New Torstar code of business conduct raises conundrums for journalists

Photo courtesy of Eric Mark Do

By David Swick

Photo courtesy of Eric Mark Do

By David Swick

The Toronto Star updated its journalism ethics code in 2011; a good case can be made for its being the best in Canada. Now Star journalists have more guidelines to follow, as Torstar Corp. recently issued a new Business Code of Conduct. As the name implies, the code is for all Torstar employees, not just journalists. Its opening line stresses that it applies even to the CEO and board chair.

But the second line poses a conundrum: “The purpose of this Code is to ensure that Employees act honestly, responsibly, legally and ethically, both internally and externally, and in the best interests of Torstar.” The question is: can Star journalists always act ethically and in the best interest of Torstar?

What if, for example, a reporter or columnist sees the need to criticize the parent company in the paper? Media corporations, unfortunately, do not always appreciate such ethical behaviour.

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Also of note is this: an employee can be considered to be in a conflict of interest “if the Employee, a family member, or someone with whom the Employee shares a close personal relationship, has a financial interest, or is a director, partner, officer, employee or agent, in a corporation, partnership or other organization that is a supplier or prospective supplier, does business with Torstar, or is a competitor of Torstar.” Journalism has a long history of love affairs and even marriages between people working for rival news outlets. How strictly this guideline will be applied remains to be seen.

Most of the business code, as you might expect, has little relevance to journalists. Its 20 sections address financial documentation, protection of assets and insider trading. Few journalists will be upset to learn they can own no more than five per cent of any company that is a Torstar rival. Other sections, though, are relevant and helpful. Compliance with the Law, Dealings with Public Officials and Bribes and Kickbacks all advise staying clean and transparent.

Also good is a promise to protect any Torstar employee who blows the whistle on violators of the business code. “Torstar will not permit any form of retaliation, (including discharge, demotion, suspension, threats, harassment or any other form of discrimination) against an Employee who has truthfully and in good faith: (i) reported violations of this Code….”

One guideline is of special interest to freelancers. Anyone who performs “specialized services such as editorial work” for Torstar “should not perform such services for competitors.” Some freelancers may wish to look into the possible loophole that “situations are to be discussed with a manager.”

Three years ago, when the Star updated its journalism code, it built an impressive collection of ethical guidelines. Many are excellent and should be adopted by journalism ethics codes across the land. These include:

  • Any articles on reports and studies should include who funded them.
  • Editorial employees should avoid writing about any subject in which they have a financial interest.
  • All studies, but particularly health and science studies, should be based on peer-reviewed, reputable journals and should include independent comment.
  • Stories in which a Star editorial employee or freelancer has accepted free or discounted travel or accommodations must carry a tagline explaining to readers the particular circumstances of gaining access to the story.

The Star Journalism Ethics Code begins with a few inspiring paragraphs about how “the operation of a news organization is, above all, a public trust… Freedom of expression and of the press must be defended against encroachment from any quarter, public or private.”

Let's hope that if a Star journalist writes a piece critical of the company the ethics code will be understood to mean what it does not quite say, and the criticism accepted as a defence against encroachment. That, and that the ethics code trumps the business code.


David Swick is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.




The new Torstar Code of Business Conduct:


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