Economists lack an ethics code, which poses challenges for journalists covering them

Unlike doctors, architects, dentists, building contractors, journalists and a wide range of other professions and trades, economists do not have a code of professional ethics.

That would seem more of an internal matter for the profession if it weren’t for the fact that journalists rely on academic and applied economists as sources. Economists are viewed as credible, authoritative experts. Their words carry weight. So should the lack of an ethical code change the way journalists deal with economists? Or is it irrelevant to the quality of commentary and information they provide?

There’s a scene in “Inside Job,” the 2010 documentary about the financial crisis, in which Frederic Mishkin, a former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and a professor at Columbia Business School, is rendered speechless.

It comes after director Charles Ferguson questions Mishkin about his co-authorship of a 2006 report, “Financial Stability In Iceland,” which painted a very positive picture of the country’s banking system. Ferguson notes that Mishkin was paid six figures by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to deliver the document — yet nowhere in the text is this information disclosed. The exchange is captured in this clip, which concludes with Mishkin fumbling for a response.

It’s a damning few minutes of cinema, and has become a frequently-cited piece of evidence in a growing debate about the lack of formal ethical requirements of economists.

George DeMartino, a professor in the global, finance, trade and economic integration program at the University of Denver, said in an email interview that the lack of a code poses a problem for journalists:

“Up until now (and by now, I mean up until the release of Ferguson’s film and the subsequent reporting and studies), journalists tended to presume that academic economists have no significant interests outside of their university appointments — no financial entanglements that might in any way affect their judgments. …

[I]t’s now clear that leading economists can and do make substantial sums from consulting, lectures, service on boards of directors and the like. And yet, when they give testimony before Congress, say, or take other positions on pressing policy matters, they do not routinely make full disclosure of their financial entanglements. That’s a problem — for our profession, and for those who rely on economic expertise.”

Advocating for a code

DeMartino isn’t alone in thinking the lack of a code is a problem for his profession. Earlier this year a letter signed by roughly 300 economists was sent to the president of the American Economic Association. It called upon the AEA to adopt a code of ethics. The organization responded by creating an Ad Hoc Committee on Ethical Standards for Economists, which Nobel laureate Robert Solow is leading.

When contacted, the AEA said it could not provide additional details about the committee’s work. But AEA associate treasurer-secretary Peter L. Rousseau said in an email that a draft report will be sent to the AEA Executive Committee for its January meeting.

“This draft will be for internal discussion only,” he said. “When the report is finalized it will be made available on the association’s website. At this time we do not know when exactly this will occur but we anticipate sometime by late Spring of 2012.”

In the meantime, economists operate without a code of ethics. At the very least, it’s something journalists need to be aware of, according to Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Without a code, the public has trouble knowing how to keep professionals accountable because they can’t cite specific principles and standards that the professionals accept and have violated,” Ward said by email. “Unethical practitioners have great space in which to operate if rules are never written down. So codes are not everything in ethics, but they are not nothing, either.”

When I contacted Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon to offer an opinion about the lack of a code, he answered my questions in a blog post. Salmon offered a blunt assessment of the problems posed by the lack of a code, and the way sources deal with disclosure.

All too often economists and other professionals feel comfortable with lies of omission when talking to journalists, simply not mentioning a fact that they know is germane … A good code of ethics should address this: even if there’s a disclosure somewhere about a conflict, the onus should not be on the journalist to find it, but rather on the economist to proactively mention that conflict to the journalist.

Ward said the job of every journalist is to “make sure they know who their sources are, what political perspectives they may have, and what conflicts of interest may be hidden in the background; and to convey that understanding to the public.”

As a result, he said we have a responsibility to perform due diligence on our sources, rather than expecting them to speak up about any potential conflicts.

“Journalists should investigate the integrity, expertise and possible biases of their expert sources in the same way that they investigate any other source of information,” he said. “In fact it may be more important to investigate economists and other experts given their power in shaping public discourse.”

Warren Watson, executive director of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and a former business journalist, said in a phone interview that his organization’s code of ethics has become an important touchstone for members. However, he doubts business journalists consider whether a source is bound by a similar code.

“I don’t think business journalists would routinely ask a source if he or she has a code of ethics,” he said. ”… It might be one of those questions that come up at an awkward time in an interview, and it might be off-putting [to the source].”

Watson said codes of ethics are important for all professionals, and it’s key to keep them current.

“I think we all need something like this,” he said. “This kind of stuff is good to have and good to freshen up from time to time and make sure it’s still applicable and relevant.”

Questioning the need for a code

While the movement toward a code for economists appears to have momentum, some prominent economists question the utility and importance of having one.

Lant Pritchett made the argument in an online discussion hosted by “The Economist” that a person’s clients, race, gender or other characteristics should not be a defining factor in evaluating the value of their arguments.

“People should be able [to] put ideas, arguments and evidence into the public sphere of economics discourse to be evaluated on their disciplinary merits, not based on their author and his/her peculiar bundle of biases,” wrote Pritchett, professor of the practice of international development and faculty chair of the masters in public policy in international development program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “To help readers fairly assess my ideas, arguments, and evidence I should voluntarily disclose about myself … nothing.”

In an Economist article earlier this year, economist Tyler Cowen questioned the utility of a code. As evidence, he said he believes ethical codes for journalists have little impact.

“Newspapers already have conflict of interest policies for many (or all) of their writers, but I don’t see they are much enforced or have much improved the quality of most op-ed pages as policy advice,” wrote Cohen, author of “The Great Stagnation.” (He didn’t respond to a request to expand on that thought.)

Of course, journalists can be guilty of making poor ethical decisions, but that doesn’t mean ethics codes don’t help. The challenge is making sure newsrooms talk about the codes they have and put them into practice — not just when an ethical issue arises but in their day to day reporting.

A code is not a panacea, be it aimed at economists, journalists or anyone else. DeMartino, author of “The Economist’s Oath: On the Need for Content of Professional Economic Ethics,” acknowledged that while some people will violate a code, its existence provides important guidance and increases the overall level of ethics and disclosure.

Would some people still cheat? Of course. But my sense is that most economists want to do good work, work with integrity, and to do it honestly; and this alone would lead most economists to make full disclosure, were they simply asked to do so. And for the rest — their self-interest would also have them give full disclosure, since failure to do so would imperil their standing in the halls of power, and with the media.

Economists want influence — and so they are apt to be careful to conduct themselves in ways that allow them to stay in the game, so to speak. Right now, there are no rules for them to follow, and so each economist is left to figure out when to make a disclosure, and how forthcoming to be in doing so.

Not surprisingly, DeMartino added one last item before signing off by email.

“BTW: I receive no salary outside of the university, and have no outside financial earnings other than occasional honoraria for giving lectures, paltry book royalties, and my 403b earnings (and losses!),” he said. “See? That wasn’t hard…”

Three tips for interviewing economists

1. For academic economists, check the CV listed on his or her university profile page. For applied economists, find a detailed biography. Review these documents prior to the interview. Focus on the boards they sit on, the companies or organizations they advise and the entities that sponsor their research and retain them for consulting. Who pays them for their expertise, and do they have any financial arrangements related to the topic you want to discuss? “My sense is that it would be good to check CVs and the like (though not all financial entanglements might be listed there),” DeMartino said.

2. Ward suggests checking economists’ previous public statements and their books or major articles to get a sense of who they are and what their perspectives are. Coverage of their work may include information that helps place their perspective in context.

3. During interviews, ask if they have any experience — such as sitting on boards or consulting — that helped form their opinions on this topic. You can then follow up their response with a direct question about whether they have any engagements or relationships that should be disclosed. “It is perfectly legitimate for a journalist to ask economists directly whether they have any potential conflicts to disclose,” Ward said. “In academia and elsewhere, experts are asked to disclose any potential conflicts.”

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  • http://twitter.com/gliberson Gary Liberson

    I am going to make a few changes to your article.  To begin with let’s change the introduction to:  Unlike doctors, architects, dentists, building contractors, and other BOARD certified professionals, journalists and economists do not have a professional ethics answerable to an outside authority.  Journalists are at least answerable to their organizations that tend to have generally consistent rules of conduct but economists are free to use their trade to justify any position: Much like any lobbyist who enters a room.  How can we decide what’s true?

    Answer:  Get smart which is what I think your last three bullets really say.

    I think these concerns are real and material but I also feel they are tough to solve.  Many years ago I worked for a government agency where would say:  If this appears on the front page of the NYTs will we be embarrassed?  This is the ultimate personal test that Frederic Mishkin learned.

    I doubt there is a real answer other than writing about the problem an getting journalists to up their game.