Artist as arts reporter

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Potential conflict of interest in use of artist as arts reporter

The complainant wrote CBC on February 25, 2010, to raise concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving Dipna Horra, CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning arts reporter, a mixed media artist who had been an infrequent guest on the program before taking on the part-time role. He noted that, since taking the role, Horra had reported on several artists, exhibitions and events directly related to her outside interests as a working artist.

He asserted there were conflicts in her reviews of shows by artists with studios where she had been a member, shows by her university classmates, shows at a gallery that once represented her, and courses and programming where she taught.

He asserted Horra had conducted a review of her own work. “I may be on the wrong track here, but it seems to me that using your air time to publicize your own work might fall under furthering a personal interest,” a practice contrary to CBC policy.

He also noted an interview Horra conducted with the curator of the Ottawa Art Gallery, which announced a few weeks later she would be one of the artists exhibited there.

“To be honest, I happen to believe that it is inherently problematic that CBC Ottawa would hire a working artist as their arts correspondent, as it would leave the person open to conflict of interest on many fronts,” he wrote. “With a small arts community in Ottawa, it would be difficult at best to tiptoe through the conflict of interest minefield laid out by such a decision.”

Rob Renaud, the managing director of English programming at CBC Ottawa, wrote the complainant March 26, 2010. He acknowledged the challenges of balancing Horra's knowledge with her possible conflicts.

“You suggest that our policy precludes Ms. Horra from reviewing work connected with groups she has been associated with,” Renaud wrote. “I might point out in that regard that while the policy, rightly, warns about conflicts of interest, it also cautions that in applying it no group should be disadvantaged by a perceived conflict of interest.”

He said Horra was not self-assigning; the production team plans and selects her stories. And CBC explicitly states any connection she has to stories involving the gallery or group with whom she was associated.

On the matter of the interview with the curator, Renaud said that CBC was satisfied that it did not influence her selection for the exhibition. Indeed, that decision had already been made when the interview was aired. “Nevertheless, I take your point,” Renaud wrote. “That may not have been apparent to our listeners.”

Renaud said CBC took the complaint very seriously and had discussed the issues with producers, in particular “to be transparent in all respects.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time included several provisions on conflicts of interest.

Among other things, it said the duty to disclose and to remove conflicts of interest rested with the employee. A written record of such disclosures and measures needed to be kept.

“Employees must not use their positions to further their personal interests,” the policy said.

It added: “Employees must not accord, in the performance of their official duties, preferential treatment to any person, be they relatives, friends or organizations in which they or their relative or friends have interest, financial or otherwise. At the same time, neither should such individuals or organizations be disadvantaged because of their relationship to an employee of the Corporation.”

It required application of conflict of interest principles with contract employees (unless contractually excluded) and with freelancers when contractually required.

It provided for “unique and specialized situations” to give rise “to the issuance of specific rules covering those situations,” but also permitted CBC to withdraw any approval of outside activity if changing circumstances or other valid reasons were judged by CBC to violate policy.

Conclusion

This complaint raises important issues for journalism in an era of increased organizational use of community experts who adopt part-time roles as creative contributors. It is fair to speculate we can expect this to be a more prevalent feature of journalism in the time ahead as the people formerly known as the audience involve themselves in creation.

There is a vital need in those instances to find ways for those people to contribute while respecting policies on journalistic conduct. When conflicts arise, individuals need to declare

them and organizations need to police them to reassure the audience that the journalism is trustworthy and presented in the best possible context.

A worthwhile reference in this matter is the recently updated edition of the Society of Professional Journalists book, Journalism Ethics, in which a conflict-of-interest checklist is identified. The book says individuals need to ask themselves if they are being independent, if their actions harm their integrity or their organization's integrity, if the mere appearance of conflict diminishes credibility, and if they are willing to publicly disclose potential conflicts. It says organizations need to ensure their public obligation isn't eroded by a quest for economic gain, the interest of being a good corporate citizen, the concern for their own employees or the need to be competitive in the marketplace.

As the complainant noted in this instance, it is a challenge for CBC to police Ms. Horra's conflicts. Her main work connects her with many people and organizations she might discuss in her part-time role on CBC — indeed, that knowledge is an asset, provided it comes with an understanding of her conflicts.

I am satisfied that the audience would understand and accept the conflict in discussing one's own work. There is ample transparency to that.

The more problematic matter involved providing a report about a curator in whose exhibit the contributor was scheduled to appear, because the audience had no knowledge of that relationship.

At a minimum under CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices at the time it would have been necessary to declare the conflict beforehand to permit management to determine the next steps — specifically, if the profile should be assigned to another contributor or presented differently. Assigning someone else would have respected CBC policy to not disadvantage any individual or organization as a result of conflicts.

Had CBC known about the conflict beforehand, I expect it would have taken measures to deal with it. Had she been hired as a staff journalist, she would have arrived with an elevated understanding of journalism practice and CBC would have provided a regime of training and orientation on policy.

CBC did not equip the contributor with an understanding of policy on journalistic conflicts as she shifted from a guest role to become its occasional arts “reporter.” It is commendable that CBC has since discussed policy with the freelancer and reinforced it with the program producers. Provided there are such discussions, this serves as a model for others bound to face similar issues as programs tap into expert local contributors and develop their presence as occasional “reporters” for programs.

(It might also be confusing for the audience for contributors to be called reporters because the latter term carries connotations associated with full-time or staff or professional qualities.)

An important factor in reviewing conflicts is to determine if motivated self-interest was involved — that is, was someone trading on influence for personal benefit or using the platform of CBC to pursue gain?

In this instance, I am satisfied that the contributor wasn't attempting anything of the sort. She simply didn't apprehend the concept of conflict because she was not trained or experienced. CBC recognized the need to provide training when the conflict was identified. It is worth noting that since she has come to understand policy, she and the program have demonstrated professional and ethical conduct to deal with further dilemmas.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman