Is love ethical?

by gord on May 1, 2010

[EDITOR'S NOTE: My sincere apologies to Gord for not finding this excellent post in the guts of my blog until now. Unfortunately, it got lost in the shuffle...which is exacerbated by my stupidity.]

The news that CBC TV Parliamentary reporter Krista Erickson was registered to receive free government flights by Calgary Centre MP Lee Richardson came to me as quite a shock. Journalists aren’t supposed to accept substantial gifts from those they are covering and free flights would count as substantial in my books. On its face there is no question that this is a breach of one of the most basis tenants of journalistic ethics. (Full disclosure, I have accepted small value give-away type items and have eaten for free during dinners I have attended while working on a story.)

But there’s more to the story.

Richardson isn’t offering Erickson free air travel in an attempt to get favourable stories planted in the national media about the government’s agenda or what a great guy Stephen Harper really is. No, the two are a couple and according to the Chronicle Herald have been so for a few years. Now that doesn’t seem so bad does it? I mean should either Erickson or Richardson have to pay for her to fly to Calgary to attend some event in the riding not related to her journalistic job? If Erikson was a cocktail waitress rather than a reporter it would be no big deal, right?

Right, but she is a reporter.

Not only is she a reporter, but her boyfriend is a player on her beat. The Herald reports that the Mother Corp. has rules in place that prevents her from covering Richardson or Conservative events. A quick search of the CBC website shows that lately she’s been covering non-partisan federal issues (a Canadian Forces court martial, a missing Chalk River scientist, how the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is dealing with swine flu). In fact, it seems that the closest she’d gotten to a story about Parliament Hill was a piece on a decision to serve seal meat in the building’s dining room.

So really, what’s the big deal? She’s a reporter with access to free taxpayer funded flights courtesy of an MP, but she’d dating that MP. She’s assigned to the Parliamentary bureau, but she doesn’t seem to report on anything actually Parliamentary. Is this a case of bad journalistic ethics or a love story where the female journalist is sacrificing access to the good stories for the man she loves?

The romantic in me truly wants to believe the love story angle, but then this is the same Krista Erickson who was tufted from the Parliamentary bureau by the CBC (although was reinstated after a union grievance process) for feeding questions to a Liberal senator during testimony of former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

The CBC’s ombudsman Vince Carlin concluded after his review of the Mulroney question affair that: “Ms. Erickson clearly did go “over the line” in allowing the appearance that she was providing “script” for certain sources to use. However, it appears to me that she lacked the experience and sensitivity to realize where the line was.”

He went on to castigate CBC management for not ensuring that she understood where the ethical lines actually were drawn.

“The CBC must insure that its journalists understand the implications of the policy (on credibility) in their daily reporting lives. If journalists do appear not to have an understanding of ethical behaviour, they should be closely supervised, or not assigned to the most difficult postings.”

Love or not, Erickson’s involvement with Richardson does erode the perception of her credibility. The fact that he has also given her access to a free flights perk just adds fuel to the ethical fire.

She may very well feel that her romantic connection with a sitting government MP doesn’t change how she does her job (just as I feel that a mini-slinky and a plate of overcooked buffalo didn’t change how I did mine) and in the eyes of God she might be right. But ethics aren’t always about acting ethically, they’re also about being seen to be acting ethically.

This latest revelation makes it appear that neither Erickson nor the CBC has learned anything from their past mistakes.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Francis Wooby May 1, 2010 at 6:45 am

There are so many elements of this story that make my skin crawl it’s hard to focus on just one or two. But I should, lest the tenuous grasp I have on articulation be lost in an angry spew of complaints…

As an outsider looking in at the profession of journalism, I am bothered by this idea of objectivity. Now I rather like the idea of reporters striving to be as balanced, or objective, as possible; and, at the same, time I also understand the impossibility of eliminating one’s biases altogether. After all, we’re only human.

What unnerves me, though, is the ease with which so-called journalists flout the concept of fairness–rationalizing their behaviour by saying that media has always been bias towards sponsors, political leaders, ideological allies, etc. I actually been told outright that “It’s always been that way and you’re just silly for thinking otherwise.”

Um, okay. So then what in the hell is the point of “journalism”? If there’s no effort to present all the information fairly, without skewing it to emphasize one side of the story over another, why don’t I save my money and just get my “news” from opinion piece writers or local gossips?

Erikson, to my mind, is yet another journalist trainied/raised in a cynical mindset with no regard for fairness, truth, quality or any of those other old-timey notions. But she’s only a small part of an entire industry unable to distinguish entertainment from news, style from substance or opinion from fact. Sadly, she seems to be par for the course.

I predict that we are going to see less and less “serious journalism” as technological and cultural changes continue discouraging journalists (and everyone else) from commiting time, attention and scruples to their work.

Gordon Cameron May 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Our industry’s check on objectivity and fairness is good editorial management. I know my writers and their personal opinions on the topics they regularly cover. Armed with that knowledge I can read their copy through that lens and address any shortcomings I see. None of my staff would purposely mix their personal view with their paid journalism and that’s true with all the journalists I’ve ever worked with.

But it does happen. Those who do it bring shame and discredit to our noble profession.

For my money, a complete media diet will consist of the one-two punch of solid journalistic reporting (the facts, the context, the colour…) mixed in with reasoned commentary. This commentary should be separate from those writing the news and even with all the cutbacks in my industry, papers haven’t ditched their editorial page editors just to keep the two departments away from each other. If all you get is straight journalism then you may have all the building materials to build a solid opinion, but nothing to test it against. Conversely, if you do nothing but listen to the bloviators then you can be swayed by “truthiness” rather than facts and information.

I think most traditional media sources try to fair. Most news stories don’t ignore inconvenient facts, they don’t sugar coat bitter pills being forced down our throats by their chosen flavour of government, nor do they demonize those they don’t like. We could sit here and off the top of our heads come up with 100 specific examples of times where this line has been crossed, but for every unethical story there are at least 1,000 times more stories that are good journalism.

On your final point, I do agree that we’ll be seeing less “serious journalism” but I think that has more to do with the gutting of the industry rather than technological and cultural changes. If the watchdog loses its teeth then more people will be getting away with more nefarious things.

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