The NYT public editor has a column today addressing whether a reporter had an actual conflict or the appearance of one. The issue had been raised in the Columbia Journalism Review. A reporter had a relationship with a speakers bureau whose other clients had an interest in what the reporter chose to cover. Also, the bureau sometimes pitched stories to the reporter on behalf of its other clients. I'm not interested in journalism ethics (acutally I am, but not here). The public editor said there was the appearance of a conflict in most of the instances cited but an actual conflict in only one. In that one, the reporter wrote a story after the speakers bureau pitched it. The distinction between an apparent conflict and an actual one is not useful. If there is an appearance of a conflict there is an actual conflict. If the reporter succumbs to the conflict by favoring the clients of the speakers bureau, that's not a conflict. It's a breach of trust. Judicial conflicts provide a good analogy. If a judge accepts free ballgame tickets from a lawyer appearing before her, that's a conflict, not merely the appearance of one. If she rules for the lawyer because she is thankful for the gift or wants more tickets, that's not a conflict. It's a crime.
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