A few weeks ago, Cyberpresse technology blogger Nelson Dumais had a curious post on his blog attacking the Quebec Press Council. It seems the Conseil de presse du Québec had issued a decision which blamed him for accepting free trips, a violation of the council's code of ethics.
The situation is somewhat nuanced, so let me explain:
The council only acts based on complaints. In this case, a reader who has a beef with Dumais accused him of being biased in favour of corporate software and against free software, because of these free junkets he went on. The complainant also accuses Dumais of censoring his comments on Dumais's blog. The council rejected both of these complaints, failing to find any bias in Dumais's work and ruling that Dumais has the authority to moderate his blog as he sees fit.
But the council did give Dumais a slap on the wrist for accepting free travel sponsored by the companies he writes about, without fully disclosing the trips to his readers. He hasn't hidden the fact that he gets these trips for free, he even wrote a blog post about it in 2006, but since not all readers will have seen that post, he should disclose it whenever there might be a conflict of interest.
Paid travel is listed as an example in the council's section on responsibilities of the press to avoid conflicts of interest:
Preventing Conflicts of Interest
The Press Council recommends that media enterprises develop clear policies to prevent and deal with conflict of interest situations. Those policies should apply both to reporters and opinion writers. All situations that risk compromising the independence and impartiality of journalists should be addressed. Examples include paid travel, privileges and gifts, as well as awards and prizes offered by any group whose main purpose is to promote something other than journalism.
It acknowledges that there might be exceptions (reporting from war zones or other far-off places where commercial travel is unfeasible), but that there must be full disclosure in those situations.
Of course, these are all guidelines. The council has no official power. It cannot fine or discipline journalists for violations, and participation in the council is optional.
So a body with no power has mostly cleared Dumais of wrongdoing, only saying that he should disclose where the companies he writes about give him free travel to their junkets. Simple, right?
Obviously not, because Dumais is pissed. And I must be missing something, because most of his readers are too, and even fellow journalists.
Dumais's argument is also nuanced. First of all, he's not on staff at La Presse or Cyberpresse. He's a freelancer, which means he basically has to look after his own expenses.
He also trots out that well-worn of excuses that everybody else does it, so that makes it okay.
Finally, he adds that in no way have these junkets affected how he reports, and requiring disclosure on every piece he writes would give people the false impression that these companies are paying him for his opinion.
But none of these excuses justifies accepting all-expenses-paid trips from software companies, much less deciding not to disclose them fully.
First of all, as any ethics expert will tell you, it's not just about conflict of interest. It's about the appearance of conflict.
Second, if these junkets truly had absolutely no effect on how journalists report, they would not exist. These giant software companies aren't morons. They know if they give you free food and free travel, you're a lot more likely to talk about their product. There might not be any direct quid pro quo, but they know you're a lot more likely to say something positive about them. And if you have a reputation as someone who bashes the products promoted on these junkets, you won't be invited to them in the future.
Finally, Cyberpresse should not be exploiting freelancers as a way of getting around paying expenses. Dumais is right that if he billed Gesca for all these trips, he wouldn't be allowed to go on them anymore (an argument that makes it clear these trips are of value to him). But if we accept that journalists should not get free travel, then even freelancers should have their expenses paid for, no questions asked. This judgment is as much a stain on Gesca as it is on Dumais.
Dumais says he doesn't have a choice in this matter. That's bullshit. He can refuse these junkets. He just doesn't want to, and neither does Cyberpresse, because they both (indirectly) profit financially from them.
Dumais and Cyberpresse must put an immediate stop to this, and stand up for journalistic integrity. These junkets should be outright banned, Dumais's previous articles online should be edited to add disclosure statements to them, and a policy should be setup to ensure that freelancers do not feel they have to deal with their own expenses when they write original pieces for Gesca-owned properties. Other media organizations should follow suit with similar policies, including full disclosure of any gifts, sponsorships, favours or expenses paid for by companies seeking favourable coverage.
Someone must stand up for ethics, even if that means he stands alone.
If Frank Zampino is getting raked over the coals for accepting a yacht trip that he paid for, why should Nelson Dumais be allowed to accept trips that were provided for free? Do we expect stronger ethics in politicians than journalists?