy when CBC news and current affairs staff accept payment from groups that are likely to be in the news. To summarize, in the course of reviewing its policy, I hope CBC management will reconsider the practice of paid speaking engagements for its journalists and, at a minimum, consider how any relevant activity and payment can be on the public record.

Now, the ball is in CBC management’s court. Jennifer McGuire has indicated that the results of an internal policy review will be forthcoming soon. In light of the Ombudsman’s review, it’s hard to imagine how this new policy could maintain the status quo.

Discuss these issues with Jesse Brown at Third Tuesday

This affair raises a number of questions applying to all news media – both traditional and new online and social operations. Questions worth discussing at length.

Jesse Brown

And that’s just what we’re going to do at the next Third Tuesday. Jesse Brown will be our speaker at the March Third Tuesday Toronto and Third Tuesday Ottawa. Jesse will take us through the issues and the questions raised. Questions like:

  • Is it reasonable to believe that a journalist can be influenced or biased because he or she accepts payment from companies or organizations for services provided outside of the journalist’s main occupation?
  • How much transparency about outside financial payments to journalists is sufficient? How much is realistic and possible?
  • In a freelance economy, should we expect the same degree of disclosure from freelance journalists who must earn their living from a variety of sources?
  • Should news organizations enforce an outright ban on their journalists accepting payment from other sources or is disclosure of such payments sufficient?
  • What is the responsibility of the news organization to define standards for their journalists and what is the responsibility of the journalist as an individual?
  • Should a national broadcaster paid for by public funds be held to a higher standard of transparency than a private news organization?
  • What can we do when media outlets are slow to cover an issue in which they are directly involved?

We will talk about these issues and more when Jesse Brown joins us at Third Tuesday. If you’re interested in attending, register online for Third Tuesday Toronto or Third Tuesday Ottawa.

Learn more about this important issue

This is an important issue. And as such, I encourage you to read these original sources.

Rex Murphy and big oil: friends with benefits?, Press Progress

Rex Murphy energy speech in Alberta, November 2013, Youtube user Gazzornenplat

Rex Murphy, the oilsands and the cone of silence, Andrew Mitravica

A Question of ConflictJennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief, CBC News

Rex Murphy is paid by the oilsands and the CBC won’t disclose or discuss it, Jesse Brown

Speaking my mind, no matter the issue, Rex Murphy

Jonathan Kay defends Rex Murphy, Jesse Brown

CBC reviews Rex Murphy oil conference speech but ignored when Peter Mansbridge did his, Dean Skoreyko

The CBC responds to my complaint about Rex Murphy, Lorne Warwick

Peter Mansbridge Was Paid By Oil and Gas Lobby For Speech, Michael Bolen

Oilsands Group Confirms Paying Peter Mansbridge, Jesse Brown, Canadaland

Speaking of Speeches…, Peter Mansbridge

Peter Mansbridge receives speaking fees from oil industry group, CBC As It Happens

Debating the ethics of journalists & paid speaking engagements, CBC The Current

Q Media Panel on Maidan, Murphy and Mansbridge, CBC Q

The CBC Won’t Talk to CBC Radio About Mansbridge’s Speaking Fees, The Huffington Post Canada

You’ve Still Got Some Explaining to Do Mr. Mansbridge, Andrew Mitrovica

What Peter Mansbridge’s CAPP Speaking Fee Says About His News Judgment, Dan Rowe

Covering Climate Change, Jennifer McGuire

CBCecrets: Mansbridge’s Oil Pay Makes the News, Jesse Brown

Review findings re Conflict of Interest, Esther Enkin, CBC Ombudsman

CBC Policy on Conflict of Interest and Journalists, CBC

CBC Ombudsman Questions Peter Mansbridge’s Speaking Fees, Canadian Press

You Can’t Have the Cash and Keep the Credibility, Andrew Mitrovica

CBC Should Banish Paid Speeches, Frank Koller

Thank you to our sponsors

Third Tuesday is supported by great sponsors – Cision Canada and Rogers Communications – who believe in our community and help us to bring speakers to our community. Without the sponsors we couldn’t make Third Tuesday a truly Canadian affair. So, thank you to the sponsors of the Third Tuesday 2012-13 season: Cision Canada and Rogers Communications.

We want students to be able to attend

Third Tuesday is a great opportunity to hear about the latest developments in social media and to network with business and thought leaders. And we don’t want students to miss out on this opportunity. So, if you are a student and would like to attend, don’t let the admission fee stop you. Simply present your student ID card at the time you sign into Third Tuesday and we’ll refund your admission fee, courtesy of Thornley Fallis.

Disclosure: We're on the Zoompass team

Thornley Fallis has been engaged to help EnStream launch the Zoompass mobile payment service. (Zoompass users can request and transfer money between one another directly from their smartphones. They can also transfer money directly to a prepaid touchless MasterCard to make purchases.)

zoompasslogoDuring the launch phase, Kerri Birtch (@kerribirtch), Dave Fleet (@davefleet), and I (@thornley) will be monitoring the online discussions about Zoompass and participating in them through the Zoompass Twitter ID and through posts on the Zoompass blog. We’ll be supporting Zoompass’ Vice President, Aran Hamilton (@aranh) in this effort.

It’s our hope that, working as a team, we’ll be able to be present in the conversation from early in the morning to late at night seven days a week.

If we refer to Zoompass on our own Twitter accounts, we’ll insert “(client)” into the tweet to be sure that the reader, whether they know us or not, is alerted to the fact that we have a relationship with Zoompass.

I’m really excited about being part of the launch. I’ve been playing with Zoompass for a couple months prior to the launch and I think it will add a whole new function to my cellphone.

If you are curious about Zoompass and how you could use it, click over to the Zoompass Website to sign up to try it out. And once you start to use it, follow the Zoompass Twitter stream. If you ask a question or offer a comment there, you can be sure that we’ll respond to it.