The Case For Full Disclosure

Informing readers about your affiliations and leanings is the best way to address the issue of conflict of interest.

ByRajan Laad
The Case For Full Disclosure
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If a newspaper carries a review that hails a new film as the “Citizen Kane” of our times, are we not entitled to know that the corporate group that owns the newspaper is also a promoter of that very film? If a gadget and technology magazine carries a scathing review of the latest version of the Windows operating system, are the readers not entitled to know if the magazine was founded by an Apple employee? If a journalist writes a piece on the ills of capitalism and how it can ruin a country, are the readers not entitled to know that the writer is a member of the Left group, “Occupy Wall Street”? If a nutritionist writes an article proclaiming that coffee is advantageous for health, are we not entitled to know if a prominent coffee producer is funding his research?

Finally, if a journalist writes a piece lauding a political party for its great achievements, are we not entitled to know that his wife is an active member of that very political party?

The principle of full disclosure is rarely applied, especially in the field of journalism. A journalist is more likely to yell out a response instead: “How dare you question my integrity? I have been in this field for 20 long years much before my wife joined politics. Do you want to take away my rights to express freely? Do you think I should quit my job because my wife happens to be in the same political party? Should I tattoo it to my f*****g forehead that my wife works for the party?”

Well, my answer to that will be an emphatic no. You have a right to express your thoughts without any fear and to earn a living. Presumably, you have, through your qualification, talent and work proved your worth. Nobody is doubting your integrity but, at the same time, the audience or the reader is entitled to know about your background, so that they are forewarned of your leanings.

In fact, the advent of social media has made it impossible for anybody to conceal details such as these and once you are exposed for your ties, which you either purposefully or unknowingly concealed, trust is lost forever. Even if an honest report were to be written, it will be looked through the prism of your associations and bias, and dismissed. Thus, a full disclosure is the best way to address any conflict of interest, it is an effective way of engaging with your audience and making a clean breast of all you are before you opine. Before they find you, you tell them.

So, should we apply the principle of full disclosure to everything? The answer is yes. But wait. How about the sensitive and personal matter of religion?

If anthropologists were to look up the history of religion, they will find that religions were created in the early times owing to the absence of any mechanism to keep people together, to prevent them from committing acts that are considered immoral and to provide explanations to the incomprehensible. It also provided spiritual solace.

So, it is entirely manmade and hence it should be subject to scrutiny like any other organisation on earth. But religion has not become a matter for some that cannot be challenged and in some cases questioning, mocking or even the thought of quitting can be a matter of life and death.

So let’s consider a scenario, a journalist writes an article on “The rise of X Groups after M comes to power”, where X stands for any religion and M stands for a leader. Are we not entitled to know if the journalist was once a practicing  X who has now converted to Y and on some level dislikes or even despises X and its principles? “No” will be the unified voice of a million proponents of freedom of speech. “Why can’t somebody from religion Y be critical of religion X?” Nobody is preventing the journalist from writing an article. As an absolutist of freedom of expression, I believe he or she is perfectly within his or her rights to express themselves.

But, we the reader, are also entitled to know the religious evolution of the writer, so we know where his ideas may be coming from. After all, isn’t truthfulness a major tenant of freedom of expression? So, do we make it mandatory for every journalist to make a full disclosure of his religious evolution? That is impossible, we are a democracy and in a democracy we cannot dictate anything on anybody.

But we can only hope that news organisations make it a practice to have bodies whose job is to advise journalists in matters of full disclosure and conflict of interests. Just like most organisations have independent fact-finding departments whose job it is to verify the authenticity of the information put out in any article before it is published.

In the end, if the journalist proclaims to fearlessly present the truth, he or she should be equally fearless in presenting the truth about his or her background, even if it is religion. As the old adage goes, “Those who fear the truth are often the ones who have something to hide”.

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