If I tell you who I'm sleeping with, will you respect me more, or less?
Last month, when a news outlet called PandoDaily.com launched in Silicon Valley to report on the start-up tech scene there, its founder Sarah Lacy announced in a blog post that her new venture would be funded by some of the very same people and companies she intended to cover.
But don't worry, she insisted: There would be no conflicts of interest, because she had so many backers – including 10 powerful and wealthy folks like Netscape co-founder and Facebook board member Marc Andreessen, along with seven investment funds holding stakes in dozens of companies – that no single supporter could possibly influence the site's editorial coverage.
The post sparked a brief discussion among commenters on the site, but most readers who knew Lacy from her previous gig at the respected tech news website TechCrunch said they saw no problem with the arrangement.
This happened about a day or two after a report that Drew Pinsky – the physician of Celebrity Rehab fame and host of a nightly prime-time show on CNN's HLN network – had been paid $115,000 (U.S.) by Janssen Pharmaceuticals for "consulting services." The payment was for helping out on one of the company's anti-addiction initiatives. The story got no traction outside a couple of journalism blogs.
Conflicts of interest, which used to be the third rail of journalism, now seem to have become like herpes instead: something you disclose if you want to build a real relationship, but maybe not if a brief assignation is all you've got in mind. And in an age when people are blithely receiving information straight from politicians and companies – Starbucks has a direct channel to 28-million latte lovers through its Facebook page, who can decide for themselves whether they agree with the message – perhaps it's only crusty journalism profs who care about such things.
Heather Harde, who until recently was the president of TechCrunch, thinks readers and viewers are much more adept at sniffing out bias than most old-fashioned conflict-of-interest guidelines recognize.
"The sense of objectivity is sort of false to begin with," she said in an interview on Thursday. "So your primary obligation as a writer is to disclose conflicts, whether: 'This is a co-founder who happens to be a really close friend of mine,' or 'This is a company in which I'm an angel investor' – or whatever those breadcrumbs are.
"Our sense is that readers are savvy, and that they'll either then choose to credit or discredit your writing based on your disclosures, and if you're not honest and true with your audience over time, our strong belief was those people will go away. It's a very competitive market and there are lots of places to read tech news, and so if we're not mostly right most of the time, readership easily goes elsewhere."
She was speaking about Silicon Valley, where personal and professional ties are terribly knotty, but her words had wider significance about general-interest reporting. "There are all sorts of ways that people are conflicted – sometimes even more by friendships than financial investments that they make," she said.
Indeed. Facing a conflict-of-interest accusation that bordered on pillow talk, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently responded with a collective shrug.
Last March, Rebecca Scott, who was then the fiancée (and is now the wife) of CBC's British Columbia legislative reporter Stephen Smart, took a job as the deputy press secretary for premier Christy Clark. A viewer complained, and the corporation's ombudsman issued a report last month in which he found the arrangement contravened CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. "Smart can report with integrity, and CBC's protocol can combine disclosure and recusal, but the pervasive appearance of a conflict of interest will continually challenge their reputations," noted Kirk Lapointe.
The CBC's editor-in-chief, Jennifer McGuire, responded last week with a blog post in which she insisted measures were in place to prevent a conflict. Smart will not cover stories "in which Rebecca Scott is the principal or sole spokesperson" or a primary source, wrote McGuire.
During a discussion with the Globe's editorial board last week, CBC president Hubert Lacroix agreed it was an imperfect situation, but one the corporation was willing to live with. "Those are things that happen, we have conflict-of-interest policies, it's not something that's ideal," he said. "On this situation, we agree to disagree."
Simon Houpt is The Globe and Mail's senior media writer.