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Columbia Missourian

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

By Tom Warhover
April 16, 2010 | 12:46 p.m. CDT

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

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