The New York Times vs. Freelancers: Who’s Unethical?

It is a relatively narrow issue of journalistic ethics, but it illustrates how complicated apparently simple ethics issues can be, especially when it involves appearances.

Let’s let Clark Hoyt, the Times’ internal ethics watchdog, tell the story:

“Mary Tripsas, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, has been writing a monthly column in The Times called “Prototype,” about corporate innovation, her academic specialty. Last Sunday, she highlighted the 3M Company’s customer innovation center at its headquarters in St. Paul. Today, an editor’s note in the paper says that, had The Times known that 3M paid Tripsas’ expenses to Minnesota in November, the column would not have been published as it was written. Tripsas violated a policy against accepting travel or anything else of value from the subjects of coverage. She will no longer be writing for The Times.”

He goes on to say that Tripsas accepted an invitation to take a plant tour at 3M before the Times assignment was made.

Over on her own blog, writer and former Times columnist Virginia Postel takes issue with the Times policy, arguing that the Times unethically “freeloads” off of free-lancers like Tripsas, expecting them or their employers to pay research costs that the Times would have to pay if the same story were handled by a staffer. She saw nothing sinister about the 3M trip Tripsas took, or the fact that she wrote her column about 3M following it:

“The Times is operating under “the false assumption” that companies pay speaking or consulting fees to professors or authors in order to influence their future writing, rather than to learn from them. In the case of Tripsas’s 3M tour, a business school professor’s job is to understand and improve business practices, so for that purpose, as opposed to column research, who covers expense in immaterial.”

Who is right? Ethically, it is Hoyt. It is not enough that a newspaper’s reporters be unbiased and objective. They also must appear unbiased and objective, just like judges and public officials. Postel is almost certainly correct that the earlier 3M tour taken by Professor Tripsas only helped her write a better article, and in no way induced her to be more positive about the company as a quid pro quo for the paid trip. From the Times’ perspective, however, as a news organization that must protect its integrity, it isn’t who paid for the trip that is immaterial, but the motive for and influence of the earlier benefit conveyed to Tripsas by the subject of the article, 3M. These are immaterial to the appearance of impropriety and bias, which exist whether there was any real impropriety or not. Postel is far from alone in not understanding why an appearance of impropriety is an ethical violation, even though nothing unethical actually occurred. But it is. It has to be.

The other issue raised by Postel is a good one, and something the Times needs to think about: a paper should not presume that unreimbursed research expenses will be underwritten by a freelancer’s employer. The Times policy  prohibiting a writer from accepting paid trips and speaking engagements from the subject of an article is correct, however, even when, as in the case of Tripsas, it is a matter of appearances rather than real influence. In ethics, appearance counts.

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