Do You Need a Personal Ethics Statement?

In an age when transparency is becoming the accepted norm for ethical reporting, is it enough to disclose your potential conflicts of interest only when you think the need arises? Or should writers, whether journalists, bloggers, or content marketers, go on the record with a preemptive announcement of their ethical beliefs and possible biases?

In an article published earlier this week on the Knight Digital Media Center, Amy Gahran looks at how the writers and editors for Dow Jones’s All Things Digital Web site answered this question.  As she reports, each of them has included a personal ethics statement on an “about me” page. In that statement, the writer discloses potential conflicts of interest and how he or she deals with them.

Gahran recommends this approach to others. Transparency, she says, “is not just about disclosure, but about visibility”. The problem with relying only on disclosure in passing, in an article where you think it’s relevant, she argues, is that “you’re less likely to gain the visibility needed to make transparency effective.”  Building a page devoted to those disclosures helps ensure visibility.

To me, at least, it’s an appealing theory. There is something refreshing about not relying on a corporate or professional code, but stating for all to see, “This is who I am, these are my biases and allegiances, judge my work accordingly.”

But in practice, how important are such statements to building a reader’s trust? The answer, I think, depends very much on the writer’s ethical circumstances.

In the case of Kara Swisher, All Things Digital co-executive editor and the focus of Gahran’s story, the statement is critically important. (I’d guess, in fact, that the idea for the ethics statements began with her.) Why is it critical? Because of a potential conflict so huge that it could influence virtually every story she writes.

As Swisher explains in her statement, she is married to a senior executive at Google. Ordinarily, this fact would run afoul of Dow Jones’s policy against reporters covering a company in which an immediate family member has a financial interest. What makes an exception possible is the high visibility of her disclosure enabled by the nature of online media. So “while some may raise objections, Dow Jones feels the transparency will give readers a chance to judge my work on its merits.”

Swisher’s circumstances are extraordinary, and her statement essential. But for at least some of her colleagues, the value of their statements is not so clear. For them, as they write, there is “little . . . to report” or “not much to reveal.”  If Swisher hadn’t needed to write one, they would surely not have bothered.

Personal ethics statements do no harm, and can do much good. But for many writers, they probably aren’t necessary. As Swisher says, the ultimate goal is to earn a reader’s trust. That isn’t achieved by a single statement, but by a consistent and reliable body of work.