I’d like us all to answer a few questions.
The other day, I blogged about The New York Times requiring freelance writers to answer a questionnaire about their other activities and any conflicts of interest. I suggested that every journalist, especially staffers, should fill out the questionnaire and that they should be made public.
Well, a birdie just sent me the questionnaire and so I’ll start the ball rolling. On my disclosures page, I’ve answered each of the questions, which I’ll list below.
I’ll also keep that ball rolling and suggest that bloggers should answer the questions as well and post them online to pressure mainstream journalists into such open disclosure.
And let’s keep it rolling still by suggesting other questions you think that journalists and bloggers should answer for their audiences. First, The Times’ questions:
1. Please list your other current employers, whether full time or part time
2. For what other employers have you worked in the last three years?
3. What sort of volunteer work do you do regularly, if any, and for whom? (Please include any public relations, advocacy or advisory board involvement.)
4. Do you do any work paid or unpaid in politics or government? Have you done any lobbying of governmental bodies?
5. Do you have any financial investments or financial ties that may limit your ability to cover specific topics free of conflict, and if so, what are the topics?
6. Although we don’t regulate the activities of spouses, partners or immediate family members of our contributors, do any of their professional or personal involvements or any of their financial investments or ties make certain topics inappropriate for you, and if so, what are the topics?
7. Have you accepted any free trips, junkets or press trips in the last two years? Have you accepted any substantial free merchandise or discounts from people we might cover?
8. Has anything you’ve written later resulted in a published editor’s note or retraction for deliberate falsehood or plagiarism or become the subject of a lawsuit involving allegations of deliberate falsehood? (If yes, please include details about the publication and your role in the article or story. If a lawsuit, please describe the disposition of the case.)
What else? This isn’t as simple as filling out a one-size-fits-all-beats list once. I believe that if journalists have something to disclose about their views or involvement in a story that a reader should properly know to judge that story, they should be updating on online disclosures page accordingly. We don’t need to litter stories in sparse print and airtime with every such disclosure; it could reach an absurd though amusing extreme (“The lawyer for the accused once bought me a beer”… “I own two shares of Microsoft stock”…). But we should not shy away from such disclosure when it is relevant.
Yesterday, I was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation with Jeffrey Dvorkin, the network’s ombudsman, and Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, talking about just this. The host, Michelle Martin, wasn’t grasping the nuances of this discussion. For what came out is that Dvorkin, Cunningham, and I agree broadly (I hope I don’t mischaracterize their views) that objectivity, as upheld in j-schools of yore, is a false god; that honest, fair, and complete reporting in spite of any personal perspectives, prejudices, or assumptions is the right standard; and that relevant disclosure is good. Where we disagree about is how far that should go, and I wish we’d explored that more. So explore it here: How much disclosure is necessary and relevant?
Keep in mind that this does not mean that you’re disclosing deep, dark, family secrets about every story or laying your whole life bare. That’s not the point. This isn’t an exercise in Maoist self-criticism or columnist exhibitionism. This is about telling the people you’re talking with what they should know to understand your own perspective and what you bring to the story: “I’m writing about jazz but I prefer rock.” … or, “I’m covering a smoking ban and I used to smoke.” … or, yes, “I’m covering the Democrats and I am a Democrat.” It should not mean either that you should not cover a story because you have a relevant perspective or that you must because you do. This cuts both ways. The example I gave in yesterday’s discussion on NPR is that editors frequently assign African-American reporters to stories in the African-American community. That could be argued two ways: It’s stereotyping the reporters, or it’s assigning people who will understand those stories better. This doesn’t mean that they should or should not be assigned because of their background, but their background is relevant. The same goes for other stories where the background is not so transparent.
So if you join in and answer these disclosure questions, please tag it “disclosures.” And if you have any more questions you’d like to see journalists and bloggers answer, please add them to the comments.
: LATER: Vaughn Ververs answers the questions at Public Eye.