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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Is Double Dipping Ethical?

I received the following note from a journalism student who has been assigned a class project about conflict of interest.

The student asked me for my take on it. Here is the problem the student received:

You've just been transferred off the medicine and health beat for a Toronto daily and are now writing about municipal politics.

You get a call from a contact at the Canadian Medical Association, who asks you if you will write, anonymously, a brief to be presented to the federal government advocating the privatization of selected sorts of medical services now covered by medicare.  Medicine is an area you know well.

The CMA will pay you $15,000 to write this brief, and you can do it in your spare time in less than a month.  You are behind on your mortgage and, despite repeated attempts by your union to increase salaries at your very profitable paper, they rank well behind some other unionized papers in smaller, and less expensive Canadian cities.

You'd never realized that contract writers for lobby groups earned such large fees, but your contact tells you this is quite a standard rate.  She says it can be a very lucrative line of work, but adds that anyone considering it 'shouldn't quit their day job until they've built up a bit of a track record, because no one wants to hire someone who hasn't proven themselves.'

Do you accept the CMA offer?  Why?

Here is my response:

First as a reporter, your primary obligation is to your employer. S/he should know that you have been approached. There should be no double-dipping. It is unethical and compromises your journalistic independence. If your editor says s/he doesn't mind, find another line of work. This reveals a lack of standards at your newspaper.

Second, there is no such thing as anonymity when it comes to lobby groups. Even if they claim that everything will be kept confidential, how do you know?

Third, there may come a time when the lobby group may ask for another favor that is more difficult to do. But you have taken their money once. What's to stop the lobby group from making your previous relationship public?

Finally, you have to choose whether you prefer to make the big bucks as a hired hack or whether you still think journalism has some value.

You could of course, do the work, and give the money to a charity, but once you have taken the money, you are caught and are henceforth in the paid service of the lobby group. They don't care what you do with the money. The point is, you took it and now you are on their hook.

Conclusion? You could do it, but there are real and long lasting consequences.

                                              *                *                 *

As I thought about it, I wondered why this was deemed to be an ethical issue at all? It seems very straight-forward to me. Is there something more nuanced here that I have overlooked?

It reminded me that when I was NPR's ombudsman some years ago, I was approached by a large California based p.r. firm. I was asked to give a speech on accountability to the annual general meeting of a major defense contractor.

The speaking fee was enormous (by NPR standards). I said I would do it, but I said that I wouldn't/couldn't accept the money, nor the plane ticket (first class) nor the boutique hotel reservation. I told them I would be happy to come.

Two days later, the offer to speak was withdrawn.

Evidently, there are strings attached everywhere, even if they aren't apparent at first.

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