People are told since childhood to be cautious about the company they keep. Parents don’t want their children hanging with the proverbial bad kids or those known to make trouble. The old adage is important to remember as journalists and news organizations become increasingly involved with various collaborations.
Partnerships between journalists and news organizations are not new, of course. Collaborations and partnerships among the press are proven ways to lobby for more access and get to the bottom of a story.
After the 1976 murder of political and investigative reporter Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic, dozens of journalists and news organizations famously banded together under the name The Arizona Project to expose corruption in the state. The mission was to show people that killing a journalist doesn’t kill a story.
News organizations like ProPublica and other non-profits now thrive on collaborations, too. One recent partnership earned ProPublica and the New York Daily News the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for public service. Similarly, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting went to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, McClatchy and the Miami Herald for their work on the Panama Papers.
People may have valid concerns about these projects reducing competition and decreasing the number of stories, but journalists and news organizations working together is not necessarily a bad practice. In fact, it’s a reality of today’s world. As newsroom resources and funds become more scarce, the number of collaborations and partnerships will increase.
Journalists and news organizations should not blindly enter partnerships, however. A lot of consideration and examination should go into the decisions behind partnerships.
One good way to evaluate the worth of a partnership in the world of journalism is to see how it aligns with the spirit of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. The Code touches on getting information to the public, preventing unnecessary harm, and being independent, accountable and transparent. Perhaps an agreement is not in anyone’s best interest if a partnership takes journalists away from these missions.
For example, does the partnership in some way tie the hands of journalists and keep information or data from reaching the public? Does the system allow the journalists and news organization to maintain editorial control? Or, does the agreement lead journalists away from covering already underrepresented members of a community?
Journalists and news organizations should also realize that not all partnerships are created equal. A partnership with ProPublica or another non-profit news organization may be a proverbial no-brainer, but a partnership with a private for-profit company may require additional scrutiny.
Private companies, especially social media companies, are starting to interact more and more with news organizations. During the 2016 election, Sinclair Broadcast Group announced a partnership with a mobile video company so its viewers could share video from polling places. Twitter has long partnered with news organizations for live events. Facebook also continues to push for more engagement with newsrooms.
Private companies obviously have different aims than their partner news organizations. A social media company’s primary mission may not be to inform the public. Instead, they may be more interested in getting users added to platforms.
Additionally, private companies tend to be much more secretive than news organizations. Facebook, for example, is known well for its secrecy. Journalists and news organizations should be transparent with the public, but that might not be possible if a social media company demands secrecy from its partner.
Journalists involved in negotiating partnerships and deals need to do their due diligence when evaluating agreements. As they do in their day-to-day jobs, journalists need to be gatekeepers to protect, preserve and defend public enlightenment. ***
Andrew M. Seaman is chairperson of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a health reporter for Reuters. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman