Source relationships pose ethical dilemma

The relationship between journalists and their sources is typically considered to be sacred by all parties involved. The fact that some journalists are willing to go to jail before revealing a source's name is proof positive of this.

The relationship between journalists and their sources is typically considered to be sacred by all parties involved. The fact that some journalists are willing to go to jail before revealing a source's name is proof positive of this.

However, at the end of the day, there is a job to be done, and in the journalist's case, that job is supposed to be done objectively and without even the smallest hint of impropriety.

And that is what has made the news that Todd Thomson, chief of Citigroup's wealth management unit, was ousted owing in part to his friendship with, and spending on, CNBC reporter and personality Maria Bartiromo such an issue for the journalism community. Bartiromo reportedly took several trips on a Citigroup corporate jet that were deemed improper by Citigroup officials, and a questionable action considering it is a company she covers.

CNBC has publicly defended Bartiromo's actions, saying that any trips she may have taken on the Citigroup jet were preapproved and fall under the "source development" portion of its code of ethics; it has also stated that it will not investigate Bartiromo's relationship with Citigroup. Still, the issue raises the question of business journalism ethics - specifically, how close is too close when dealing with sources?

"The trouble with this story is there's some shades of gray here," says Alison Schafer, assistant journalism professor at American University. "You don't want to be in bed with the people you cover, but... you do want access to the people you cover."

And in a profession that is guided by a code of ethics that is sometimes iffy, deciding when the line is crossed between a journalist and source can be difficult.

"Is it acceptable to have a source buy you beer? Maybe it is. Is it OK for a source to fly you back on the corporate jet from Hong Kong? Maybe not," says Schafer. "What's really the difference on a slippery slope? If one is acceptable, where do you draw the line?"

Chris Roush, a former Bloomberg and BusinessWeek reporter and current assistant journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says the issue is not that Bartiromo accepted a ride on a corporate jet - Roush himself did so when interviewing former Citigroup chairman Sanford Weill nearly 14 years ago - but rather that she wasn't doing so in pursuit of a story.

"If the motive is to get a story for readers and your media outlet is going to repay, then I think it's fine," he says. "If the motive is just to suck up to an executive and there's no real story coming out of it, the appearance of that makes all business journalists look bad."

This isn't the first time Bartiromo has been embroiled in a controversy involving Citigroup. In 2003, she revealed in an on-air interview with Weill that she owned Citigroup stock, prompting CNBC to institute a new stock-ownership policy for its employees.

CNBC certainly owes a debt of gratitude to Bartiromo for the success it has had in the past decade. Dubbed the "Money Honey," a name that is reportedly trademarked, she is one of the few recognizable personalities on the network and, as such, is indelibly tied to its image and reputation. And if she was merely complying with existing, albeit shaky, guidelines, then those guidelines will need to be changed.

"Are you going to binge your ethical standards just for somebody who's well-known and the face of a network? I think most media outlets would say, 'No, you don't do that because then you're setting up a double standard,'" Roush says. "CNBC needs to toughen [its] regulations if it wants to improve its credibility with its viewers."

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