Laying It All Out
Readers often see secret motives and hidden agendas in news stories and columns. In most cases, their suspicions are unfounded. But the perception is real.
One way to address it is transparency. In the aftermath of the “salons” controversy, The Post is updating its internal “Standards and Ethics” guidelines. When completed, they’ll be made public so readers can judge The Post against its own measurements of excellence.
But The Post might also consider having some of its writers offer a more detailed and personal sense of their ethics and how they operate. A model can be found on AllThingsD.com, a Web site -- owned by Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal -- that offers news, analysis and opinion on technology and the online world.
Co-executive editors Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, along with a small staff of writers and editors, have attached their own “Ethics Statement” to their online biographies on the site. They go a long way toward dispelling reader suspicions and building credibility.
Both Mossberg and Swisher begin theirs with: “Here is a statement of my ethics and coverage policies. It is more than most of you want to know, but, in the age of suspicion of the media, I am laying it all out.”
Mossberg, a Wall Street Journal veteran and one of the nation’s most influential technology writers, explains his role: “I am not an objective news reporter, and am not responsible for business coverage of technology companies. I am a subjective opinion columnist, a reviewer of consumer technology products and a commentator on technology issues.”
Then, he addresses notions that he might be influenced by those he covers. “I don’t accept any money, free products, or anything else of value, from the companies whose products I cover, or from their public relations or advertising agencies. I also don’t accept trips, speaking fees, or product discounts from companies whose products I cover, or from their public relations or advertising agencies. I don’t serve as a consultant to any companies, or serve on any corporate boards or advisory boards.”
Investments? “I don’t own a single share of stock in any of the companies whose products I cover, or any shares in technology-oriented mutual funds.”
All those electronic toys and gadgets he reviews? “The products I review are typically lent to me by their manufacturers for a few weeks or months. I return any products I am lent for review, except for items of minor value that companies typically don’t want back, such as computer mice or inexpensive software.” If he wants a product for personal use, “I buy it, at normal prices, or the Journal does.”
The ethics statement for Swisher, a former Post and Wall Street Journal reporter, is extraordinary in its detail about her personal life. She notes that her spouse, Megan Smith, is a top executive with Google. She then explains that a “substantial amount” of Smith’s income has come from Google shares and options, “some of which she has sold and some of which she still holds. Megan makes all her own decisions related to these shares and options, and I do not own or have future rights to own or control any of them.”
Swisher, who now is an independent contractor, goes on to explain that she still adheres to the Dow Jones Code of Conduct. Mossberg and other staffers do the same.
Dow Jones officials have told Swisher that her relationship with Smith does not preclude her from writing for the Web site. “While some may raise objections,” she writes, “Dow Jones feels the transparency will give readers a chance to judge my work on its merits.” Still, she acknowledges, “I know that I am asking for a large measure of trust from readers of the site, and I pledge to do everything I can to be deserving of that trust.”
Judging from the e-mails I receive, readers are especially curious about the ethics of those who review products, from cars to computers. They often want to know who foots the bill when a reporter travels with a candidate or who pays for the food critic’s meals at restaurants.
Mossberg, who lives in Washington, said today that the idea of personal “ethics statements” grew out of a desire to “be more transparent with readers” when AllThingsD.com was launched several years ago. It was a way to preempt those who “leap to the conclusion that you must be on someone’s payroll.”
Mossberg said “numerous” readers have expressed gratitude for the personal ethics statements.
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