In our current era of ‘new media,’ where everyone has a blog, including journalists and non-journalists, and some blogs get equal if not bigger audiences as mainstream media, the line between journalism and non-journalistic opinion is blurring. When I teach media relations, I usually say that journalists are subject to a code of ethics, and accountable to their editors and publishers, whereas bloggers are generally accountable only to their readers, so if people will read what they write, they can say what they want. In PR, we too have a code of ethics, although one need not subscribe to it if one is not a member of a PR association, which you don’t have to be in order to do communications. And now that we all have a forum (online) to publish opinions, it can be hard to tell if a writer is subject to one of these sets of rules or not.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that sometimes a conflict comes to light, where a journalist is accused of playing both sides of the fence. Even if it’s only the appearance of conflict, there is a public expectation of neutrality from mainstream media that seems to call for a higher standard of ethics. As with the situation where a PR agency tried to pay journalists working at mainstream media outlets to write favourable blog posts about a client, the ethical line isn’t always clear, but the public expectations on the ethics of mainstream journalism is clear.
Take the case of Amanda Lang, a business host on CBC TV, who was accused of being in conflict of interest on stories about RBC and the bank’s use of foreign workers because she has been paid by RBC to give speeches, and because her boyfriend is on the RBC board.
Lang was accused of interfering in the reporting of a big CBC news story, both at the network and through an op-ed she wrote in the Globe and Mail. While her take on the RBC story was more pro-RBC than the position of the reporting team at CBC’s Go Public, the real accusation is that her take on the story resulted because she has been paid by RBC for speeches, and because she’s dating someone at the bank. As the Globe and Mail summed up:
“At issue is a series of allegations… – denied by Lang and the CBC – first, that Lang had a number of paid speaking engagements for a corporation whose representatives she later interviewed in a softball manner on CBC; second, that Lang attempted to diminish CBC’s coverage of the revelation that Royal Bank of Canada was laying off Canadians and replacing them with foreign workers; and, third, that her involvement in the story was tainted by both personal and professional connections to RBC.”
Lang defended her actions and CBC backed her up, but the appearance of conflict still hangs over her. No one comes out and says RBC paid her directly to influence CBC’s coverage of the bank, but since they sponsored some of her speeches, from which she benefit financially, the implication is that she did exactly that. And that taint still follows her. Google her name and the stories about the allegations of conflict are all over the first page of results. The Globe’s TV columnist called for her to resign.
“It’s time for Lang to get down off her high horse and go away. This is about the CBC’s reputation, not hers, which is already in tatters.”
The CBC took, and is still taking, flack for it’s defence of Lang. Part of the fallout for CBC, which is still facing public criticism of its handling of the Jian Ghomeshi situation, is that CBC has now banned its on-air journalists from accepting paid speaking gigs. At least now that’s clear, right?
Lang wrote another op-ed in the Globe to defend herself, and said:
“In retrospect, I see that I allowed this circumstance to develop, by assuming that my integrity would not be questioned if I accepted speaking fees from business associations and companies…I support CBC’s decision to change its policy, and I will no longer accept paid appearances, and in fact began refusing payment several weeks ago.”
So her thinking seems to have been that she knew she didn’t do anything wrong, so was shocked when anyone accused her of wrongdoing. Perhaps not her best approach at apologizing and regaining public trust.
But the real issue isn’t just about paid appearances, it’s about ethics and avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest, and how we hold mainstream media organizations and their journalists to a higher standard. A blogger might have been let off more easily, but not the CBC. Kathy Tomlinson, the reporter who broke the RBC story said:
“As a result of this, many people – including me – are asking one simple question. Why it is ever OK to have any perceived conflict of interest, under any circumstances? This is not about Amanda Lang. It is about the long standing belief most journalists have – that conflicts should be avoided at all costs or explicitly declared up front.”