Avoiding Conflict of Interest

RTDNA strongly encourages journalists to ask the following questions when covering stories or beats that may produce real or perceived conflicts of interest:

Will the private actions of a journalist with a news source or newsmaker give the appearance of an unprofessional connection? Audience members may react with suspicion to revelations of friendships or romances that develop between journalists and their sources—particularly if there is ongoing coverage of a beat or story. Journalists and their managers must realize relationships that would be perfectly acceptable between other adults might not be viewed in the same way when there is also a journalist-source relationship.

Will the actions of a journalist’s or newsroom manager’s family members with a news source or newsmaker give the appearance of an unprofessional connection? In the same way the personal actions of journalists on their private time may come into question, the actions of their spouses and family members may do the same. How will actions of those close to a journalist be perceived by audience members?

Is it ever acceptable to accept gifts from a source on a story? If so, is there a monetary value limit on that gift. The FCC’s rules call for specific disclosure of payment to air material. But what if the gift comes not in connection with airing specific content? What other motivation might there be for the gift? Consider the appearances created with the audience if the gift were disclosed publicly.

Will you accept free admission to parks and events you are covering, even when the general public must pay for the same access? Some ethicists insist journalists covering events requiring a ticket should pay the same fee ticket buyers do, while others insist free access is part of the coverage process. Managers should discuss what sorts of events merit free access and if any do not.

Will you accept free travel from sources? Most journalists will accept a ride in a pickup truck to the local farmer’s pumpkin patch, but will they also accept a free ride on an airline showing off a new route? Journalists and managers should consider whether they will accept free transportation and in what form. Will the station insist on buying tickets to those forms of transportation that require passengers to do the same? How will you divulge to your audience that you have take the free transportation?

Will newsroom personnel be allowed to “moonlight” with interests that may be the subject of news coverage? Can on-air personalities do commercial appearances or voice over work? Many stations have arrangements that allow newsroom personnel to work elsewhere, but managers should ask what sort of conflicts of interest might be perceived from such relationships. For instance, can a sportscaster also broadcast games for a local team on its payroll? Many journalists see it as their duty to take part in public service work. Does that work present any conflicts of interest? RTDNA's guidelines on for on-air charitable solicitations may be of some help.

Does the subject matter of a story benefit the reporter, the manager, or the station? Would members of the audience perceive a story is done for the monetary benefit of the station or any of its employees? If so, is there another source or approach for the story that would eliminate that potential conflict of interest?

Does the station have a policy on if and how employees can participate in political campaigns? Are journalists and their managers treated differently in the policy than other station employees? Journalists face the constant scrutiny of those looking for political bias in their coverage. Voting is a private act, but public participation in political events, campaign contributions, or personal messages of support on private time have no place in the life of most journalists. Stations should develop a very specific list of what political activity is never acceptable for their journalists and other employees.

Is there a system in place to allow journalists and managers to recuse themselves from editorial decisions about stories from which a conflict of interest—real or perceived—may arise? Do reporters and editors have a clear picture of what constitutes a conflict large enough to call for their withdrawal from a story? Managers should take time to consider inevitable conflicts that may arise and discuss how to deal with them before the conflict occurs.

Finally, is there a whistleblower system in the newsroom that allows anyone to point out possible conflicts of interest so that management can act on them? Is the review of all work for possible conflicts of interest a regular part of the newsroom culture?

As most journalists live and work in the community they cover, some real and perceived conflicts of interest may be inevitable. Furthermore, some stories affect everyone—including journalists—and have the possibility to yield conflicts of interest that cannot be avoided. When those cases arise, journalists and managers can ask themselves the following questions about if and how they will reveal the conflicts to the public:

When and how will you disclose personal connections that could result in perceptions of conflict of interest even if managers have decided the reporter is able to cover a story? What if those connections are of a very personal nature? Managers must decide what information the public deserves so that audience members can make their own sound decisions about whether conflicts of interest exist.

Will you disclose connections the owners of your station have with sources and subjects of stories? The corporate ownership of most television and radio stations produces conflicts of interest in the area of business and finance. Managers should consider whether to disclose ownership relationships when covering stories about companies with common or connected ownership.

How will the connections above be inserted in the story? In the introduction, the tag, both, or in some other way? Managers should examine the proper place to run disclaimers of ownership and other possible conflicts of interest which properly inform the audience about the connection but do not create perceptions of conflict where they do not exist.

Finally, if an employee commits a violation of the station’s rules regarding conflict of interest, will that violation be disclosed to the public? If so, how? Aside from the station’s personnel policies for disciplining the employee, managers should consider how the violation would be perceived if the public found out and consider whether to make that information part of follow-up or continuing coverage of the story.