Bias and disclosure

By Ezra Butler on July 23rd, 2012

This is not an essay about journalism, citizen or otherwise. This is an essay about publicity and ego. It is about bias, ulterior motives, and misrepresenting opinion as fact. In a word, it is about ethics.

Most blogs accept guest posters, just like most newspapers accept op-ed contributors. Many media properties, such as the Huffington Post and Forbes are notorious for the legions of unpaid contributors they maintain, ranging from one-off posts to sporadic or more regular columns. These contributors do not purport to be journalists: many are industry, media or political professionals using the platform as a soapbox to promote their own financial interests and way of thinking.

In this new landscape, the one thing everyone is generally careful to do is to disclose conflicts of interests. But, upon admitting bias, one appears magically permitted to write anything. Moreover, it may be quoted under the aegis of the media organisation doing the publishing. The individual thus inherits the gravitas, reputation and reach of the publisher.

But is a reader ever really able to disclaim bias in the article he or she is reading, even while cognisant of the stated disclosures? Does the reader leave the piece informed – or indoctrinated? Researchers in heuristics have long noted how biased individuals, even subconsciously, apply a number of availability and egocentric filters which cause them to only mention facts which bolster their claims at the risk of misrepresenting others.

And research has revealed the trend that people seem to overestimate their own worth and contributions and underestimate the work of co-workers and spouses. On that basis, it is not shocking to read the words in a supposedly analytic essay by Ryan Holmes, contributor to CNN and chief executive officer of HootSuite, when he informed CNN’s readers that Buddy Media’s value was based on their skill in leveraging Facebook tabs.

His expert conclusion was that the next generation of relevant companies in the space will be those that help clients schedule optimal times for posting Facebook messages and tweets – a specialty, as if you needed to guess, of HootSuite.

I believe Mr Holmes’ advertorial accurately portrayed his worldview. It afforded the reader a behind-the-scenes look into the mind of a vindicated entrepreneur, one who made the mental wager not to bet on Facebook tabs but to find a different solution to a problem.

If only it were correct. If only Buddy Media’s worth were solely based on their understanding of Facebook tabs and not any of their other products, like their software’s ability to create hyper-targeted and localised Facebook ads on the fly, for example. But Mr Holmes’ – dare we say it? – commercial interests appear to have precluded a more wide-ranging analysis.

Mr Holmes is not to blame. The chance to publish an advertorial under the guise of analysis on the web property of perhaps the world’s most trusted news source will have been irresistible. The question must be asked, however, why CNN would ever allow such a nakedly commercially-motivated polemic to be published with the disclosure of partiality appearing only as a short paragraph after the conclusion of the piece?

The struggle between external interests and journalistic integrity is an old one. The New York Times, for instance, had a long and well-documented internal battle before ever creating an op-ed page, a place for non-journalists to opine on their views with transparency as to their intentions. The desire of a news source such as the New York Times to report the “truth”, be it relative or absolute, was evident from Public Editor Arthur Brisbane’s blog post in January about challenging facts in news articles when egregiously misstated by politicians and other newsmakers.

The overwhelming number of CNN pieces are created by professional journalists. By contrast, the Huffington Post has long admitted to its usage of unpaid contributors, including those who are paid by external sources to “disseminate [their] message”. In other words, these contributors are not citizen journalists: they are biased individuals looking for larger platforms.

Forbes has similar motivations, banking off its stellar 95 year old reputation with a unpaid stable including “topic experts and business leaders”. Like the Huffington Post, Lewis Dvorkin, the Chief Product Officer of Forbes, is quick to inform his readership that their contributors are able to monetise contributions in other ways. In one case, a writer received a book deal based on a single viral blog post. As both companies point out, new content often yields alternative revenue sources.

When reading through the contributor list at Forbes, one happens upon Avik Roy, who writes about healthcare. Mr Roy’s disclosed affiliations reveal his membership in Mitt Romney’s Health Care Policy Advisory Group. It must be stated that Mr Roy has written extensively on healthcare prior to being approached by Mr Romney’s campaign. But for him to write a post entitled “Why States Have a Huge Fiscal Incentive to Opt Out of Obamacare’s Medicaid Expansion”, while acknowledging his current affiliations, raises questions.

Roy is more than a member of a conservative-leaning think tank: he has the opportunity for a presidential appointment if Mr Romney wins the election. Is the reader able to accurately assess the extent to which partisan politics might colour his reasoning? As we’ve seen, though the piece is “just” a Forbes blog post, the name of Forbes can be deployed by each person who quotes it.

Let us be clear. Mr Roy makes his intentions clear. He is free of blame.

These are two examples out of hundreds of thousands. Practically every blog and website has guest posters. The Kernel, too (though we probably do a more thorough job of editing than most).

I’m not calling for an end to the practice, although that would be my ideal. But disclosure must be more blatant. Like the New York Times op-ed page accomplishes in print, a reader must be made keenly aware, by clear design change and page heading, that the content he is reading may contain commercial or financial or political bias. When shared on Twitter or Facebook, the link should automatically include the word “opinion”. All pieces should undergo the same rigorous fact-checking that regularly commissioned works undergo.

Journalism will not be saved by publicly disclosed private interests hijacking the content pages of news websites. But a clearer delineation between “news”, “analysis”, and “opinion” is a good start.