Ethics in journalism

CBC's Amanda Lang faces questions about journalistic ethics

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The CBC has been on the defensive today after stories have emerged about its senior business correspondent, Amanda Lang, and her affiliations with some of the corporations she reports on. This follows revelations that Global News anchor Leslie Roberts jointly owned a public relations firm and his clients often appeared on his shows. These stories have led to the questions: What are journalism ethics, and why do they matter?

For many journalism students at Ryerson University, this was a return to class after winter break, and one topic prevailed.

Sarah Cunningham-Scharf, Ryerson Journalism student: “How you can’t be involved in stories you have a personal interest in, because it’s unethical. Maybe journalists should refuse stories if they have a personal or financial interest in the story.”

CBC business reporter Amanda Lang is defending her relationship with major banks and insurance companies after stories that she earns money from them at speaking engagements, that she’s dating a bank board member, and that she even tried to kill a negative story about a bank.

The CBC vigorously denies those claims. But they come shortly after revelations that Global anchor Leslie Roberts was co-owner of a public relations firm that provided guests for his show.

Journalism school chair Ivor Shapiro teaches ethics at Ryerson: “It has certainly been an interesting time. to be thinking about what is journalism. How is journalism different from PR or lobbying? journalism is independent of the results of a story being covered or not.”

So if you have a personal stake in the story, you shouldn’t cover it. Online paper Canadaland has been publishing stories about CBC anchors earning money at speaking engagements for a month.

Sean Craig, Canadaland: “Journalists have two choices. You can recuse yourself from the story or you can disclose. Either way, the audience is fully informed about whether there’s potential for conflict of interest. Their responsibility is to hold to account the institutions that they cover. it’s that simple.”

In journalism school, ethics questions seem to be black and white. But here, it’s still theory. When they get into the real world, journalists often find there are grey areas.

But when it comes to things like owning a PR firm and not telling your network about it, Ivor Shapiro says: “On a big complicated spectrum, this is on the simple side.”

“It’s kinda scary going into the field after all this bad publicity. You have these role models and you look up to them. But they’re the ones making the mistakes.”

In speaking with Sean Craig about whether journalists holding other journalists to account is something new, he said he’s worked in Europe and the United States as a journalist and it is common in those places to hold journalists to account.