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The Independent Journalist
May 11, 2015

The journalist’s greatest loyalty is to the public. This means avoiding conflicts of interest that could compromise his or her ability to act independently.

This section — part of an ongoing series on media law — examines how journalists can remain free of undue influence.

Dos and Dont’s

Journalists should not accept gifts, fees, tickets or other goods or services from news sources. Review copies of books, music or movies should be donated to charity unless there is a reason to keep them for future reporting. Be wary of travel offers that are disguised attempts to persuade a reporter to write enthusiastically about something. News organizations should pay to send staff to cover events. If this is not possible, a disclaimer should be included in the story.

Journalists should not endorse products in return for compensation. The editorial and advertising sides of the news business should be kept separate. Advertisements should be clearly labeled so there is no possibility of confusing an ad with a news report or commentary.

A journalist’s membership in clubs, associations, political parties or religious groups can create a conflict of interest. Some news organizations prohibit certain kinds of political or philanthropic activities. Most forbid journalists to report on organizations with which they or close family members are affiliated. Affiliations can be interpreted as bias. If a conflict of interest is unavoidable, it should be disclosed.

Many news organizations have special rules for reporters who cover business and finance. Journalists should not write about companies in which they own stock, particularly if their reporting might influence the stock market and benefit them personally. They should tell editors what financial instruments they and their families own.

Just as journalists should not accept payments intended to influence news coverage, they should not offer payments to news subjects. To the observer, news that has been “bought and paid for” is suspect. In certain situations, such as when a source is asked to travel to a particular location to appear on a radio or television program, it may be appropriate to reimburse reasonable expenses for meals, travel and lodging.

Covering Government

Reporting on government raises particularly difficult challenges. The public expects journalists to act as watchdogs, guarding against improper government behavior. But the pressure to be patriotic can be great. Sometimes journalists are asked to report propaganda as truth in the interest of protecting “national security.”

When editorial decisions conflict with government wishes, news organizations can be criticized for substituting their own judgment for that of elected officials. This can arise when the government claims that there is a compelling need for secrecy about intelligence and law enforcement matters.

These are difficult calls. A guiding principle is that a journalist’s loyalty is to the public, not to a particular government or regime. No journalist wants to harm his community or country. But governments may be tempted to suppress critical reporting by claiming it could damage public safety or national security.

Reporters can respect these claims, but also be skeptical. They can give government officials an opportunity to explain why a particular story might endanger lives or a specific national interest. But journalists should scrutinize those in power and hold them accountable.

Sometimes, the most patriotic thing a journalist can do is question authority.

Other parts in this series include Being Accountable to the Public and Objectivity in the News.

(Adapted from an article published in the Media Law Handbook by the Bureau of International Information Programs. Download the complete Media Law Handbook [PDF, 2.6MB].)