Goose, meet gander: Answering The Times’ questions

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.

  • It’s a worthy campaign, but a problematic one. I won’t immediately follow the disclosures because they make my life look blamelessly dull. (A problem we face with politicians: hands clean, or fingers in pies?)

    As for journalists, would you avoid hiring someone as a sports reporter because they were a season ticket holder at one club, or would you hire them because of their evident interest in and commitment to the sport? You’re right, disclosure has to be the answer…

  • This assumes that those with a financial interest (no matter how small) will be influenced by this. While on the other side a person could be completely biased by natural inclination without any overt conflict of interests. ideologues are what people get upset about, not stock shills.

    I doubt that David Brooks, for example, would change his position on globalization because he owned a few shares in company A vs company B. Disclosure can’t hurt, but I’m not sure it will really help.

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  • Good move by the Times.

    And I think those who pen guest OPEDs should be required to disclose their approximate income from the cause they are espousing. I can’t count the number of times I have written Opeds by an Executive Director at a non-profit that wants to rstrict farmland development or wants to ban soft drinks in schools or some other narrow-focused cause. Disclosure is good. Hell let’s advocate CNN and Fox etc make the guest expert dislclose the same info. How many times have you seen some 28 year-old terrorism expert giving his expert advice on a news analysis show.

  • I think public disclosure is absolutely fine, as long as it does not endanger the journalist, contacts or any stories. Editorial decisions should be transparent and so should journalistic endeavour.

    I don’t agree that this assumes financial interest influences or corrupts your work; I just think it makes it far harder for journalists who *do* pursue those interests through their work to get away with it.

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  • My answers.

    The one thing I regret most about my situation is that it’s simply not worth it to corrupt me.

  • John Lison

    I listened to the NPR program on 17 April . You’re right, Michelle Martin just wasn’t getting it. Dvorkin, on the other hand, was as condescending to us news consumers as it is possible for an elitist to be. I’m not a journalist but I’ve read, watched and listened to the news in every conceivable media format for 50 + years. I would very much encourage your transparency suggestions becoming the norm. I can figure out who’s coming from where but it takes so much longer with younger journalists, particularly those highly skilled in slick practiced “objectivity”. I sometimes wonder whether they even have a clue from where they are coming.

  • Surely ‘relevant disclosure’ is the key here. Total disclosure is insane. If I were paid by ‘Friends of the Earth’ to ghost write stuff (I’m not) and never ever write about the environment, what’s the point of the disclosure?

    I try to avoid writing about clients and their competitors but disclose if the situation arises. Having said that, no amount of income on the side makes it worth jettisoning my integrity.

  • Mike G

    Holy crap. This is such idiotic ass-covering busy work, make every freelancer who writes 250 words for the Times write 2500 words covering every thing they’ve done in the last 20 years. Any good active freelancer will have HUNDREDS of answers for these questions, all potential minefields, all being kept in the little black book of the world’s most self-important paper/ How about asking them to list all their sex partners while they’re at it? (I hear that’s an issue with at least one famous NY Times correspondent who’s responsible for some recent trouble there.) Not that they would, but if I were of sufficient prominence to be asked to write something by the NYT, it would give me enormous pleasure to print this out, scrawl “Go fuck yourself” and send it back to them. My writing is my writing. This is just legal horseshit.

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