PARTING SHOT: The Conflict in Conflict of Interest
There’s a secret they don’t tell you until it’s time to write a parting shot: these columns are tough.
My predecessors—men and women much more interesting than I am—have already produced heartfelt treatises on everything meaningful about The Crimson’s sports board. I could tell you that it was all about the friends I made (true), but I’m not the first person to feel this way. I could recount my favorite games, but the biggest moment in my career—Harvard’s third-ever individual wrestling title—took place while I was on an airplane. So, since past writers have covered the profound and the memorable, I’ll take this space to draw out an issue we usually try to ignore.
What I want to talk about is actually one of the biggest challenges in Crimson reporting: conflict of interest. I don’t mean the “hook-up-with-someone-you’ve-been-interviewing-routinely” conflict, or even the “I-only-picked-up-this-beat-because-everyone-on-your-team-is-hot” conflict; 1,000 words are not necessary to spell those out. Instead, I’d like to reflect on the difficulty that all Crimson reporters face: sharing the everyday experience of Harvard with our sources. This may seem like a no-brainer to other students—we constantly mix work and play with our peers when we follow up problem sets with 30 racks. But in the reporting world, this is pretty unique. I truly believe that the level of professionalism we bring to 14 Plympton puts us on par with publications across the country, but we never stop to think that New York Times reporters might not follow up a press conference with a cross-the-party head nod. Indeed, Washington Post writers never have to decide if a garden party is the appropriate place to discuss last week’s pitching performance. This is the world we live in, and the balance is more difficult than you’d think.
When I started comping the sports board my freshman spring, COI wasn’t really a problem. My ideal Thursday night involved movies and a box of pop tarts, so I had a legitimate blank slate when it came to varsity upperclassmen. When I signed up for my first story—a non-descript, mid-season wrestling match—I had no particular concern about calling a rising star named JP O’Connor. I began the interview the same way I would for the next three years: “How did you feel about the match overall?”
“Overall?” O’Connor responded. “What kind of a question is that? I don’t even know how to answer that. We each wrestled differently.”
I decided to call other sources for the next few weeks.
But after three All-America honors and a national championship, O’Connor got better at interviews, and I became much less terrified.
In fact, as I followed the team through countless injuries, struggles, and successes, the wrestling beat quickly grew into something much more than a hobby. The team appreciated how much attention I gave an often-overlooked sport, and I enjoyed the knowledge that interviews would always be painless and reliable. Without question, then, my bond with the team was a good thing. It made them happier, my job easier, and the stories richer. It was no different for my co-chair and her softball beat, or for 100 sports Crimeds before us.
Yet these benefits carry a challenge. A Red Sox reporter might be wary of bashing the team because it could cost him a week or two of quotes, but he has no fear of losing a friend. Certainly professionals can feel close to a group after watching them every season, but it’s another thing to see disappointment in the dining hall, jubilation on your walk to class, or your article on an athlete’s common room wall.
We’d like to think that we can separate our friendship from our work—that a memorable beer pong showdown won’t change our interview dynamic the next week—but this simply isn’t true. The largest arguments I ever had with my editors took place when my stories were “too nice” to the players, when I spun abysmal losses as close contests. Every time I was too proud to admit it, but every time they were right: I was more concerned with preserving my relationships than calling games how I saw them.
You might be thinking at this point that you’re reading a column about regrets, that I feel guilty for my sugar-coated reporting habits of the past four years. That’s not quite true either. As much as I cared about The Crimson, as much as I took my work seriously, I never forgot that we were a student newspaper. Our primary audience remains our peers, and I continue to believe that there is more value in highlighting their accomplishments than criticizing their performances. Others will always disagree with me, but each person can decide for him or herself what the purpose of our work is.
In the end, the best we can do is to be aware of the conundrum that is student reporting. A Crimed following a team through all its ups and downs will always forge a bond with the players. And even beyond the conflicts of friendship, our intertwined experiences will always leave us with difficult choices. Do we report on the nature of an injury if we saw it happen at a party? When a player feels comfortable gossiping about his or her teammates, is there any value in airing it across campus?
We face these decisions all the time. I have shared drinks with players the night before games, listened stone-faced to rants against captains and coaches, and witnessed my fair share of inter-team relationship drama. Most of the time, I felt comfortable with my choices to withhold (or report) such experiences. But could I have done a better job? Absolutely.
We like to talk at The Crimson about avoiding conflict of interest, but that’s really not the point. We take on competing interests the minute we agree to cover our peers, and to deny such complexities only hinders our work. After 1,000 words of this column, I still can’t tell you that my approach was right, or that there’s a better way to handle this challenge. But for future Crimeds, when you inevitably discover this tension, I encourage you not to ignore it, but to embrace it.
—Staff writer Max N. Brondfield can be reached at email@example.com.