DAMIEN CAVE. Blurred lines between journalists and what we cover.

Jun 2, 2018

As soon as I made eye contact with the smiling woman in the Doctors Without Borders T-shirt on a busy Sydney street, I knew I’d be asked for money or a signature. And I knew I’d say no.

“I’m a foreign correspondent for The New York Times,” I told her. “I can’t really help because at some point, somewhere, there’s a good chance I may cover what you do.”

I always feel bad trying to explain journalistic detachment in such moments, and I often get looks of confusion in response.  

Young people in particular tend to question the limits that many of us at The Times take for granted: no marching for a cause, no advocacy and no giving or accepting of travel or gifts when dealing with sources or organizations that have an interest in news coverage.

We are expected, in short, to avoid the “appearance of bias” and maintain a sense of healthy detachment from what we cover.

That might sound quaint; our ethical guidelines are sometimes seen as a relic when the average reader barely notices the distinction between an article by a newsroom reporter, who abides by these standards, and an opinion writer, who can advocate in work and in life.

But I believe in the limits. I think they make for better, more trustworthy (if still imperfect) journalism — and I’ve been thinking more about that here in Australia because I often see them challenged.

This week, a few examples come to mind:

• Checkbook Journalism

Let’s start with Barnaby Joyce, the (former) deputy prime minister.

The heat he’s taken this week for accepting $150,000 from the Seven Network for an interview alongside Vikki Campion — his partner and former staff member who is the mother of his newborn child — is just the latest example of the mess made when money and access mingle.

• The Lucrative Revolving Door

What about the other ways that journalists and government cozy up to each other?

The Australian scolded Laura Tingle of the ABC for accepting $15,000 for moderating a panel at a government summit meeting in March — only to have The Australian Financial Review call out Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s foreign editor, for holding a paid position with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australia-Indonesia Council.

Neither seemed to be punished by their audiences or their bosses.

Maybe that’s just a function of a partisan media culture, where many politics reporters and editors have also acted as political advisers, or gone back and forth between both worlds. The revolving door is not unique to Australia — George Stephanopoulos worked in the Clinton White House before joining ABC News — but it’s definitely common and accepted here.

The Monthly’s former politics editor, Sean Kelly, for example, was an adviser to Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, as his online biography makes clear. Osman Faruqi, now of the ABC, is a former Greens party staffer.

John Garnaut’s case is also interesting.

A former China correspondent and Asia Pacific editor for Fairfax, he wrote often as a journalist about China’s efforts to influence Australian politics. Then he became an adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull while never quite giving up journalism, having written recently about China for Foreign Affairs.

There’s value, of course, in subject-specific expertise, but when there are so many blurred lines between government and journalism, it can be hard to figure out whether what we’re learning from what we read or watch includes all the relevant details, or just those that serve a particular argument, political party or paying client.

• The Junket Industry

The calls and emails no longer surprise me: At least three or four times in the past year, a well-meaning and interesting Australian organization has offered to fly me somewhere and pay for my hotel accommodation so I could witness what it does.

In every case, I’ve said no and politely explained that our ethics guidelines forbid that sort of thing except in the most extreme circumstances (military flights in war zones, for example).

I’ve also turned down a number of freelance pitches that would have been financed by those seeking coverage — again, explaining that accepting payment from an organization or cause we are covering creates a problematic expectation of positive coverage, making it harder for us to be seen as dispassionate observers.

I honestly don’t know how common it is for journalism in Australia to be financed by those with a vested interest, but anecdotally, it seems to be on the rise. In a conversation with one of the organizations offering me a trip, I asked why and was told that with Australian media outlets making cutbacks, junkets were often the only way they could cover certain issues.

I’ve seen some of the journalism that results from these kinds of trips, in the form of features about, say aid in the Pacific, or the plight of Central American children.

In the latter case, in Good Weekend, there was a note providing much-needed transparency, stating, “Tim Elliott and Kate Geraghty traveled to Guatemala and Mexico with Australia for UNHCR, an Australian charity that raises funds to support the U.N. refugee agency.”

I couldn’t see any sign of bias in the article, and I’m sincerely torn about whether this kind of thing is cause for concern. If it was a choice between a story about Central America or no story at all, I suppose I would choose the story, with an explanation of who paid for the journey.

But what all these examples show is that the boundary between source (or interest group) and journalist can be shaped, if not erased, in ways that threaten to hamper candid reporting.

Given the context, saying no to signing a petition for Doctors Without Borders may seem extreme. And maybe it is. But when there are so many forces pushing journalism to abandon independence and nonpartisan storytelling, you have to draw the line somewhere.

Damien Cave is a journalist with the Australian Letter published by the New York Times.

This article fear appeared in the New York Times, Australia Letter, on May 31, 2018.

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