DEAR READER: Help the Missourian update its conflicts-of-interest policy

Friday, April 16, 2010 | 12:46 p.m. CDT; updated 10:16 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dear Reader,

Journalists aren’t supposed to run for political office or belong to a political party. They don’t take money or gifts from sources. They shouldn’t write about their best friends’ businesses.


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They also should have a life outside the newsroom. In fact, participating in the larger community makes for better journalism.

I’m not a big fan of rules. I prefer common sense and sound critical thinking. But a few are necessary, especially when they form a practical interpretation of deeply held values.

The Missourian is reviewing its conflicts-of-interest policy.

I’d like your input.

Last week, three student-journalists at the Missourian presented a draft. Matt Pearce, Chris Canipe and Ben Wieder took the existing policies, reviewed those at other newspapers and came up with what you see here.

The policy was last updated in 2003.

This draft will be reworked in the coming weeks; how much depends on the questions and comments you have.



Revised Policy

Credibility matters. The Missourian strives to be an independent and impartial source of news — which means we must avoid bias and, just as importantly, the appearance of bias. We should make our best effort to maintain rigorous professional standards for ourselves and to avoid business and political ties that could threaten our credibility.

Personal conflicts

Missourian staffers have lives outside the newsroom! It is everyone's right to be involved in campus and community life, but we must protect both the reality and the appearance of the Missourian's independence and impartiality.

Students and staff should not engage in business dealings, accept gifts or favors, or have close emotional ties with a news source.

Students and staff should not cover nor attempt to manipulate coverage of organizations or events in which they are involved.

All students, upon joining the Missourian, should provide to their faculty editor a listing of activities or employment that might create at least the appearance of conflicting interests. The most likely source of conflict is any leadership position in an organization that seeks to affect public policy, on the campus or in the community.

Personal relationships can affect the Missourian's credibility as well. As is the case at any professional publication, journalists at the Missourian should not write about, report on, photograph or make news judgments about subjects with whom they have close ties. Do not report on your friends. The same applies to romantic or business relationships. When in doubt, ask an editor.

Business conflicts

Work for other local media by the Missourian paid staff — students or professionals — is prohibited, and is a firing offense at many professional publications. Local media include daily and weekly newspapers in our circulation area, campus newspapers and competing broadcast outlets. Work for KBIA and KOMU may be acceptable if approved by an editor.

Students taking classes outside the regular Missourian staff classes are welcome to work for other news organizations that do not directly compete with the Missourian. For journalists in all Missourian staff classes (reporting, copy editing, design, photography, photo editing, graphics, etc.), paid or unpaid freelance work must first be approved by an editor. In all cases, Missourian assignments take precedence and information gathered through reporting for the Missourian should never be used or "repackaged" as original reporting for other outlets.

Paid freelance work offered by other sources or entities covered by the Missourian to students or staff must be disclosed to and approved by an editor. This includes freelance photography, public relations work or graphic design.

As in every situation: When in doubt, ask an editor.

Social media

The advent of social media introduces a world of complications as we increasingly share aspects of our personal lives online.

Political viewpoints should not be apparent through students or staffers' public profiles on social networking Web sites. Be careful what you post. Ask yourself: What would a source think?

At the beginning of each semester, students will meet with their editors to look at their Facebook (or other social media) profiles. Again: If you don’t think an editor should see it, why would you want a source to see it?

Students or staff may be "friended" by a source or a subject they cover. It may even be in the interest of students and staff to "friend" a source in order to follow their business or campaign. In such cases, students and staff are accountable for viewpoints expressed on their private profiles as well. Again: What would a source think?

When blogging under their own names, students and staff should be extremely cautious about expressing political viewpoints or preferences. As a rule, always assume that all posts are public. When in doubt, err on the side of neutrality.

This is a new area for everyone. There will be gray areas. But as with your wardrobe, your voice mail and your demeanor, the same ethic always applies: be professional.

Some general guidelines

  • Clearly permitted: Voting; worshipping; belonging to social, service, religious or athletic organizations; attending public events.
  • Requiring disclosure: Holding or seeking office in an organization that tries to influence public policy on or off the campus.
  • Generally discouraged: Blog posts or social media content that suggest a political persuasion or viewpoint on topics reported on by the Missourian.
  • Clearly prohibited: Holding or seeking political office, paid or nonpaid, elected or appointed, on or off the campus; participating in political campaigning or lobbying; participating in demonstrations or rallies intended to influence public policy.

If in doubt, disclosure to your editor is always the best course.

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Amber Hanneken April 16, 2010 | 4:52 p.m.

Quote: Political viewpoints should not be apparent through students or staffers' public profiles on social networking Web sites. Be careful what you post. Ask yourself: What would a source think?

>> I see Mizzou journalism staff and professors express political viewpoints on social media sites all the time. Is this going to apply to them? This entire thing just really irritates me. Politics is a huge part of life in this country and EVERYONE has an opinion whether you're showing it on Facebook or not. To purposely hide your opinions is just dishonest. I believe a good journalist can be honest about their viewpoints but also still give fair coverage to the other side(s) of an issue. I'm not very into discussing politics but I don't think it's wrong that my journalism friends are vocal on some issues, especially if they aren't covering it.

Quote: At the beginning of each semester, students will meet with their editors to look at their Facebook (or other social media) profiles. Again: If you don’t think an editor should see it, why would you want a source to see it?

>> Whoa. You say journalists are supposed to have a life but then can't fully participate in social media, which is a huge part of life in this day and age. Having graduated from Mizzou and worked in the real world for a year, I've never had to add a source to my Facebook. My Facebook is ultra private and things I say cannot be seen outside of my friends. I think a better idea for this one would be to encourage students to have a "public Facebook" and a private one.

(Report Comment)
phillipp young April 18, 2010 | 10:13 p.m.

i agree with ms. hanneken. just because someone works for a media company, shouldnt mean that they cant express their views on facebook or anywhere else.why not let them be able to exress their freedom of speech?
they should be smart enough to know what they write could effect their long as they stay professional and dont write trash or use excessive profanity, they should be allowed to write anything they want wherever they want.
and why not let them run for office or hold an appointed office?their career in journalism shouldnt keep them from serving their community.

(Report Comment)
Tom Warhover April 19, 2010 | 2:58 p.m.

Interesting points. Thanks.

First, let me draw a distinction between Mizzou journalism profs in general and members of the news organizations affiliated with the j-school. You may hear lots of political opinion, lobbying etc., but they probably aren't professors working in the Missourian newsroom.

Standard policies in most newspapers is to avoid advocacy. There's a tacit acknowledgment that journalists give up certain rights in order to maintain that independent voice of a newspaper.

So as editor, I shouldn't go out and lead the charge to ban alligators in the city limits of Columbia. Instead, I should faithfully report all sides of the debate. (No, there isn't really an alligator debate, so far as I know.)

What you raise is interesting though:

Should reporter Jane Doe disclose that she's an alligator lover? Or that she wears alligator boots? Or that she's a Republican who is pro-abortion and anti-ACLU?

And would that influence your understanding of the story? Should it? And should it if the story is about neighborhood sewer lines or a feature about the new MU basketball coach?

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 19, 2010 | 3:20 p.m.

Remember Project Mockingbird, where the CIA sent reps out to all of the MS national media outlets so as to influence 'news' content for propaganda purposes? Well guess what most ALL mainstream national media is still owned and controlled, much of the news being written by think tanks, intelligence agencies, their proxies, or straight out of the Pentagon, and just dumped and downloaded out into the MS for Sheep consumption.

Does anybody really believe that most all of the CorpState media isn't biased, slanted, and used simply to steer the herd in whatever direction the BIG money players wish it to go. LOL.

We can relax a *little* though the closer media gets to home from it being TOTALLY owned, but EVERYONE has a perspective, a slant, a personal bias, and only limited insight often even when they try to be 'strictly objective'.

That's why I would suggest stories being ran that perhaps are a collaboration of several different writers or allowing others with a different perspective and insight to help with the editorial process, that is if a paper truly wants to appear 'non biased'.

(Report Comment)
Tom Warhover April 19, 2010 | 3:30 p.m.

I promise: No national intelligence agencies will be used in the production of tonight's story from the Columbia City Council.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 19, 2010 | 5:18 p.m.

OK Tom, lol, I think we can trust YOU and yours, but if anyone sees the eyes move on any council room portraits or that the shrubs out front have feet, well....just sayin.

Too, I just want to say how much I appreciate the openness and accomodating ability of The Missourian to print citizens thoughts and comments (as long as they don't seriously,intentionally violate good posting rules) and to take on more 'controversial' subjects in their reporting. Nice.

Just try getting a comment published, that doesn't follow mass group think on any of the big national media sites, it just won't happen, I know from experience. It's almost a joke now out on the net, to believe in those who claim to be 'fair and balanced', it's really 'slanted and more slanted' even when they trot out two *opposing* (not really) puppets. I do however like some of the MSM slogans though like "all the news that fits, we print". How true.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock April 19, 2010 | 5:30 p.m.

Tom I think that if a journalist is politically active in any group they should not be allowed to report on it. I mean a vegan is not going to give PSF a fair shake in a story anymore then I would if I were reporting on some bill to ban guns. There is no such thing as a unbiased person so the best thing to do is not report on things that you have strong feelings about.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin April 19, 2010 | 6:40 p.m.

"I just decided some time ago not to worry about this."

-- Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Henry J. Waters, III to Missourian columnist George Kennedy, on the importance of conflicts of interest

(Report Comment)
david teeghman April 21, 2010 | 1:37 p.m.

As a Journalism and Political Science dual major, I have essentially had to put my Poli Sci degree on the back burner while I work for the Missourian. Time that I could have spent gaining political experience was instead used entirely on my BJ. I am beginning to look more and more seriously at a career outside of journalism, and a lack of political experience will hurt me when I am compared to other Political Science majors who were not hampered by COI rules.

As a Missourian staffer, I still have all the other biases that make me human: I'm still a liberal, I'm still an environmentalist, and I still hate the Cardinals. I had those opinions before, during, and long after I am a Missourian staffer. The problem with COI rules is that it demands a journalist's cognitive dissonance. I have to pretend like I don't have these political opinions in order to pursue the false ideal of "objectivity." I feel like a fraud, because I am just lying about personal biases that I would be able to admit in any other context. It is impossible to eliminate personal biases, no matter how many lectures a journalism student sits through on the importance of "objectivity" and ethics.

Convergence journalism students are in an even more convoluted situation. I have produced a grand total of ONE video for the Missourian's website in my tenure as a Missourian staffer. No articles, no photos, that's it. But that one video has cost me several opportunities to intern in political offices and campaigns that could have bulked up my resume. For what?

Of course, I say all this with only an imperfect solution in mind: greater transparency. Admit in the news article that the writer is a real live human being with real biases, and can only do so much to eliminate them. Readers will always find a way to accuse of political biases, be they liberal or conservative. I think just admitting personal biases (if they are relevant) in the news story itself is the best policy.

Disclosure: I actually got in trouble for expressing a personal opinion on Facebook while I was a Missourian staffer, so I am by no means impartial. That incident only hardened my resolve to vehemently oppose COI rules. Staffers should treat their social media outlets like anyone else: no drinking pictures or dumb stuff like that, but if you admit you like Ralph Nader, so what?

When I am in the newsroom, just because I'm an environmentalist doesn't mean I should be precluded from writing about renewable energy. If I am good at my job, the story would mention renewable energy's benefits (fight global warming) as well as the negatives (higher costs). We go to the best journalism school in the world to learn how to dig for the TRUTH, regardless of whether that favors liberals or conservatives, the Cubs or the Cardinals.

Give us a little faith.

(Report Comment)
Rob Weir April 21, 2010 | 8:01 p.m.

I like this suggestion from Andy Boyle (@andymboyle) on Twitter:

@wjchat Just have your mother follow you on Twitter like me. Then you will tweet appropriately and no "policies" needed. #wjchat #himom

Rob Weir
Director of Digital Development
The Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 21, 2010 | 10:07 p.m.

It's silly for journalists, Imo, to pretend they're 'unbiased' when choosing or reporting on a story, obviously everyone has their unigue paradigm that gives them their 'views' and selections.
What I would like to see though is that journalists simply confess up front where they are coming from, what they are looking for, and guide their audience through a story that doesn't HIDE their 'angle', but rather announces it fully, and still at the same time provides FULLY the 'other' perspective, and let's the reader decide for themselves.

People will decide the slant anyway. Why not just annouce it up front (in situations that apply) and use it simply as another jouralistic tool. Many people might actually appeciate where a writer is coming from, not all people dislike someone with a clear viewpoint, even when they disagree, I'd simply say writers go for it, be yourselves, don't hide who you are, and use it to your advantage to produce REAL news. Thta's really, I think, what people are looking for.

(Report Comment)
Carl Kabler April 22, 2010 | 7:03 p.m.

Wow, now that I read all those 'rules' for journalists, a second time, and really mulled them over, I am finding it hard to believe what I am reading. I hate to offer such critical input here-- (but it was requested, so...)-- but good gosh I thought I might be reading perhaps some guidelines from a former Pravda job application. How on earth could anyone reasonabily be expected to comply with even part of that, much IMo sems a clear violation of prying into someones life.

Reviewing someones Facebook page??? You've got to be kidding me, making people provide lists, not alllowing stories about people one 'knows' *closely* (I personally think that story angle might be exceptional), I won't list all of the rules, but again, I guess that's why people like me type in the comments section rather than in the news section. I at one time thought about a carrer in journalism, now I know it would not have been for me, at least working in a 'conventional' type news setting.

Ok, that's my 2c, sense you asked.

(Report Comment)
Taylor Combs April 25, 2010 | 9:28 p.m.

I have a problem with this wording:

"Work for other local media by the Missourian paid staff — students or professionals — is prohibited, and is a firing offense at many professional publications."

Unless there is a back log of paychecks waiting for me somewhere in the newsroom, I would say I don't consider myself a member of the Missourian paid staff. However I think work for other local media is and should be not allowed for reporters, that point is made clear in the "students or professionals" part but not so much by the paid part.

(Report Comment)

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