Full disclosure

I’ve been musing here and there about citizen journalists subsidizing their work with other work, but I haven’t yet addressed the question of conflict of interest.

It’s a bit simpler to draw the line when you’re hauling drywall or pulling pints, but my paid work has drifted recently into video-land, a confusing place populated by NGOs and campaigns and other potential journalistic tripwires.

I’ve decided it’s best to be up-front about the stuff I’m working on, both now and sometime in the future, if I ever write about overlapping issues. For example:

So that’s a video I worked on for Vancouver production house Point Blank Creative. I contributed writing and also worked on set, as well as helping to edit the piece. Oh yeah, I also got to cut things up with a hacksaw. It was a lot of fun, the actors were troopers, and I’m happy with how it turned out.

Point Blank was hired through a consultant for the Rainforest Solutions Project. RSP is a coalition comprised of ForestEthics, Greenpeace Canada, and the Sierra Club’s BC chapter. RSP’s overhead is paid for by Tides Canada. And yes, I was paid by Point Blank for my time.

If you’re a fan of warped semantics, I suppose you could argue I’m a foreign-funded radical.

You could also argue that I’m indebted to the BC forestry industry. My grandfather owned and operated a sawmill. On the other side of my family, I have two little cousins whose dad works as a faller. This video is not an attack on his profession or the jobs of thousands of other BC loggers — First Nations or otherwise.

If you care, I do think current targets are too low to adequately protect the world’s last intact temperate rainforest.

We’re talking about the coast of the entire BC mainland from Alaska halfway down Vancouver Island. Every fjord, valley, island and archipelago – including Haida Gwaii. Logging half that land would mean a cut area the size of Belgium. In terms of timber products, I think we humans can get by on less.

The video we produced is being used in a campaign called Take It Taller, aimed at gathering support for expanded conservation. I was aware of the overall plan when I agreed to work on the video.

UPDATE: Global BC’s Linda Aylesworth filed on the campaign, using shots from the video.

Why do I feel the need to disclose my involvement with RSP? Because there are other threats to the BC coast — its ecology and the long-term livelihood of its residents. I might find myself writing about any of those issues, and the stakeholders overlap considerably.

This is part of the evolution of what it means to be a journalist. Even if a staff position at a major news outlet were a guarantee of editorial independence, those jobs are few and far between. I chose to walk away from mine. These days, in order to subsidize my own journalistic projects, experiments, and reflection, I’m using some of my other skills.

Now you know. I’m curious what you make of this. Should I avoid stories from now on where groups like ForestEthics play a key role? Should I forge ahead, but link back to this blog post, in the interests of transparency? Should I worry less, or worry more about this stuff?

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25 comments
  1. Robyn Smith said:

    I sling tacos for the man some weekends. Indie media, secrets revealed!

  2. Write what you feel from your heart. Now it is not politically correct to support logging industry. The guys cutting trees are now treated like murderers. However, you can come among the murderers and find some beautiful as innocent souls working hard for their families. They can inspire you, me and many other frustrated guys in our decaying DEMOCRACY FOR THE RICHEST or in simpler words: DEMOCRACY OF MONEY.

    You did not like it and in your noble protest you quit a well-paid/prestigious job. It was spectacular and inspiring many people as you received a few thousand letters. Now it is time to find some ordinary people who are also able to maintain their dignity and express in their simple words something similar that can boost our optimism for coming better tomorrow. You can find them among loggers.

    I perceive your individual protest in a wider perspective of global awakening against a growing injustice on our globe. When reporting 2011 we should also see this young parliament lady protesting in June, the guy exposing governmental secrets and the Occupy protests.
    I wish you all the best,

    Slawomir Poplawski (slavekpop@yahoo.com)

    • Thanks, Slawomir. You’re right, my logger cousin is one of the best dudes around.

  3. Stop being a pansy and stand tall for your beliefs. Life is too short. Take any money from anyone to help you survive in doing what you believe is right and just. If you are doing your best; are honest and believe in what you are attempting to accomplish, then take money from Russian mobsters if you have too. However, if you are taking money to do something which you believe is immoral, wrong or harmful, then that is a different story. Gerald Amos, another recipient of “Tides Canada” funding explained it quite clearly. Don’t apply my previous words to his. His wprds stand on their own. “No Apology Forthcoming.” http://www.terracedaily.ca/show9198a27s/NO_APOLOGY_FORTHCOMING

    For context, I have a brother who is a rabid environmentalist. Hates 2 cycle engines and snowmobiles. Hikes in the woods, sleeps in snow caves, totally Mtn Co-op Equip type guy. Even bought property and emigrated to New Zealand believing in their no nukes, “green” agendas. Yet he makes his living designing electronic control systems for the Tar sands. Now there is a guy that should be concerned about morals, taking money from the devil to keep living his desired life style. Not that the tar sands is bad or the devil, it is just completely contrary to his entire belief structure. You haven’t anything to worry about. Take the money and do good work!

    • Thanks for the Gerald Amos link, I hadn’t read that. Any ideas on how to get the Russian mob excited about citizen journalism?

  4. I think back to my days at the Calgary Herald and the number of reporters and columnists who had worked in the oil & gas industry. Not a second thought was given to hiring them. I say worry less 😉

    • When I was in Quebec City, the Liberals brought in a transparency law obliging all members of cabinet to publish their investments and holdings. There were loopholes, but it was a step up from the standards in the press gallery. I worked with someone who tried to kill shale gas and construction stories because they had stock in the companies we were reporting on.

    • , I agree with most of the comments here when I read the paper, it’s for local news, I like a colpue of the columnists (Lloyd Omdahl was a great professor when I was at UND, and I still appreciate his humour,) and just ignore the ones I don’t like. Which is an invalid argument if someone isn’t popular, they are taking space and salary that someone who IS popular could be getting. If the Herald doesn’t review readership and act accordingly, that would be very foolish.One suggestion that I’d make, vis a vis the columnists would be bring Chris Jocobs to write movie reviews. Losing him and replacing his column with canned AP content was a big loss.Beyond that, yes, more investigative pieces, more local coverage of national and international events, and stay focused on the region beyond the Grand Cities.Oh, and I agree that the captcha for posting on this blog blows. I have to reload it about 75% of the time because it’s so hard to read.

  5. I would rather know if you have history. You would be someone who has an interest and experience with the topic rather than someone who looked up a few things. Sure you will have a bias, it is being human. Put it out there and keep it balanced.

    What I am concerned with is when someone is paid to tell the story and it isn’t disclosed. The PR guys that are ‘journalists’ are on my last nerve. Way more respect if you put it out there rather than me have to google who you are because what you wrote sounds bogus.

    Independent journalism isn’t exactly big business either, I would think people are a lot more understanding about it there than in mainstream..

    I’m just a news consumer, but you would lose zero points with me for working with what you report on if it is put right out there. It’s sort of why news is so much more fascinating now with Twitter. You get more of a feel for who writes the stories and where they are coming from. I think it adds to it and there shouldn’t be any shame in it.

  6. ScottM said:

    Thanks for sharing your ethical process, and good on you. Makes me think of a few lines from Chris Hedges (Death of the Liberal Class, p.168):

    “It is only when radicals such as [I.F.] Stone exist that the commercial media wake from their slumber. Figures like Stone, in essence, shame the press into good journalism.”

    Not enough folks seem to care enough to question their conflicts of interest, and sources of bias. I think this is a can of worms that should be opened, and never closed in a democracy.

  7. Glad you’re bringing this up, Kai. Simply put: Yes, full disclosure is essential if your journalism puts you in such a position. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the end, what people will remember is clear, smart, thoughtful journalism that encourages debate and discussion on an issue. If you were to pick a corner and unfurl your talons and bare your teeth to the very bitter end, people may get frustrated and use your “connections” against you. But if you’re respectful and balanced, then people will respond in kind, no matter what.

    So, in short, keep the avenues open for debate, and be clear about who you are and what you’re talking about. That’ll be enough for most people.

  8. This issue is crucial in journalism, so thanks for worrying about it and creating a public conversation about it. It’s hard to say what you should do, but I like the idea that you’ll link to this article and stay upfront about who you are and what you’re trying to do. It’s well worth considering the possibilities before it becomes an issue rather than when the temptations are there.

    It will be an issue at some point, and the perception of a journalist who has never had to earn an income outside the field can be limited. I went independent in 1993, after serving as a public relations rep. for various tourist boards in the previous ten years and I’ve never quite lost that “taint” for some journalists.

    Because of that, I’ve always steered clear of writing any journalism about industries in which I’ve been paid as a consultant within the previous two years. I’m also upfront about any conflicts of interests. Then again, I have a miniscule public profile, so the temptation isn’t as strong for me as it will be for you.

    Good luck.

    • You bring up the idea of a “cooling-off period,” which is interesting. It’s something that applies to elected officials in a lot of jurisdictions – wonder if it would be useful to have a rule of thumb in Canadian journalism. Then again, some news organizations (okay, Quebecor) now feel comfortable ditching the press councils, so where does that leave us?

      • I think it leaves us exactly where we’ve always been. Individuals have to share their conflicts every time they face them so that collectives–whether corporate, cooperative, social, family or society–can consider what they might do in the same situation.

        When enough people share the same ethical position, rules can be set, but journalism is a funny beast because it’s hard to figure out who should set the rules. If government starts regulating journalists, then you open the possibility of corruption, collusion and special perks for journalists who fit the marketing needs of various politicians. If journalists agree to regulate themselves, in beasts like the press council, then you get a system that tends to be easier on participants than it could be or one that promotes bullying.

        Personally, think that the rules should always protect all citizens, and should be written with that in mind. Any citizen who writes, broadcasts or otherwise shares research, reporting or opinion is a journalist and should get the same rights and responsibilities as anyone employed by a corporation.

  9. mark lyons said:

    Unless you live in a bubble i think it’s impossible not to run across a conflict of interest now and again. If, at the end of the day, you can look at yourself in the mirror, you’ll be fine. Journalists with a strong ethical compass, I believe, will always do they’re best to be objective. They won’t get hired at sun media, but , they’ll hopefully find a spot in Canada’s news.

  10. Jeffrey J. said:

    Independent thinking has never been less common than now. We live in a time of nearly universal corporate influence, as fewer and fewer people have money or freedom. Large NGO’s have unwittingly been hijacked by this paradigm. And thus begin to look more and more like a corporation, with accountants and bean counters focusing on fund raising. This brings a requirement for loyalty from those who get paid.

    To be really independent has always been a lonely road. But very, very rewarding. Only those who dare think for themselves, publicly, can create real change. Examples include Socrates, Gandhi, Bertrand Russel, Noam Chomsky, and Naomi Klein. There are many more.

    Kai, you have that rare gift of very skilled writing. With maturity, it may one day be great writing. Please consider keeping your full independence. You have already demonstrated an ability for courage and tenacity. There are many, many of us who need your voice.

    Your latest article is another sign of your difference. Thank you.

  11. Heather said:

    I agree with most of the previous comments. That you recognise the possibility of a conflict of interest and tell us about it gives you credibility and affirms your integrity. It’s an illusion that the news stories we hear are unbiased but we are rarely told up front about that bias. Many people do not have the time, education or discernment to sift through what they hear and figure out the truth. It would be so much simpler if there was a statement at the beginning: “The following article reflects the interests of my libertarian boss/ the corporate robber barons who run this paper/ my investment portfolio/ my personal beliefs and/or ambitions.”

    You’re on the right track.

    • That disclaimer made me laugh out loud. It would make some peoples’ bylines about as gruesome as a cigarette package.

  12. John Warren said:

    At least your investigative journalism has given you the benefit of knowing who the players, are and you do decide that it is in your interest at this particular time for a particular reason then take it. Most of us only just became aware of you for outing CTV and are now following your articles a work because we feel connected to your spirit and we can trust that if you should determine that your work has been used to blow the whistle.

    Thanks for your interesting and informative work. I like your style and humour.

  13. Matt Symes said:

    Transparency is key.

    “Lead your life so you won’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town
    gossip.”

    Believe in what you say, act in accordance with those beliefs and you have nothing to be ashamed of. Congrats for putting it out there!

  14. pw lg said:

    There are ways for those working in the forest sector to still have forest jobs yet see no net decrease in forest volumes.

    I had the privilege to visit with Merv Wilkinson on his property during one of my returns into university study after a 20 years of absence. I used his model to look at what land would be needed to provide forest workers with enough income to raise a family or if single to sustain a comfortable but not rich or wealthy life. The amount of allowable cut could be reduced by over 90%. Of course this system bypasses the big corporations and replaces it with local based value added production.

    I lived in the Central Coast of BC for 7 years and am thankful to the land, rivers and ocean for teaching me so much. Back in the early 70’s I was a very lone vocal voice in trying to preserve at least one forest valley in the inner coastal region. I worked on stream rehabilitation for the Fisheries.

    To Crown Zellerbach, a San Francisco based corporation that operated along the Central Coast, this one remaining unforested valley represented the last of the great peeler logs on the eastern shoreline of the Pacific Coast. To me, it was a narrow steep coastal mountain forest will all its glory intact, a symphony of nature and a place to feel something greater than myself and the rest of my human tribe.

    The local loggers in the area that I lived rarely stayed on the job past the age of 40 and usually “retired” to their own small pieces of earth to regain empathy, solitude and communion. The work they did took a toll not only on their physical bodies but also their minds. The exposure to that level of wanton destruction however did not fully remove their abilities to create other possibilities which we now call “sustainability” (environmental, social and economic).

    • Two things that caguht my attention: 1) The focus on local, local, local. 2) More investigative pieces.Here’s why: As I’ve written before, I’m convinced that journalists are out of touch with our readers and potential readers. Those of you that prefer local news and investigative pieces think as most of us do (though you must understand we can’t churn out those exposes like a factory because they’re very time consuming.). This means I’m either wrong or you are a minority within the local market.Let’s say I’m wrong and turn now to the local stories. Obviously, we produce a lot of government, school, UND stories and we’ve talked about how you feel about them.How about those local stories about the other stuff? The local student going to West Point, preparations for freestyle motocross at The Ralph, profile of former UND president Tom Clifford, interview with new fashion model Nicole Linkletter (a GF native), profile of Bernie the Sox For Kids guy One housekeeping thing: With this long list of comments it can be tough to come back and figure out which comments are the new ones. Anybody mind if I create a new post tomorrow or Monday so we can continue discussions over that way?Thanks again for all the comments. This stuff is great!

  15. Hello, of course this piece of writing is genuinely nice and
    I have learned lot of things from it concerning blogging.

    thanks.

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