By publishing a business column without revealing the financial interests the columnist has with the companies he writes about, the Chronicle Herald is in clear violation of widely accepted ethical rules in journalism.
Peter Moreira writes the “Entrevestor” column for the Chronicle Herald. The column appears three times a week, and profiles start up companies. Moreira also owns a company of the same name, and the website entrevestor.com. The website is “partners” with various public economic development agencies—ACOA, NSBI, Innovacorp, and the equivalents in New Brunswick and Newfoundland—and the site promotes the start ups the agencies fund. Some of the start ups also hire Moreira as a writer, to write their business cases and promotional material. The Chronicle Herald also pays him for the column.
In his column, Moreira writes about companies funded by the economic development agencies, and always positively. He never critically examines the agencies or the companies. So far as I can determine, the column has never profiled a company that is not funded by the agencies Moreira “partners” with.
I had a pleasant email exchange with Moreira yesterday about this, and he told me that “you raise a fair point, a legitimate concern to use your phrase. It’s something that I’ve wrestled with since I started Entrevestor.”
Moreira is a true believer in start ups. In 2009 he wrote a book, Backwater: Nova Scotia’s economic decline, which appears to be (I haven’t read it) a call to double down on neoliberal policy in the Maritimes, slashing corporate taxes, cutting regulations, etc. Since then, he’s developed a niche for himself, paradoxically working with the very governments he so despises. He explains:
As well as some private sector sponsors, the Entrevestor website is sponsored by five government entities – ACOA, NSBI, Innovacorp, NBIF and the NL government. (We have to use the term “partner” because “sponsor” became an unpopular term in government after the sponsorship scandal. For all intents and purposes, partner and sponsor are synonymous.) I place their logos on our homepage so everyone sees who sponsors our site. Some of these agencies also advertise in our quarterly print publication – an advertising relationship that is no different than any other publication. Sponsorship of the website has become an increasingly smaller portion of our income each year. Advertising and the sale of data comprise the majority of our business now.
Moreira goes on to say that “I honestly believe the tone and substance of Entrevestor would be unchanged if we didn’t have government sponsors.”
Fair enough. I’ll discuss Moreira’s ideas and how he fits into our political culture in a future post, but right now I want to talk about the Chronicle Herald’s ethical lapse.
The Chronicle Herald does label the column “Entrevestor,” and its author’s note for Moreira explains that “Peter Moreira is a principal of www.entrevestor.com, a news and data website for Atlantic Canadian startups.” What the Chronicle Herald does not do, however, is clearly and explicitly tell its readers that Moreira benefits financially by promoting the companies he is writing about.
By not clearly declaring the payments Moreira receives from the agencies, the Chronicle Herald is violating basic and long-standing journalistic conflict of interest policies.
The New York Time’s conflict of interest statement, for example, says that:
The goal of The New York Times is to cover the news as impartially as possible — “without fear or favor,” in the words of Adolph Ochs, our patriarch — and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and others fairly and openly, and to be seen to be doing so. The reputation of The Times rests upon such perceptions, and so do the professional reputations of its staff members. Thus The Times and members of its news department and editorial page staff share an interest in avoiding conflicts of interest or an appearance of a conflict.
The Times’ “Ethical Journalism” handbook makes plain that:
Staff members may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or as an inducement to alter or forgo unfavorable coverage.
In its “Statement of Principles,” Newspapers Canada, the industry group that represents daily and community newspapers in Canada, directly addresses conflicts of interest:
The newspaper’s primary obligation is fidelity to the public good. It should pay the costs of gathering the news. Conflicts of interest, real or apparent, should be declared. The newspaper should guard its independence from government, commercial and other interests seeking to subvert content for their own purposes.
Why does this matter? Because readers are being misled into thinking that Moreira’s columns are an independent look at start ups.
It’s true that the columns are clearly labeled “Entrevestor,” but will the average reader knows what that means? Even going to the entrevestor.com website (which most readers won’t do) finds only a list of “partners,” but again, what does that mean? I had to ask Moreira and the economic development agencies to explain it to me. NSBI told me the agency has paid Moreira $24,500 since 2011, or about $8,200 over each of the three years. Innovacorp said they’ve paid $3,000 annually to “partner” with entrevestor.com, but also an additional $2,250 to advertise in each of Moreira’s biannual “Intelligence Reports.” As of publishing this post, ACOA hasn’t yet responded to my query.
The columns have the appearance of falling behind the editorial/advertising fire wall, and with no indication otherwise, readers will assume that Moreira has no monetary interest in portraying the companies in a certain light. This is incorrect. Agree with him or not, but I’ve never seen him critically question a start-up, or the agencies that fund them, which one would expect occasionally from a unaffiliated commentator. Further: so far as I know, in his Chronicle Herald column, Moreira has never written about a company that he wasn’t also getting paid by the economic development agencies to promote.
Via email, this morning I asked Chronicle Herald associate publisher Ian Thompson about Moreira’s conflict of interest. This afternoon, Thompson emailed back to say he’ll have an answer for me—but probably not until Friday.
There’s much more to say about this. I’ve asked a couple of journalism profs who study and write about conflicts of interest to weigh in, and I’ll publish their and Thompson’s responses when I get them. Additionally, there are issues related to how advertising skews and slants news coverage, which I want to explore at length.