The recent news about civil unions and gay marriage, here in Colorado and across the country, has sparked some interesting conversations with my fellow journalists about objectivity and conflicts of interest. A gay journalist here told me he felt strange reporting on Colorado’s civil unions bill and was unsure if he needed to recuse himself in some cases. That started me thinking and talking to other colleagues about how we as journalists should handle stories with connections to key parts of our identities – parts that we either cannot hide or should not be expected to hide. If a journalist is openly gay, will readers, viewers, or listeners believe he can report on civil unions in an unbiased manner? If that’s a valid question, the same issue could be raised for a black or Hispanic journalist reporting on the racial profiling bill in Congress. What about a practicing Catholic reporting on the abortion debate? We take great pains to hide our political and social beliefs from public view, but what happens when the very fact of who we are carries certain assumptions, right or wrong, about what those beliefs might be?
As with any other story, we as journalists should be honest with ourselves when faced with a situation like this, and we should step back if we feel too close to the topic to be able to report it objectively. I don’t believe, however, that we should be expected to automatically recuse ourselves. This is where the role of an editor becomes absolutely crucial. Reporters should always talk to their editors about possible conflicts at the story pitch stage, and the decision on whether to go forward with the coverage must be a joint one. The editor will also be able to provide crucial outside perspective throughout the reporting process, prodding the reporter to be even-handed in her investigations of both sides of the story. The editor also must be extra vigilant in the final edits, reading the story through the eyes of someone who might know the reporter’s religion, race, sexual orientation, etc and might therefore be looking for bias.
There is also the even thornier question of disclosure. A fellow journalist pointed out that many business reporters are required to disclose on air if they hold shares in any company they’re covering on any given day. Surely, he argued, something as personal as someone’s sexual orientation or race or religion would have as much or more influence on a journalist’s opinions and beliefs. Shouldn’t the audience have the right to know those things if they are relevant to the subject of the story?
I would argue, no — mainly because including such personal details about the reporter could threaten to overshadow the story itself. There is a point at which the value of disclosing any possible conflict of interest is outweighed by the need not to stray into the all-too-common territory of personality-driven journalism, in which the reporter becomes the story. I think this would cross that line.
In the end, as with most ethical dilemmas in journalism, the work should speak for itself. If the reporter and the editor have made a decision that the reporter can tell the story objectively; if the editor has committed to extra vigilance as the reporting goes forward; and if the editor certifies that the final product is the result of balanced investigative reporting and research and that it is presented fairly and accurately, it should be above reproach.