Nelson Dumais and Cyberpresse need to stand up for integrity

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?

5 thoughts on “Nelson Dumais and Cyberpresse need to stand up for integrity

  1. Mathieu

    Entirely, 100%ely in agreement with you. Wonder why you see so many Belkin products reviewed by tech journalists ? Belkin has great PR, in fact so great that they figured out it would be too expensive to have their products reshipped to them after the testing period… Way better to give them to the journalist/freelancer-whatever.

  2. JoLalo

    I’m not quite sure the idea you advance is the best out there; stopping the aforementioned practice would not benefit either of Gesca, Dumais nor the readers.

    The argument of talking about a company or a product more because it is an incontournable is the angular piece of both the CPQ’s decision and the fact that he should continue what he does. If Microsoft invites 500 journalists at an event showing off its new Windows, or Apple for a new iPod, there is no way he should miss these example events because smaller players like Ubuntu and Sansa MP3 players exist.

    If Dumais would have stopped receiving those free travels, he would not have traveled. Which, of course, means he would not have gotten the information he could have had (and transmitted to the general public). And as a freelancer, it means for him an opportunity missed.

    One thing, though, I do agree with the CPQ, and it slightly goes in the same direction of your personal opinion, is that Dumais should absloutely tell his readers, after each concerned text, if a company had paid his expenses to travel somewhere. It can be done professionnaly, without taking away credibility. As a matter of fact, I think on the contrary that it would show another piece of the puzzle that helps the readers judge by their own how biased or not the critic is towards the product.

  3. Papitibi

    You might have noticed, Flagstein, that, contrary to most readers, I did not agree with Nelson D.’s “misconduct”. And I did not agree with the way he reacted to the Press Council decision.

    Mr Dumais, and most of his readers, do think that the Press Council should not insist on full disclosure. I totally disagree.

    As a matter of fact, Dumais led his readers to ridicule this decision, which seems to me completely irresponsible. I do not understand why Cyberpresse’s law dept did not provide his free lance as well as paid chroniclers, more explicit directives.

    And when you say that “it’s not just about conflict of interest. It’s about the appearance of conflict.”, you’re absolutely right.

    PS: I have been a member of the Barreau du Québec for more than 30 years.

  4. Philippe-A

    When I covered the 40th anniversary of the St-Tite festival, with Andrée-Anne, for le JdeM, almost two years ago, we weren’t invited by the Festival. Sure they gave us all-access media pass to facilitate our work, but that’s it.

    We were both freelancer and the Journal paid for travel, hotel and food, for the whole week. I know St-Tite is not a very exotic destination but it’s the same principle.

    So his whole “I’m a freelancer” thing is pure bogus. If you can’t afford the trip as a freelancer than ask your boss. If he says no, then too bad and that’s the end of it.

    And just like you said, there’s a reason such trips exist and a reason such guidelines at Press corp exist. It does influence the way you write, if only slightly. Maybe not in that particular case with Dumais (case I’ve just read about here), but that’s the reason Andrée-Anne and I try to go incognito when we visit a bar for our column. Sure it’s possible to be just as critical when the cute barmaid buys you drinks… but it’s definitely harder.

    And again, like you said, the appereance of conflict of interest is just as important. It’s the reason why we don’t do a column on L’Assommoir, this bar I worked at for two years. I genuinely think it’s one of the nicest bar in town and there’s plenty of places I worked at that I hate, but readers don’t know that. All they know is that I worked there for a while, and funny coïncidence, my column is all positive.

  5. Jean Lussier

    Étant québécois, je suppose, j’attendais et recherchais une version francophone de tes savants commentaires.
    On dirait qu’on vit pas dans le même pays ou me serais-je trompé ?


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