For any newspaper, full disclosure is more important than irreproachable objectivity. As commendable as the work of a student journalist is, there’s a difference between a Daily Trojan writer and a professional. Writers are students in an environment where even a handful of extracurricular activities can easily seem like too few. With students stretched so thin, conflicts of interests are inevitable, making it especially important for editors to be watchful and open with readers.
One Aug. 28 sports column, “New site breaks the fantasy football mold,” broke, if inadvertently, that rule of transparency. In his praising coverage of a new fantasy football website, the writer, a sports columnist, neglected to mention that he had worked for the site over the summer. He later recognized his mistake, and told me that in his haste to put a story together, he didn’t recognize the potential for a conflict of interest.
At any newspaper, there are groups, organizations, interests and individuals — they all compete for space. Often, the toughest decision for an editor is who or what to cover, and which writer is responsible for covering that subject. The content of a newspaper is different from its advertising because it’s interesting to the reader and comes from someone who does not stand to gain from its publication.
Editor in Chief Alexander Comisar explained that in college, commitments can overlap more than at the professional level.
“Our writers and editors live multifaceted lives. They are full-time students who involve themselves with all kinds of different jobs, internships and campus activities — and we are proud of that reality,” he said. “At the same time, we make a very serious commitment to minimizing any ostensible effect these other activities might have on the integrity of our editorial content.”
A column is different from a reported article because of the level of opinion permitted. If a reporter takes on a story about swine flu, increased rush numbers or a tennis match, he is expected to relay the facts objectively. But an opinion columnist is allowed to take aim at the administration and a sports columnist is certainly allowed to highlight a new website he believes is of interest to Daily Trojan readers.
The problem here was that in choosing to write about the same company that he worked for over the summer, the author called motive into question. Although opinion is permitted, self-serving promotion is not.
“I had no malicious intent and I didn’t purposefully write it knowing that it presented a conflict of interest,” the writer said. “I simply wanted to write about a website that I thought was pretty cool and was doing something that was unique in the fantasy football community.”
“Had I known well in advance that he had previously worked for Pyromaniac.com, I probably would have asked him to choose a different topic,” Sports Editor Josh Jovanelly said.
An editor’s note explaining the relationship between the writer and the website would also have helped, Jovanelly noted.
Keaton Gray is a junior majoring in print journalism, and is the public editor for the Daily Trojan. All questions, comments and concerns about Daily Trojan articles can be addressed to email@example.com.