Getting Past 'The Wall'

By Elliott, Deni | The Quill, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Getting Past 'The Wall'


Elliott, Deni, The Quill


In a society where business and ethics often clash, good journalism can be good business.

I was surprised, like most journalists and journalism scholars, when the deal that the Los Angeles Times made with the Staples Center sports arena came to light. It was surprising that the news organization would become a "founding partner" of the arena, paying $3 million per year for the privilege. It was surprising that the publisher was not sensitive to the problem of splitting revenues with Staples, the story subject, or with Staples, the advertiser. But it was even more surprising that editorial and business side would deceive readers by producing an ad supplement that looked like the regular Sunday Magazine.

But what I find truly amazing is that some journalists and scholars think that we should all work hard to rebuild "The Wall." It was the myth of a wall between business and editorial that caused the problem in the first place. The Wall was a lousy metaphor for the 20th century style of doing journalism and is completely unworkable for the corporate creation of news that journalists are doing today.

Using The Wall as a metaphor for the separation between financial and professional interests creates an unrealistic division and encourages unhealthy denial. The metaphor of The Wall says to reporters and news managers, "Don't think about the financial aspects of this company - just go ahead and do the news."The Wall says to marketing, advertising and circulation, "Don't think about the professional aspects of this company - just go ahead and make money."

The problem with that kind of thinking is that the newsroom and business side are dependent on one another. The decline over the past two decades in resources for investigative and in-depth reporting is a direct result of owners wanting more profit and less cost for putting out a product. The lack of coverage of the parent company is directly connected to what is happening on the business side of The Wall. Many critics of civic journalism suggest that marketing - not good reporting - is the prime motivation for this latter 20th century movement to connect news organizations more closely with the communities they cover. As we have seen with the L.A. Times and Staples, along with countless less-publicized indiscretions, if the business side doesn't keep in mind what kind of product they are promoting, it is far too easy to slip into deals that prostitute the editorial product.

The solution is not to build a bigger wall, but to understand what causes con flicts of interest. It may be difficult to think beyond The Wall now because American journalism has been particularly arbitrary and self-serving in deciding what counts as a conflict of interest.

Remember when it was a conflict of interest for news organizations to be too closely involved with some community initiatives? At the same time that they were being chastised for contributing money for or against gambling initiatives, reporters were urged to support the United Way campaign and pledge cards were distributed in the newsroom. No one seemed to notice how difficult that might make it for reporters to cover the big business of United Way or for them to cover the myriad of problems in the town's United Way-sponsored agencies.

Remember when it was a conflict of interest for a reporter to take her talents or skills to another news organization? That was in the days before mega-mergers meant that one parent company owned a plethora of news outlets. That was before CNN and Time shared a news show. This conventional idea of what counted as conflict of interest cracked when reporters became the "experts" on Sunday morning analysis shows.

A conflict of interest occurs only when an organization, or its agent, is likely to violate a specific professional responsibility by choosing to fulfill a financial or personal interest instead. Economics and ethics are not contradictory. …

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