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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Conflict of Interest as a Student Journalist

Bella Rios

Bella Rios was a 2018-2019 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Nadia is a student journalist and an active volunteer for the student organization dedicated to social activism and service learning. She participates regularly in one of their programs that advocates on behalf of the dignified livelihoods of workers.

This program is organizing a protest to raise awareness about the working conditions of the school’s custodial staff. Nadia’s editor, Christian, asks her to write this story. Nadia hesitates.

Nadia is not participating in the protest, but she knows people who are, and considers several of them her friends. Her involvement in the club will make it easier to find sources. People are likely to answer her questions honestly, which would make the interviews more compelling. She is also knowledgeable about the organization and the protest compared to someone without expertise writing the story; her familiarity can contribute to an extensive and detailed article.

However, she thinks it is important to treat all sources in an impartial and fair manner, and wonders if she can be impartial in this case. She will need to be professionally skeptical, and diligent about verifying information received and gathering diverse perspectives when asking questions and selecting quotes from her sources.  

Nadia worries that her personal convictions and ties to the organization might unintentionally affect her news coverage. As a student journalist, she wants to build trust among her readers and disclose relevant information about her reporting. If readers learned about her ties to the organization, would that damage her credibility as a fair and objective reporter?

Discussion Questions

1. Should Nadia accept this assignment?
2. How do we define conflict of interest? Do Nadia’s friendships and sympathies constitute a conflict of interest?
3. Is it possible to write objectively about a cause or organization that involves your friends?
4. Are news sources obligated to disclose potential conflict of interests? Does transparency, such as including an editor’s note disclosing the friendship, serve as a remedy?

Jun 7, 2019