Full Disclosure: What Is It And Would It Help Or Hinder Journalism?

Jeff Jarvis is issuing a challenge to bloggers – and more importantly to journalists everywhere. Jarvis has gotten his hands on a copy of a questionnaire that The New York Times requires its freelance writers to answer. It's a list of disclosure questions and Jarvis thinks that "every journalist, especially staffers, should fill out the questionnaire and that they should be made public."

Jarvis answers the questions himself and urges all bloggers to follow suit as a way to "pressure mainstream journalists into such open disclosure." He is also soliciting suggestions for other questions to add to the list. First, the questions from The Times' questionnaire, then some comments:

1. Please list your other current employers, whether full time or part time

2. For what other employers have you worked in the last three years?

3. What sort of volunteer work do you do regularly, if any, and for whom? (Please include any public relations, advocacy or advisory board involvement.)

4. Do you do any work paid or unpaid in politics or government? Have you done any lobbying of governmental bodies?

5. Do you have any financial investments or financial ties that may limit your ability to cover specific topics free of conflict, and if so, what are the topics?

6. Although we don't regulate the activities of spouses, partners or immediate family members of our contributors, do any of their professional or personal involvements or any of their financial investments or ties make certain topics inappropriate for you, and if so, what are the topics?

7. Have you accepted any free trips, junkets or press trips in the last two years? Have you accepted any substantial free merchandise or discounts from people we might cover?

8. Has anything you've written later resulted in a published editor's note or retraction for deliberate falsehood or plagiarism or become the subject of a lawsuit involving allegations of deliberate falsehood? (If yes, please include details about the publication and your role in the article or story. If a lawsuit, please describe the disposition of the case.)

From Jarvis:
What else? This isn't as simple as filling out a one-size-fits-all-beats list once. I believe that if journalists have something to disclose about their views or involvement in a story that a reader should properly know to judge that story, they should be updating on online disclosures page accordingly. We don't need to litter stories in sparse print and airtime with every such disclosure; it could reach an absurd though amusing extreme ("The lawyer for the accused once bought me a beer"… "I own two shares of Microsoft stock"…). But we should not shy away from such disclosure when it is relevant.
The issue of disclosure is a tricky one, as Jarvis points out very well (read the entire post for more nuance). Certainly there are instances where a conflict of interest would be obvious – say, a reporter with a vested personal interest in a story covering that particular beat. More often than not, however, the lines are much more blurred.

There is a common refrain that goes something like this: If journalists would just tell us whether they are Democrats or Republicans, we would know how to take their stories. I just cannot accept that premise because it simply does not allow for individual thought. For example, if a reporter were to say he or she were a Democrat, would that not pigeon-hole them on every single story thereafter? Would a political reporter be reduced to making disclosures like this when covering a story on, say, abortion: "I'm a Republican but support a woman's right to have an abortion?" What about a Democrat whose feelings on capital punishment have changed: "As a registered Democrat, I used to be against the death penalty but after seeing this horrendous crime, I think we need it in some instances?"

Yes, those are extreme and convoluted examples, but they illustrate a point – the world can be pretty complicated, do simple disclosures on the part of journalists really do anything to clarify it? Who is to judge what type of disclosure is germane to a story? If it's an example of, you-know-it-when-you-see-it, isn't it just one more judgment call that is open to everyone's individual interpretation?

I think my bio provides more insight into my general outlook than answering the questions above but I'll be happy to do so:

1). None
2). Atlantic Media
3). My family volunteers through the St. Louis Catholic Church (add: In Alexandria, VA)
4). No
5). No
6). No
7). No
8). Errors are corrected on Public Eye

So, what do you think, should all journalists have to answer similar questions and should their answers be made public? How much should we really know about individual journalists?