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Thursday
Sep222011

Conflicts of Interest or Conflict of Ideals?

In a piece in yesterday’s Daily Caller, I pointed out that the media has focused like a laser on reporting any conflicts of interest in public and private figures in the news. Is it high-minded journalism? Or is it a device to degrade the credibility of a source whose opinion the reporter disfavors? Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to investigate whether the strict standards are applied equally across the board. 

Look no further than New York Times journalist Ian Urbina’s recent investigative series on shale natural gas. (Radical environmental groups have spent (and raised) millions of dollars to oppose fracking, a method of extracting the gas from a huge oil field which includes upstate New York.)  In his reporting, Mr. Urbina not only fails to disclose conflicts of interest amongst his sources (who are critical of fracking), but frames the article in such a way that raise serious questions about his own impartiality.

Compare the Times’ own guidelines, with Mr. Urbina’s reporting:
 

The New York Times Standards:
Reporters will “distinguish conscientiously between high-level and lower level executives or officials.”

Ian Urbina Violation:
Anonymously cited intern/junior engineer C. Hobson Bryan III as a ‘federal energy analyst,’ an ‘official’ and an “energy analyst.’

The New York Times Standards:
Reporters will “not say ‘other officials’ when quoting someone who has already been cited by name.”

Ian Urbina Violation:
Both Art Berman and Deborah Rogers were sourced by name and then anonymously in the same story.

The New York Times Standards:
Sources will be identified by “name and title”.

Ian Urbina Violation:
In his report about financial markets and natural gas, he cites Deborah Rogers as a “member of the advisory committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas” and “a former stockbroker with Merrill Lynch.” These are grossly misleading, as her only relationship with the natural gas industry is as an opponent in her role as a goat farmer and cheese artisan, her current occupation.

The New York Times Standards:
“The Times does not dissemble about its sources – does not, for example, refer to a single person as ‘sources’.”

Ian Urbina Violation:
Mr. Urbina assigned multiple terms of attribution to his three key sources which left readers with the false and misleading impression that he was quoting more than 10 different sources.

If that isn’t bad enough, the paper itself now also seems to have ignored these ethics guidelines, as the paper’s standards editor refuses to open an investigation despite these clear violations.

While the papers’ public editor has penned not just one, but two stories critical of the reporting, the real editors of the paper have stood by Mr. Urbina.  But, excuse the mixed metaphor, his slaps on the wrist have no teeth.The public editor is essentially an in-house media critic that the Times is using to deflect, rather than accept the criticism.

As I wrote,

The saga illustrates how selective reporting of conflicts of interests is simply brass-knuckle advocacy under the guise of journalism.

 

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