Conflicts in the “News”

Reading through the CFP Board’s proposed new Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct has caused me to mentally sift through the ethics and standards of my own (journalism) profession.  The goal of the new CFP Board proposal is to protect the public and enhance the reputation of CFP professionals.  Should there be protections around the information that is delivered by the media?

I’ve identified a few conflicts that I think we should be aware of.

1) Direct payments for favorable or biased coverage. In the mainstream publications, like the Washington Post, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, you have fact-checkers and strict prohibitions against receiving any form of compensation from outside interests who might be interested in influencing your story.  But of course those standards are not always observed in the blogosphere, where some of the more extremist voices are underwritten by partisans, and some so-called “fake news factories” like the one uncovered in Macedonia are outright paid to provide a consistently false narrative. (Disclosure: I don’t accept money for favorable articles—and I’ve been offered.  But I have accepted occasional dinners, and free entry to industry conferences that I’m covering, including some pretty lavish afterparties.)

2) Advertising.  Ever wonder why you so seldom see an expose of the corruption on Wall Street?  Or why newspapers and magazines were, in the 1950s and 1960s, reluctant to publish articles on the dangers of smoking?  If you take in millions of dollars from an industry, your editors become aware of the danger of biting the hand that feeds them.  Nobody will admit to this bias, and some publications have so-called “Chinese Walls,” but the walls are more to keep the writers from getting their marching orders directly from advertisers.  (Note: Inside Information doesn’t take advertising dollars.  But we DO produce a conference where there are paid exhibitors.)

3) Personal bias. Once again, the mainstream publications do what they can to keep biases confined to the opinion and editorial pages, and sometimes I think they bend over too far in the name of “fairness,” sometimes treating visibly false rumors or allegations as if they were news, simply because they were aired in the first place.  But it seems like the political bloggers believe their value-add is not to inform so much as persuade, and if that’s the case, I believe they should disclose their agenda.  (Note: I have many biases about sales people masquerading as professionals, about professionalism and about Wall Street.  I try to be up-front about them.)

4) The need for attention.  Online publications get paid for clicks; mainstream publications get paid for the number of readers they can attract.  The National Enquirer and the like seem to me to go overboard in their lurid efforts to attract attention, and I see similar tendencies in the blogging universe.  But I also see some of this in the mainstream media.  If there’s a disaster anywhere in the world, it will get 24/7 coverage on CNN, while ignoring an enormous amount of good news around the world.  (Note: Inside Information is about as unlurid as possible.  Our goal is to provide you with an unfair competitive advantage in the marketplace, and while we regret that this is not more popular or eye-catching to advisors, we don’t regret the editorial decisions we make.)

How would my profession best address these conflicts?  Ideally, I’d like to see the unwritten (but strictly-enforced) rules at the mainstream publications applied to all bloggers and ‘zines, and I honestly think the quality of information has gone down as the number of voices has risen.  I’d also like to see journalists credentialed in some way, with training and their own Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct which, if violated, would somehow impact their ability to get the attention of readers or viewers, who would only read the work of “certified” journalists.

Will this ever happen?  Let’s just say that I’m not going to hold my breath.