Conflict of Interest: Story idea killer

Your mother started this great new business raising and releasing butterflies in your community.

Your college roommate was robbed at gunpoint.

The coffee shop your best friend’s mom owns has been selected for a national honor for all its charity work.

Your sorority has been able to get Hillary Clinton to come to a meeting.

All great stories and you have the scoop. Except you can’t write any of them.

Why not? Conflict of interest.

A conflict of interest is anything that could, actually or potentially, undermine your impartiality as a journalist. Journalists at every level must be careful of real or perceived conflict of interest, meaning they are personally connected to a story, source or issue in a way that could influence how she or he writes the story, or–and this is important–there is even the ILLUSION of such a conflict.

I can hear you now: “My grandparents have a house on E. North Broadway where Columbus is talking about putting in a much-disputed left turn lane, but I don’t care about it one way or the other.” But you still can’t cover that story because it may seem to others you could have a conflict, and in journalism, that’s all it takes to have one.”

The Society of Professional Journalists (self-disclosure: of which I am an officer for the Ohio Chapter) outlines conflict simply by declaring, “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”

That means journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, and;
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

In this class (and in journalistic life) it means you can’t write articles on or with people you are related to, friends with or even know well. You can’t cover issues or events to which you have a close tie or connection. You can’t do a story on the shop where you work part-time.

You can’t use classmates or co-workers as sources, or interview teachers, fellow members of Greek life, or a girl you once dated or your family doctor.

In the “real” world, many journalists avoid joining any groups that could “bias” them–especially when it comes to politics, and even register as Independents so as not to seem leaning to the left or right.

Even though you may think you can be impartial, you possibly can’t. And if other people think you could not be impartial based on such a conflict, your credibility is immediately compromised.

Don’t let your editor find out about conflicts after the fact. If you have any thoughts or questions or concerns, ask your editor up front and let him or her make the decision. But if you think you have a conflict of interest about an article topic or source, trust your gut–you probably do.

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