On conflict of interest

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June 30, 2010

3:52 PM

We knew we would have issues publishing our June 29 story on Olivia Walch ’11, who was recently selected by The Washington Post as one of five finalists for its “America’s Next Great Cartoonist” competition. Conflict of interest is one of the biggest issues news sources have to deal with in these times when public trust in the media ranges from minimal to nonexistent.

For collegiate papers, this issue remains especially difficult. College newspapers report to artificially small populations, where students are likely to be involved — and show exemplary service — in multiple arenas. If then a student happens to be a member of the student media who commits to something worthy of press attention, how is the media to react?

For the paper to report on Olivia, a long-term staff member of The Flat Hat, has the potential to represent an immediate conflict of interest, presenting a difficult catch-22: If the story lauded her full involvement with The Flat Hat, not only would it appear self-promoting and make a weaker story, but readers would overlook her own accomplishments in reading it. On the other hand, if the story were to completely overlook her long-term involvement — going on four years of cartooning with the paper — it could be seen as callous and uncaring.

The fact of the matter is we at the paper could not be happier for Olivia when the results for this competition were announced. It means tremendous things for her both professionally and personally, and the culmination of a long-term goal.

However, we did not wish for this sentiment to cloud the readers’ judgment in viewing the story, and as such looked to avoid conflict of interest to the greatest extent possible. A writer was selected who did not have personal ties to Olivia, an act which exempted much of the staff as Olivia’s presence on the paper is one widely felt and appreciated. A story was written that pushed as much as possible the story with an external perspective. Though cartooning with The Flat Hat certainly gave per practice, Olivia’s involvement with the paper did not directly lead her to this competition. She found it herself, applied herself, and submitted herself. When the competition’s results proved favorable, it was as much a story as if any other member of the College of William and Mary community had been selected as a finalist.

Though she already happened to be a member of the media, we did not think this precluded her from coverage. But for the story to spend time detailing and commending her involvement with The Flat Hat — in The Flat Hat — we felt was simply unprofessional. As such, these details were omitted.

For accountability and full disclosure of potential conflict of interest, an editor’s note was appended to the article explaining her involvement with the paper. However, because we felt this story revolved around her accomplishments, and not the paper’s, the focus remained on her.

Stories such as these present difficulties for any newspaper: witness The Washington Post’s recent coverage of a journalistic scandal surrounding pay-to-attend events hosted by its own publisher, or the Bristol Herald Courier’s reporting on its own — historic — Pulitzer Prize win.

As readers, what do you think is the best way to handle these situations?

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