April 27, 2016

Arianna Huffington was announced as the newest member of Uber’s board of directors today, sparking questions about whether the appointment would conflict with her role as editor in chief of The Huffington Post.

In statements to CNN, The Verge and others, The Huffington Post sought to allay concerns that her new job would influence coverage at the online news organization. The founding editor plans to recuse herself in cases where her news organization would cover the ride-hailing company.

But is that enough to avoid a conflict of interest? Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, the vice president of The Poynter Institute and its media ethicist, about whether the appointment could pose a real or perceived problem for The Huffington Post’s reporting on Uber and its competitors.

Are there inherent conflicts of interest to having the editor in chief of a publication sit on the board of a company her news organization covers? How does this differ from having a news organization’s business executive affiliated with a company?

This is highly unusual for an editor in chief of a news organization to sit on the board of a corporation. And it’s not just any corporation. Uber is in the news all the time. In fact, I would think that Uber controversies are a sweet spot of news coverage for The Huffington Post. It’s different than a publisher or a business executive, because the editor in chief is the editorial decision-maker for the news organization. And Arianna is a hands-on editor in chief, sitting in on meetings and influencing coverage.

This absolutely will cause audience members who know that Arianna sits on Uber’s board to doubt The Huffington Post’s independence when it comes to covering Uber. Even if you have a trusting relationship with a news provider, if you know about a conflict of interest, you find reasons to dismiss the coverage. That’s why the perception of a conflict is just as big as an actual conflict. In this case, Huffington Post is going to have to manage the conflict of interest as well as the perception of the conflict.

Is there any way The Huffington Post can minimize its risk of ethical missteps in this case? What are they?

Yes, Huffington Post editors need to actively manage the message to their staff and to the public. Internally, Arianna could designate an editor to be the chief decider on Uber stories and other stories involving ride-sharing and the greater gig economy. That editor should make it clear that decisions will be made with the audience as the no. 1 stakeholder, that Uber won’t benefit from any favoritism. Also, Arianna needs to make it clear to Uber that she won’t leak newsworthy information, which is a strange position to be in as an editor in chief.

Arianna Huffington has said she plans to recuse herself in HuffPost’s coverage of Uber. Is that enough to put ethical concerns to rest?

Here’s what I would recommend if they asked me:

  • Appoint the editor mentioned above
  • Send a memo to the staff articulating the commitment to good journalism in the face of this conflict of interest
  • Have Arianna pen a public piece for the audience stating her commitment to assertive, independent coverage of Uber
  • Disclose at the bottom of every story about Uber that Arianna sits on the board and link to the public letter avowing solid coverage
  • Assemble the writers most likely to cover Uber and review the expectations with them
  • Do broader conflict-of-interest training for the entire staff
  • Review how it’s going in six months

Or, Arianna could recuse herself as editor in chief in favor of a publisher’s role, which would be less hands-on in the newsroom

Even if Arianna Huffington doesn’t line-edit copy or assign every story, are there implicit pressures that might affect The Huffington Post with regard to Uber?

As I travel around the country and talk to journalists, I find self-censorship to be a huge problem. A lot of journalists feel certain that there are sacred cows they cannot report on, or they cannot report aggressively on. Often, newsroom managers are unintentionally sending mixed signals. Because there is so much turmoil in the industry, reporters fear getting on a powerful editor’s shit list.

Is there precedent for this elsewhere in the news industry? What do those news organizations do to avoid being ethically compromised?

Well, Bloomberg. Also, on a local level there are usually conflicts and appearances of conflicts that come from the publisher or CEO’s involvement in the local Chamber of Commerce or sitting on the United Way board or even giving to political campaigns. But it’s much less likely that an active editor in chief would would end up in this position.

Does this arrangement offer any potential upsides to The Huffington Post’s newsroom?

If it did that would be an even bigger problem. I could see Uber giving HuffPost reporters access to inside data that would be really interesting and revealing. Or I could see Uber and HuffPost collaborating on a project. But that would only raise questions among skeptical audience members about the independence of the information.

I suppose there could be an Uber discount for HuffPost employees. But that would be bad too.

Benjamin Mullin, Poynter’s managing editor, contributed to this report.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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