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Who's to block "pipeline" journalism?

by Barry Wilson


IN THE MURKY WORLD of journalism ethics, little attention has been paid to the difficult issue of what journalists can do with their own time.

Do media managers have the right to deny employees' rights, as citizens, to become involved in the groups and causes of their choice? Do working journalists have an ethical obligation to avoid associations in private life which could, or could appear to, compromise their professional credibility?

These are questions with no easy answers. But they deserve serious debate if journalism is to be taken seriously in this country.

The potential for a conflict of interest, or the appearance of one, is obvious and widespread:

  • In his book on Joe Clark, Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief David Humphreys says he worked with Clark on several occasions including the 1976 PC leadership campaign, when he was Ottawa Journal managing editor and in charge of issuing a daily Clark campaign newspaper;
  • In Winnipeg, a daily newspaper reporter and agriculture graduate sits with delegates during the first day of the 1979 annual Manitoba Farm Bureau convention and takes part in the debate as a delegate. The next day, she is at the press table, covering the convention;
  • In Saskatoon, a Star-Phoenix reporter who is also a member of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation provides extensive coverage of the SWF for the newspaper;
  • In Edmonton in 1978, the provincial farm organization, Unifarm, approves a resolution allowing members of the media to become associate members so they can take advantage of the group's pension plan. Several do, claiming they can see no conflict of interest in covering an organization to which they also belong;
  • In Calgary, a Herald reporter proudly reports in a column that he has co-operated with the RCMP in doing some basic "gumshoe work" during a trip to the Soviet Union "because I am a Canadian."

In all these cases, the reporter has left himself open to manipulation or being perceived as a person on the side of those being covered.

There are other candidates: the local Newspaper Guild official covering labour affairs or the managing editor or editor involved in the chamber of commerce or some other community booster club.

Most of these groups consider a media person on the board as a pipeline into the newsroom. Why shouldn't they?

Yet it is not a question media outlets or journalists have seemed too concerned about, at least in their public actions.

Some news companies, such as The Calgary Herald, have prepared a policy regulating the acceptance of gifts by their staffs.

The Herald policy, effective Sept. 1, 1978, put its finger on the basic problem — credibility: "The test is — will any gift as seen through the eyes of a Herald reader who has no personal knowledge of the integrity of either donor or recipient, look suspect, cosy or otherwise diminish the respect that reader has for The Herald?"

The same test could be applied to journalists' private affiliations and associations, but it was not. The only indirect reference comes where the policy says Herald reporters should not freelance material or receive benefits from organizations they cover.

The Saskatchewan Journalists' Association, which disbanded in 1978, tried to deal with the problem through a code of ethics which stated: "Journalists should avoid secondary employment, political or community involvement which relates, or appears to relate, to their journalistic activities."

The policy won approval only after much dissent.

The problem is clearly controversial and possibly unsolvable.

But it is one the business should tackle, through management and employee groups, unions, newsroom policies and wide-ranging debate.

Perhaps such involvements should be declared or abolished; perhaps respect for civil rights dictates they should be free from control.

If journalism is to develop national standards and credibility based on the appearance and reality of integrity, it must begin to face up to some of the complex and unsavory skeletons in its closet. The news-consuming public has a right to expect it.


Barry Wilson is The Financial Post's Saskatoon correspondent and Content's contributing editor for Saskatchewan.


Published in Content April 1979


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