Two cardinal principles of ethical journalism are transparency and accountability and nowhere are they more needed than in the business of financial reporting.
Traditional media have tried, not always successfully, to ensure their journalists declare financial interests by imposing strict editorial guidelines. The internal rules of the BBC, the Associated Press and The New York Times, for instance, lay down clear policy on dealing with conflicts of interest.
Until now these standards have not been applied so effectively in the online world where Internet companies, bloggers and reporters rarely reveal their financial relationships.
But a recent order in the court case in the United States between Google and Oracle over an intellectual property dispute may soon change all that.
The judge has ordered both companies to disclose by today (August 17) which bloggers and writers they are paying to provide favourable opinions.
The need for transparency in this area has been usefully highlighted by the case of technology writer Michael Arrington the founder of TechCrunch, an Internet publication providing news and analysis for the web world. According to The Guardian, Arrington was shamelessly investing in companies he wrote about.
He has since sold the company on to Huffington Post owner AOL. Ever polite, The Guardian says “TechCrunch certainly pushed the boundaries of what many deemed ethically acceptable.”
This case and the court order to Google and Oracle represent a major challenge to online media to clearly separate public commentary and their own private interests. At the very least journalists and bloggers should give full disclosure of their financial and political interests.
Many may not think that contractual or cash incentives for favourable editorial coverage amount to bribery, but they should tell all and let their readers decide.