Some thoughts on disclosure

I have spent nearly all my adult life working as a reporter for newspapers and magazines. For most of my career, dealing with conflicts of interest, perceived or real, was relatively simple: I adhered to the rules laid down by my employers. I didn’t give money to politicians, didn’t participate in demonstrations and didn’t accept gifts of substantial value from sources. This didn’t prevent me from occasionally hitching a ride on a corporate jet when that turned out to be a good way to get access to someone I was writing about. I’ve flown with Disney, Sony, Viacom and Jay Leno.

Occasionally, gray areas arose. After my book, Faith and Fortune, was published in 2004, I began getting invitations to speak before corporations, associations and nonprofits. I enjoyed speaking, and so I hired an agent. I disclosed my speaking engagements to my editors at FORTUNE magazine, and in some instances I was permitted to keep my speaking fees. But when I was hired to speak by a company that I might be asked to cover—Marriott International and DuPont are two that come to mind—I gave the fees away to charity.

I’ve thought a lot about this issue of speaking fees—back in the 1990s, I wrote a freelance story for TV Guide taking TV anchors and reporters to task for taking speaking fees from corporate groups—and they are undeniably controversial. I have come to believe that (1) No client is likely to be able to buy a reporter’s loyalty or favorable coverage, even for a fat speaking fee. (2) On the other hand, as one starts to make more money from speaking, there’s a temptation to avoid being critical of clients or even potential clients and (3) When you get paid a lot of money to spend a lot of time with people in the business establishment, there’s the risk that you will begin to think more like they do, and (4) More time on the speaking circuit means less time to read, report and think. (I moderate or speak at about a half dozen events a year.) My favorite disclosure statement is Malcolm Gladwell’s 6,000-word treatise, available here and well worth reading. I am more aligned with the Gladwell-Michael Kinsley approach to dealing with conflicts than I am with the rigid line taken by people like Len Downie, the former managing editor of The Washington Post.

No rules of conduct can change the fact that reporters have opinions. Mine are evident to readers of my blog. I’m a believer in markets. I think businesses that do good are more likely to do well. I think we need to radically transform the way we live to solve the problem of global warming, and that will require “fixing” markets. And so forth.The challenge for reporters is to set those opinions aside, as best we can, during the reporting process and approach each story with an open mind, a genuine curiosity and a willingness to be swayed by new information. This is very hard to do, but as Gladwell notes, opinions are different from biases:

I think we can all agree that biases are a problem, particularly for a journalist. Writers with biases are predictable in the worst way and, more than that, they are dishonest. They pretend to have given thought to a subject, when all they’ve done is apply a fairly rigid set of preconceptions. For a writer to have an opinion, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing. The ability to form opinions is a sign of engagement with the world.

As a writer of blogposts and columns, I’m paid to express opinions. And my opinions do change. Over the years, for example, after reporting on both government and business, I have become more skeptical about government solutions to social and environmental problems, and more favorably disposed to market-based solutions. After covering gays in corporate America, I’m more strongly in favor of gay rights than ever. After spending time a few years ago with Rick Warren, the evangelical minister, I came to respect his opposition to abortion and felt less certain about my own belief in abortion rights (although I remain “pro-choice”).

Since being laid off by FORTUNE in 2008, managing conflicts has become more complicated. I’m still writing regularly for FORTUNE, and until 2014, I lead Brainstorm: Green, the magazine’s conference on business and the environment. But as a freelancer, I do other things to earn a living—blogging, journalism for other publications, speaking, moderating, writing and a bit of consulting for corporations and nonprofit groups. I’ve learned a lot about how companies and NGOs work by getting “inside,” and my hope is that it has made me a smarter reporter. But it has also created potential conflicts.

My solution, in a word, is disclosure. I believe companies need to be transparent. Reporters should be, too.

So, for example, some years ago when I wrote a column for Slate’s The Big Money about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s opposition to climate change legislation, I felt obligated to tell my editor at The Big Money that I had done some freelance writing for the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both NGOs support climate change legislation. The Big Money disclosed that to its readers. Since then, I’ve written critical as well as favorable blogposts about EDF and NRDC. See, for example, this post arguing that EDF and NRDC are over-selling the potential of “green jobs.”

Lately, I have been spending more time on journalism and less on everything else. I’ve done some speechwriting, but found I preferred writing in my own voice. I did a little PR and media consulting back in 2009, right after leaving Fortune, but that wasn’t to my liking either. I’m no longer working environmental groups, either.

Here, then, is a list of clients who have paid me to speak, write or consult in the last three years,since January 1, 2011:

Fortune (owned by Time Inc., part of Time Warner)
Guardian Sustainable Business
Greener World Media, publisher of Greenbiz.com
The Energy Collective (Social Media Today)
Yale Environment 360
Yale Alumni Magazine
Future of Food 2050

Speaking and moderating:
Schneider Electric
Drake University
Croplife America
Hewlett Packard
Waste Management

Consulting or writing:
Sony Corp. of America
Participant Media