Journalism's World of Do-It-Yourself Ethics

A research firm working on behalf of the oil industry is offering DC journalists more than $500 an hour to share how they "feel about policy." The real story is how many reporters could freely say yes to that offer.

Paul Farhi reports that a firm called PFC Opinion Research, employed by oil and gas interests, is offering various DC journalists "$250 for about 25 minutes of answering questions." He quotes a journalism ethicist calling it a "red flag," but at the end of the story he notes that PFC has already found six takers (whose names won't be released) for their offer. The director of the research firm even tries to spin it so that reporters have an ethical duty to participate: "It's ironic that journalists depend on people to give them their opinions but aren't as forthcoming with their own," he says.

That's bullshit, of course. Taking $250 from representatives of an industry that you presumably cover in order to help them formulate their PR or lobbying strategy is a clear conflict of interest. But the reality is that lots of journalists say yes to these offers, for many reasons: it's easy money, it's presented in a way that doesn't always make the ethical drawbacks readily apparent, and, most importantly, the majority (I'd estimate) of reporters work at places that don't have formal policies against this sort of thing.

Major newspapers and major news magazines and major TV news outlets would probably have a written policy that contains some sort of language prohibiting taking money from those you cover. But the majority of reporters in America don't work for that relative handful of news outlets prestigious enough to go to all that trouble. I'm willing to bet that most journalists at, say, trade magazines, smaller local newspapers, superspecialized niche publications, and targeted blogs—reporters whose opinions could be very valuable to those specialized industries they cover—have never been presented with a formal written policy outlining exactly what constitutes a conflict of interest, and what sorts of things they are and aren't allowed to accept. Most smaller news outlets are too busy putting out the news with a tiny staff to worry about things like that. I speak from experience; I've never seen a formal, in-house, written journalism ethics policy in my career. (If there was one, nobody made a fuss about pointing it out to me in the unread employee handbook.) And I've received several solicitations over the years from various marketing or research firms to participate in paid surveys similar to the one the WaPo writes about today. I've never done it, but lots of others certainly have, without a peep from their employers. Otherwise, those research firms wouldn't keep making the offers.

Most editors don't enjoy the luxury of a vast amount of free time and resources. They have a tight, demanding schedule, and they're understaffed. They either assume that their reporters know enough themselves to always be ethical, or they really don't care; they have more pressing things to worry about. And that's just how PR firms like it.

[Photo: Shutterstock. Are you a reporter? Does your employer have a formal, written ethics policy, or not? Email me and let me know.]