The toughest lesson I learned during my eight years in newspapers was a simple one: Life is a conflict of interest.
As a member of the local media, I couldn’t openly support a presidential candidate. I couldn’t run for my local school board. I was afraid of being too active in my church because bad news about the priest might pop up.
Heck, I was even nervous about coaching my son’s youth baseball team. I just knew once people found out I worked for the paper, I would be expected to use my connections to promote the program. Or worse yet, I would be thrust into the middle of some scandal involving a coach and a parent.
Go ahead, call me paranoid. I was trained to be that way.
In reality, the only way journalists can ever avoid a perceived conflict of interest is to avoid life.
Want to be a Girl Scout troop leader? What happens when the treasurer is arrested for stealing money?
Want to go out for drinks after work? What happens when an off-duty police officer you know comes in? Do you strike up a friendly conversation or do you go home because you don’t want others in the tavern to think you are in the pocket of local law enforcement?
And it can be much worse for some. Consider this story from a journalist who was seeking advice during a panel discussion I attended a few years back.
She was the only reporter at a small weekly newspaper. Her husband was hired to be the principal of the only school in the area. Her biggest source was the man she ate dinner with every night. She had no troubles writing about the new music program or award-winning students. But how could she give an unbiased report on poor graduation rates or the school’s drug problem? And even if she did, would the public believe it? Everyone in town knew they were married.
There are several ways to handle this problem, I told her. But none were good: Get a divorce, quit your dream of being a reporter and writer, or get another job an hour away and give up that time with your kids.
Which would you choose?
In this day and age, perception is reality. And the reality is that there can be conflicts of interest in almost every facet of life.
But that doesn’t mean journalists should go home after work and close off the rest of the world. If we do that, how can we be the eyes and ears of the public?
This is the part where I am supposed to impart some great wisdom on how to deal with such issues. Well, I don’t have any.
I could tell you to avoid talking to all sources unless you are on the clock. But talking to them is a great way to build that source. Besides, reporters are people, too. They want friends, and they want someone to join them for a beer after work. And let’s face it, the social life for a lot of young journalists is predicated on co-workers and people they meet in the community, which often are their sources.
Sure it is better if you can avoid this perceived conflict. But nobody can or should expect a reporter to cut off life outside of the office.
To help minimize the impact of conflicts of interests, I have two simple rules I always follow:
* If you feel like you might be too close to a source, you probably are.
* The only protection you have as a journalist is to always write the complete truth, even if it puts your source in a bad light. If you aren’t prepared to do that, it’s time to step back from the relationship or get out of the job.
Most of the time a happy balance can be achieved. Being able to surround yourself with family and friends who aren’t public officials certainly helps. But striking that balance is different for everyone. You just have to find it yourself.