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What's A Conflict Of Interest?

Reader Rep

The job of an ombudsperson is to act as a representative of the readers of a newspaper. That means taking complaints from those of you whom our stories annoy, following up on them with the editors, and trying to put things right by running corrections if necessary.

The job also involves talking to groups of people who feel that The Crimson has traditionally misrepresented them. During my tenure the Harvard Police Department, the Undergraduate Council and other have raised issues of long-term bias. The ombudsperson does not really handle circulation complaints, though if you've tried all other avenues and no one's been much help, you can certainly write to me about those too. In general, though, calling the redelivery hotline number 495-4774 or the circulation office 495-7890 would probably be more useful.

Here at The Crimson, the ombudsperson is also responsible for resolving questions of conflict of interest. The newspaper's policy is that reporters and editors who are in any way connected with a story should not be involved in producing it.

To people at some newspapers, it sees odd that The Crimson's ombudsperson should be responsible for resolving conflict of interest. The fact that I am both on the news executive board and responsible for policing it, is itself a situation involving conflicting interests.

But this caveat aside, The Crimson's conflict of interest policy is quite strong. Since the aim of news writing is to be objective, people involved in situations, or directly affected by their outcome, should not write about them.

How far is it possible to take this? For a reporter or editor, how close is too close? Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect that reporters will never be interested parties in stories that they cover. Some events at Harvard affect us all; and (though we at 14 Plympton try to report news rather than make it) sometimes we write about The Crimson itself. From these cases, and others, it can be seen that completely eliminating conflict of interest--being a "conflict of interest absolutist" if you will--isn't possible.

So why do we try?

Because minimizing conflicts goes a long way to giving us credibility. A reporter writing about a group of which she is a member isn't seem as being objective--even if in reality she is. For me, this is the essence of the conflict of interest question. All of us, when told that we can't write or edit a story because of a conflict issue, have wondered about the wisdom of the policy. Often, I feel I can be objective even when officially I have a conflict. Nevertheless, though, it helps with credibility if someone else does. The Crimson is seen as being more objective by its readers this was. That's reason enough for us to have a strong conflict of interest policy.

There's another reason we have the policy. We try not to have reporters write about people who could later affect their lives. That means you don't write about professors whom you're taking a class with, or about your own house administration. The possibility of reprisals from a negative article may make a reporter less hard-hitting in cases like these than otherwise.

In the final analysis, The Crimson will try to assign a reporter and editor not connected with a story to write it. This isn't always possible. Sometimes there is no one fully divorced from the story. At other times, depending on schedules, there is no one free. But it's something that we care about, and as much as possible, something we will do.