Conflicts of interest hurt credibility

Given the ferocity and persistence of the debate over the integrity of the Student Services Fees Committee and the process through which its members were selected, it was probably inevitable that the Daily would be pulled into the fray.
Few public issues are discussed in this country without one side or the other — sometimes both — claiming to have suffered some injustice by the news media. But while many of these insiders overstate the media’s role in their misfortune, others actually provide valuable critiques. Unfortunately, because they come from self-interested participants, reporters are quick to dismiss them.
On Feb. 3, in the latest twist in the fees committee controversy, four University students accused five members of the committee of deliberately failing to disclose their past connections with Students Against Fees Excess so they would not be perceived as biased. Because SAFE is opposed to default funding of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, the complaint urged the committee to prevent members with SAFE ties from voting on MPIRG funding requests.
In a Feb. 16 letter to the editor, and in subsequent phone conversations, SAFE member Jo Janssens savaged the Daily for its coverage of the issue, in particular its Feb. 7 and 10 stories.
Janssens claimed the stories were inaccurate and biased, and that the reporter, Travis Reed, had a direct conflict of interest that tainted his objectivity.
While Janssens clearly has a personal interest in this matter, and while his letter was not without hyperbole — “The stories might as well have been written directly by MPIRG supporters” — a few of his points have merit.
Janssens is correct that Reed had a conflict of interest. As Janssens pointed out in his letter, Reed has been a contributing writer for Statewatch, an MPIRG publication. Reed said he only contributed two items to the publication, he did so only to help a friend and he was never paid. Still, his contributions could lead readers to believe that he has a stake in the organization’s causes, or that he might see some reward for positive coverage of MPIRG.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics says reporters should “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility,” and that they should “avoid conflicts, real or perceived.”
Reed cannot continue to maintain an association, however limited, with MPIRG if he is going to continue to cover issues like transportation and the environment — his current beat — or student government. Reed has said, in fact, that he will no longer contribute to Statewatch.
But even if he no longer contributes to Statewatch, has he become so tainted by his past association that he cannot credibly cover political issues? No.
There are some people who become so closely tied to an issue that they can never fully cleanse themselves in the public’s mind. Animal rights activist Matt Bullard could never get a job at the Daily covering the Medical School.
But Reed’s limited association with MPIRG — if it remains a past association — should not disqualify him from covering every issue in which MPIRG might have some tangential interest. But Reed will have to avoid any issue in which MPIRG has a more substantial role, and particularly, as here, where they are one of the principal participants.
Reed and his editor have already made such an arrangement.
As for the content of the stories, Janssens had a problem, as did I, with the last sentence of the Feb. 10 story. Reed wrote, “… Jared Christiansen, a former Minnesota Student Association presidential candidate, who ran under the statement, ‘Stop MPIRG from stealing your money,’ will head the subcommittee entertaining MPIRG’s funding proposal.”
This is an amazing fact. It says a lot, but it should not have been left dangling. It needed a response from someone on the committee — ideally Christiansen himself. Without that, it read like an editorial statement. It may not have been motivated by bias, but it left the impression that Reed was trying to provoke our sense of outrage.
Janssens also notes that Reed failed to mention that two of the accusing students were themselves rejected committee members. Janssens is right that this should have been noted, because it suggests a possible motive for the complaint.
Janssens’ other criticisms were less compelling. He identified several minor factual errors and omissions and suggested that they revealed Reed’s biases.
His prime example of Reed’s impartiality was Reed noted that one of the accusing students was once an MPIRG member but is no longer, while he failed to mention that none of the accused committee members are currently associated with SAFE.
It’s true that Reed wasn’t explicit about this, but it should have been clear to readers when Reed wrote earlier, “… five of the 13 students have been involved with SAFE,” and that the “students say those committee members formerly involved with SAFE cannot be objective.”
Janssens is also correct in noting that Reed failed to make clear why the student complaint was evaluated by the selection committee instead of the fees committee itself. Because the head of the committee and several members were the subjects of the complaint, it was forwarded to the selection committee for its investigation to avoid any conflicts. But even if the inclusion of this information would have added to the story, its absence did not prejudice the story.
Reed’s stories on the fees committee complaint were flawed in some respects, but the errors were not egregious.
Still, Reed and all Daily reporters need to apply special scrutiny to their stories, particularly ones involving hot political issues, to purge them of any statements that might be perceived as unfair, or as making editorial statements. And they must, together with their editors, eliminate — or at least acknowledge and account for — any associations or connections that might arouse the distrust of readers.
Erik Ugland’s column appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments about the Daily or his columns at [email protected]