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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The appearance of conflict etc. etc. etc.

There's an oft-ignored rule in journalism that the appearance of conflict of interest is just as important (and potentially damaging) as actual conflict of interest. As most readers probably know, the Globe endorsed the Tories in an editorial that ran on Saturday. I've never liked newspapers endorsing candidates or parties; I think it skewers any hope for objective coverage, but it's one of those things that just seems to happen. Well, Marcus Gee, the editorial page editor, appeared on one of the Globe's interactive discussions yesterday - apparently I'm not the only one with concerns about what this means for objectivity. What gets me, however, is that the only defence for endorsing someone at all is that ""You will find that all the major papers will endorse one party or another in this campaign, as they do in every one. There's a long tradition of this, going right back to our founder, George Brown, in the 1800s." He goes on to say that the reporters strive to provide objective, unbiased coverage, but the fact is there are a lot more factors that demonstrate a newspaper's bias than just the reportage itself. Story selection, story placement, photo selection. . . all of these things can demonstrate bias and all of these things are decided by editorial staff. I've never liked endorsements in newspapers. Marcus Gee does little to change my mind.

11 Comments:

  • A1 of the Ottawa Citizen today reports that a dedicated RCMP officers has been removed from the anti-terrorism beat after running for the Conservatives in 2005 because there may a conflict with him supposed to be protecting Paul Martin and everything. It's an interesting story and I can see the conflict, but we were trying to define irony in the office the other day and I'm pretty sure that a CanWest paper reporting on conflict of interest is it.

    By Anonymous SparkPlug, at 10:21 AM  

  • And turn to page A9 where the story about Juliet O'Neill is.

    By Anonymous SparkPlug, at 10:31 AM  

  • Joe, I want to disagree with you, but my argument for endorsements from the press is as weak as Marcus Gee's. On the one hand, I do believe there is an activist role to the press. They keep government and business accountable to their constituents. Sometimes this means taking a stand - hence, the editorial page.

    But as far as suggesting to their readers who they should vote for, the only real argument is Gee's - because they can. And I don't think that flies.

    When the pro side is the ability to endorse someone in a political race (just because, really), and the con side being frustration and erosion of trust from your readership (as Gee experienced online) I would always strive to maintain the trust of my readership.

    Just because you can endorse someone doesn't mean that you should alienate readers or force them to question your motives. Cover the election, cover the government, but leave voting to the voters.

    By Blogger The Shotgun Solution, at 2:43 PM  

  • I am going to have to disagree with all of you, not just because I'm like that, but for a series of reasons.
    I agree that appearance of conflict of interest is just as important as actual conflict of interest.
    However, appearance of conflict of interest also implies appearance of benefit to the newspaper or journalists.
    While many of you may argue that the Globe has much to gain by endorsing the possibly soon to be governing party, that is in no way assured. I have also found newspapers often endorse candidates or parties who look to be on the losing side of things
    In the 2004 election, for eaxample, the Ottawa Citizen endorsed a Green party candidiate in local riding despite his snowballs chance in hell.
    An editorial board, which is a group of people tasked with providing well-reasoned opinions every day, should surely be asked to present an opinion on one of the most important decisions Canadians will face all year.

    By Anonymous Andy, at 4:38 PM  

  • I have to disagree, Andy, conflict of interest does not necessarily have to include an appearance of benefit to the conflicted parties.

    The fact of the matter is, right now, someone can point to the Globe and say "your coverage is unfairly biased towards the Tories and your editorial is proof of that bias." All Gee and co. can say in response is "no it's not." That's a weak argument in my opinion.

    The appearance of conflict is there whether there's something to be gained from it or not.

    By Blogger Joe Boughner, at 4:49 PM  

  • I am still suggesting that the appearance of conflict of interest, also has to display an appearance of gain, but let me go one step further.

    In response to complaints about bias Marcus Gee also mentioned that, his reporters and many of his editors didn't know who the editorial board might endorse.

    If the reporters had been involved in drafting the editorial I would be more concerned.

    It just seems wrong that the Globe editorial board could weigh in on so many other issues and still be consider impartial in their reporting and not touch the federal election, the biggest decision Canadians will make all year.

    If writing an editorial endorsing one side of an issue constitutes conflict of interest I think you might end up limiting what editorials that could be written.

    I have so far found the Globe's coverage to be very impartial and nothing Globe staff have said or done gives me any concern on how they are covering the election.

    In order to avoid bias or appearance most of the Canadian media have also made sure to rotate their reporters through the different campaigns. I have noticed CTV, CBC, and the Globe have all done this.

    By Anonymous Andy, at 6:18 PM  

  • I'm hesitant to jump into a debate about The Globe, but since Andy brought up a more general point on his own I'd like to prod it a little further.

    "Reporters and even most editors," says Gee, "do not know which party the editorial page is going to endorse until the editorial appears in the paper." The editorial board is a lonely and private creature; it doesn't like to share its big ideas with reporters. So it erects an editorial Chinese wall.

    In practice, the wall helps to keep the opinion-forming and fact-gathering sides of the newspaper in their own spheres. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The real question you have to ask is: Do enough people know that the editorial Chinese wall exists, and does this matter to them?

    Joe, the thrust of your argument seems to be that people can too easily blur the distinction between news and editorial content. If so, I'm curious: What sorts of topics can editorial writers address without opening themselves up to accusations of conflict? I fail to see the distinction between supporting a candidate's day-care policy, for instance, and supporting the candidate himself.

    By Anonymous Phronetic Man, at 11:29 PM  

  • Phronetic made the very point I was coming here to make. Just because the distinction between reporter and editorial board is clear to Gee, it's not clear to the average reader.

    As for the question raised about what topics are fair for editorial, well I have to admit, I don't have a clear answer. Obviously editorials by their very nature are biased, while the strongest editorials are based on issues raised in coverage.

    I think I feel so strongly about election coverage because elections are where the role of the media in the democratic process is SO important. Elections aren't about an issue, they are about several issues; the public relies on the media to provide a clear understanding of the oft-confusing deluge of promises and platforms.

    This could easily evolve into a philosophical debate but it's way too early for me to deal with that. There are probably very valid reasons for a paper to endorse a candidate - I just think that Gee did a piss-poor job of justifying it.

    By Blogger Joe Boughner, at 8:56 AM  

  • Two things.

    First, in hindsight, my question was half-rhetorical. I'm not so sure that the distinction is unclear to the average reader. Newspapers have whole pages labelled things like "Opinion," "Editorial" or "Argument and Observation" to partition off decisions of the editorial board from the rest of the paper. You'd think that this would give readers a clue.

    Or, for instance, when columnists appear in news pages they're formatted differently than normal articles - they're left-justified instead of full-justified, for instance, or they have a columnist mug shot, or they get special bylines or a little tag called "analysis." The practice of having writers whose sole job is to write columns helps in itself to keep the boundaries between news and opinion more clear.

    Newspapers have developed a whole host of conventions and traditions to tell readers what is news and what is reasoned opinion. Anyone who reads them regularly will pick up on this.

    Second thing: I would caution you, as I have in the past, about careless use of the word bias. A bias is not the same as a perspective, nor is it the same thing as an opinion. Being biased implies having a vested interest (or hidden agenda, if you will) which can overwhelms impartial judgement. It has deep connotations of prejudice and unfairness. But no one can have a prejudiced opinion of every possible topic, least of all editorial writers - by the nature of their being at a newspaper, they're often asked to write about issues and topics no one has ever heard of before.

    So I don't understand this "editorials by nature are biased" spiel. I would love to learn what isn't biased according to the commonly used definition on this site, but perhaps that's a bigger issue for another time.

    By Anonymous Phronetic Man, at 1:06 PM  

  • I think we may be crossing into a bigger conversation here. I would agree with Joe that news coverage has to be unbiased and without even a hint of conflict of interest.
    If the media has a responsibilty to foster the public debate then I think it has to have columnists and editorials jumping in on issues, yes even on elections.
    I think what would make all of us feel better about this whole thing is if editorial pages had a wider range of opinions.
    Take the most Conservative-facist- bunny-eating writer in the country and put them on the same page as the most pinko-commi-liberal the country has and put them on the same page.
    Maybe the problem is not the opinions in the newspaper, because as Phronetic indicated there are some pretty good distinctions to make it clear to readers where opinion and news start and end, but rather the problem could be that there aren't enough opinions in newspapers.
    Anyways I could be wrong . . . but that's probably what's great about opinions.

    By Anonymous Andy, at 8:56 PM  

  • I'm going to jump into the earlier part of this debate, so pretend that this appeared about five comments up... I have no problem with a newspaper endorsing a candidate or party. We have two recent examples with the Globe endorsing the Conservatives and the Star endorsing the Liberals.

    I always read these editorials because I want to see how they make their argument. It opens my eyes to perspectives and ideas I hadn't previously considered in supporting/rejecting a party. That might mean that I see something I agree with, or it might mean I see something that makes me go crazy because I feel it is so wrong. Regardless it invokes a reaction, which is central to so much of what we see in newspapers today.

    Secondly, we are not giving readers anywhere near enough credit if we are to assume they swallow whatever swill that we as journalists send their way. By coming out in favour of a party, newspapers are showing how support for that party can be justified. It is then up to readers to have a look at that and filter it through their own thoughts and beliefs. It adds to the "conversation" that newspapers are so eager to have with their audiences.

    By Blogger Mason, at 1:07 AM  

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