Tuesday, December 30, 2008

ProPublica and Conflicts-of-Interest

Hmmm. In a lengthy piece that was otherwise mostly about Herb and Marion Sandler, the New York Times reported last week that Paul Steiger, the editor-in-chief of ProPublica, contacted Lorne Michaels at NBC to protest an utterly tasteless, wickedly funny and potentially libelous skit on Saturday Night Light. The skit depicted the Sandlers, who are the major funders of ProPublica, as corrupt peddlers of predatory mortgages and "people who should be shot."

Okay, so SNL clearly went too far with the "people who should be shot" bit. But the New York Times piece by Michael Moss and Geraldine Fabrikant does make you wonder if maybe the Sandlers should go to jail.

At any rate, NBC pulled the full video from its site and substituted a redacted version that leaves out the Sandler segment entirely--not just the offensive "should be shot" title--but the whole thing. The conservative blogosphere had a field day with this when the flap first occurred in October. But Steiger's role, as far as I can tell, did not come out until last week.

And that's the part that interests me the most at the moment. I'm also teaching a class next May and June on journalistic judgment, although it's about science, health and environment reporting.

Every form of journalism has to deal with conflicts of interest--no matter where the money comes from to pay for it. There is nothing about being a nonprofit organization that earns you a free pass.

This was very clear to me last spring while I was researching and developing a business plan for launching a global health news service. And yet, I was surprised at how much pushback I got on this issue.

This is not rocket science. I am sure that ProPublica has a conflict-of-interest policy for its individual news staff. They should also come up with a policy for its coverage and comments about the Sandlers. Then, they should post their conflict of interest policies on their web site (that section on "privacy policy and other terms" looks about right) and move on.

Ditto for news organizations that take Gates Foundation money to cover global health.

Oh yeah, and as more advocacy groups engage in journalism, they are going to have to come up with their own policies on conflicts of interest.

As for my own potential conflicts: I am a freelancer and former TIME Magazine writer who is passionate about global health and would like to be paid for what she writes. (Believe me, AdSense is not the way to make money in this business.)

Although advertising paid for my salary at TIME, my contacts with the business side were severely limited. In addition, I do not directly own any pharmaceutical or biotech stock. I do not take consulting fees from same. My Nieman Fellowship was paid for by the Gates Foundation but they had no say in my Malawi project.

Writing it down like that is a good reminder.

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