A reporter’s paramount conflict of interest

By Kevin

This article was originally published in the Iowa State Daily on Monday, November 18, 1996.

The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that includes a section entitled “Act Independently.”
It says, “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” In addition, it states, “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
Consider this a full disclosure. Back on Friday, Nov. 1, Paramount Pictures tossed me one hell of a bone.
The studio was putting together a college media junket, and it wanted to send me out to Los Angeles, put me up for two nights in a hotel, show me previews of “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America” and “Star Trek: First Contact” and have me participate in group interviews with the talent behind the films. And Paramount would pay for it all, from air fare to lodging to meals.
After speaking with Paramount’s public-relations representative, it took me about a half-second to decide that I wanted to go.
And about a half-second later, a red flag went up in my brain. Any teacher of ethics in journalism would decry the acceptance of such largess as I and almost 100 other college journalists were about to receive. And the idea of accepting the offer of this trip certainly caused my conscience to rear its large and very ugly head.
The SPJ code mentioned above also says, “Journalists should refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment.” Ouch, babe.
I considered all of this after accepting the trip. And everyone I spoke to about it said the same thing: “Make sure you remain objective.” Believe me, objectivity was heavy on my mind, and I was having second thoughts about going.
But the Daily’s Lifestyles editor said go, our editor in chief said go and the general manager said go. So I said, “To hell with it. I’m going.”
And I made the right decision.
Why? There are many reasons:
First, let’s be honest about this. Only a fool would turn down a trip to Los Angeles during the opening stage of an Iowa winter. When I flew out of Des Moines on Friday, Nov. 8, it was 30 degrees. That night in Los Angeles, I wore shorts and took a swim in a huge outdoor pool.
Second, it was a chance for access to people we would never be able to interview here on campus. Really, how often does the cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or Mike Judge, the creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head,” swing through our city?
Third, it was a fantastic learning experience, especially in learning to deal with the interests of my publication, my readers and myself and also the interests of an outside group. The studio and its horde of public relations flacks definitely had an agenda, one we had to be aware of.
Fourth, it gave us some great material for interesting, entertaining feature articles, articles definitely of interest to a university community. Both shows that the movies are based on have strong followings on campus, and an article on each is of interest to more than a few readers.
Fifth, this is the college media. A mainstream publication would pay for a reporter’s expenses to go on such a trip. But the Daily and its cousins around the country don’t have the resources to pull that off. When a chance for access such as this comes up, it should be taken.
Finally, let’s be realistic; I’m reporting on a couple of movies. If I were reporting on problems with the B-2 bombers flight-control system, and this were a trip sponsored by Northrop-Grumman to fly to Los Angeles, stay in a top-notch hotel and tour the aircraft’s assembly plant, there truly would be a serious ethical problem.
Apparently, a good number of other major college newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations felt the same way about their readers’ interest in such information. And while there, we young journalists had spirited and healthy conversations about the ethical questions we found ourselves facing as a result of this trip.
Most of us came to the same conclusion, that the trip was justifiable for the reasons I have given. Some of my colleagues complained that Paramount was trying to buy us off. But you can only be bought if you are willing to be bought.
I enjoyed the Century Plaza Hotel, and I appreciated the fine lunch at the Four Seasons and I am certainly grateful that I was able to meet and interview the likes of Patrick Stewart and Mike Judge.
But I have a greater responsibility — to my readers. Your interests come before the interests of Paramount.
In fact, we just fought off a strong request to move the “Star Trek” feature’s break date up a few days. Sorry, Paramount. The trip was swell, but we make the editorial decisions here.
I assure you, the “Star Trek” review will be as hard-nosed as ever, and the feature accompanying it will be interesting but not a puffy public relations piece. Also, the feature article on “Beavis” in December will be equally direct.
Paramount will get its ink. But if it wants advertising, it will have to buy it. It won’t get ad copy from me. You deserve better.
Kirby is a senior in journalism and mass communication at Iowa State.