Journalism in the entrepreneurial age

Stephen WardFunding experiments are welcome and there’s nothing wrong
with journalists looking for new ways to pay for reporting, writes
Stephen J.A. Ward. But why assume funding from a foundation is any less fraught with potential conflicts than advertising from Zellers?

Volumes have been written on how new media apparently undermine the ethical norms of accuracy, verification, and professionalism.

 Too little has been written about the ethics of the new economics of journalism. Ethical issues are emerging as journalists experiment with new models such as non-profit centers for investigative journalism and user-pay journalism.

I predict that this second set of issues – issues of journalistic independence and conflicts of interest – will soon become the dominant theme in journalism ethics. These problems are brewing inside many of these new model outlets.

We enter an age of entrepreneurial journalism. Journalists use the Internet to pitch their stories directly to funders, from individuals to philanthropic groups. Groups of journalists seek support from foundations for their centers of journalism. Increasingly, newsroom journalists supplement their revenue by promoting their work on blogs and web sites.

Experimentation is happening everywhere. On the West Coast, The Tyee recently asked readers to fund provincial election stories; describes itself as an independent, non-profit online newspaper. On the East Coast, the investigative journalism of ProPublica is funded by the Sandler Foundation. Also, there are web sites where journalists ask readers to fund their reporting ideas.

The old editorial wall around the newsroom is crumbling, and the distance between journalists and their funders is shrinking. As it shrinks, controversies erupt. For example. Vancouver Sun reporter Jeff Lee recently came under criticism for accepting a payment to write a story for Olympic Review, the official magazine of the International Olympics Committee, while assigned to cover the Olympics for the Sun.

Now, there is nothing wrong about the idea of journalists being more entrepreneurial. But, as always, there are questions about how journalists can remain independent while dealing directly with those who pay for their reports.

Guidelines for protecting independence, responding to public skepticism, and managing conflicts of interest will have to be constructed.  It is serious practical work for journalism ethics.

The Pogue case

Perhaps you think the problems in this area are simple. Maybe you say, “Why not just forbid all potential conflicts?” Then consider the case of David Pogue and his reviews of technology in The New York Times.  Pogue makes a living writing about technology and producing manuals about products.

Clark Hoyt, public editor of the Times, considered what the Times should do when Pogue writes reviews about products that are the subject of one of his manuals in his Sept. 5 column.

The issue surfaced when Pogue wrote a favourable review of the Snow Leopard system while his manual on Snow Leopard was being promoted online. It may be asked: Doesn’t Pogue have an incentive to write a positive review to promote his manual?

Trying to eliminate all conflicts in Pogue’s case doesn’t work. An editor could tell Pogue that he can’t review any product that he has already written about, or is the subject of one of his manuals. But Pogue writes about so many new products that this rule would virtually preclude him from writing about any new product.

Rather than trying to eliminate all potential conflict, the Times responded more inventively to the Pogue problem. As Hoyt wrote, the editors decided to disclose to readers Pogue’s outside activities. On his Times Topics page online, Pogue posted a statement of ethics, saying manufacturers have no involvement in his manuals and that from now on, if he is writing a book about a product he is reviewing, he will disclose it to readers. The statement says Pogue’s personal investments are in a blind trust to avoid any question of reviewing products in which he has a direct financial interest. A disclosure was appended to the Snow Leopard column online.

It is possible to raise ethical questions about other trends in journalism. If reporters must pitch their stories to potential funders, online or offline, will they not be under pressure to adopt a story angle favored by the potential funder? If I seek funding for an environmental story from an environmental foundation, do I pick a story angle that is very “green”?

Moreover, how do I know, as a reader, whether a foundation sponsoring a group of journalists has undue influence on the editorial process, including a veto on stories the foundation dislikes? Why assume that funding from a foundation is less fraught with possible conflicts then advertising from Zellers?

I am not opposing these experiments in funding journalism. But I am warning that we should not assume that they are ethically innocent.

What to do?

How would we start to work on these emerging issues? Here are few suggestions:

  • Manage and minimize, not eliminate: It is unrealistic to hope for a complete avoidance or of potential conflicts in many cases. True, there will be situations where complete avoidance is a reasonable approach, e.g. a rule against taking a bribe to do a story. But in other cases, such as expert columnists, one can only aim at minimizing conflicts
  • Learn from other organizations: Universities (and other large institutions) have been dealing with conflicts for years, such as when researchers in biology commercialize their discoveries, or accept funding from corporations.
  •  Establish a process for dealing with conflicts: This process should have four components:                                           1. Nuanced descriptions of the nature and variety of conflicts of interests in journalism.                                                2. A process that encourages reporters to bring forward possible conflicts to a committee (or some other entity) that follows a fair and open process to manage the issue. Deal with potential conflict as they arise, not after the story has been published.                                                                                                                                                         3. Develop up-to-date guidelines on conflicts.                                                                                                            4. Make public your conflict-of-interest policy and provide a process by which the public can report (or complain about) perceived conflicts.

Nothing is perfect in an imperfect world, especially not in journalism.  

This combination of editorial oversight and disclosure is one way to approach the looming ethical problems of an entrepreneurial age.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of  UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.