If A Friend Is In A Story There Must Be A Good Reason And Full Disclosure. But Who Is A Friend?

“Whenever your pals show up in your work,” Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride has written, “a small number of people in the audience will be wise to the connection. For those in the know, it may seem like you have duped the readers. You also are likely to experience conflicting loyalties. Your friendship may cause you to paint a rosier picture of your friend than you would of other sources. Depending on the subject, you might ignore bad grammar, illegal behavior or plain old stupidity. Your friends would most likely expect to look good in your article, if they agreed to participate.”

The simplest solution is to follow this rule: Friends, family members and co-workers are not sources or subjects we put in stories unless our relationships with them are important to the tales and are fully disclosed. “Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish” comes to mind.

Now, this note isn’t about the kinds of friendly relationships with sources that may develop when a reporter has been on a beat for many years. When that happens, it’s important that our reporting remain solid and objective, as we’ve previously noted. Also, it’s critical that reporters and editors monitor such situations.

We’re talking here about a story in which a character shows up for no other reason than being a friend or relative of the reporter — but it’s a connection that isn’t disclosed.

When is someone a “friend” who shouldn’t be part of a story? Here are some thoughts from The Canadian Association of Journalists:

“As Scott White, then editor- in-chief of the Canadian Press (and a former member of our committee) told us: ‘Current or recent connections are generally more problematic than long-ago connections; close personal friendships more problematic than casual acquaintances or routine professional interactions; siblings or spouses more of an issue than third-cousins.’ That said, almost everyone knows that some long-ago entanglements can have lasting impacts on choices, whether on a conscious level or more subtly.”

If there’s any doubt, leave that person out. Or, hand off the story to someone else. Or, if you’re the editor, assign the piece to someone else.

Two final, probably obvious, points:

- Reporters have to tell editors about connections to sources that might raise conflicts.

- Editors should ask “how’d you find this person?” if they don’t know already.

(“Memmos;” Sept. 22, 2016)

September 22, 2016

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