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