When you’re too close, there can be a conflict of interest

A posting to the e-mail distribution list for the Journalism Education Association posed a question about whether it was all right for two of the newspaper staff’s best writers to cover the volleyball team’s recent district championship. They know the sport and saw that game. They should — they’re also on the team.

So is it OK for these two athlete-journalists to write the story for the newspaper? Nope.

Look at these relevant passages from the NSPA Model Code of Ethics published last year:
(1.2) Keep yourself, the reporter, out of print. It’s not about you; it’s about the readers/listeners/viewers you serve. For the most part, student reporters and editors should not appear in the media they represent unless they are legitimate newsmakers. In those cases, the particular student journalists should have no influence on the coverage, and any conflict of interest should be disclosed.
(2.9) Disclose any potential conflict of interest by a journalist or news medium. For example, conflicts of interests could involve personal relationships with news subjects or sources, associations with organizations, gifts and “perks” and vested interests in issues or events.
(5.4) Hold no obligation to news sources and newsmakers. Journalists and news media should avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.
(5.6) Declare any personal or unavoidable conflict of interest, perceived or certain, in covering stories or participating in editorial or policy decisions.
(5.11) Guard against participating in any school organizations or activities that would significantly create a conflict of interest. Journalists particularly should avoid holding office in student government, or they should be prepared to recuse themselves in either journalism or government forums when decision-making could pose a conflict of interest.

Students who are newsmakers and who are also on the staff should not be placed in the awkward position of having to also cover the story. They deserve to be treated as newsmakers and interviewed in proportion to their participation in the news. If one of these students is the star athlete, it would be expected for the reporter to interview her. The athlete should not have to write her own quotes for this story, nor should she have to be excluded simply because she is on the staff.

This situation is an excellent teaching opportunity for the editors. They should not try to influence the coverage. They should demonstrate leadership by recognizing the conflict of interest, disclosing it and allowing another editor shepherd the coverage. That’s how these students uphold good journalism — what we would expect any good editor to do.

The complete NSPA Model Code of Ethics can be downloaded at The Wheel: Resources You Don’t Want to Reinvent.

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