Bully for BU!

By ADAM REILLY  |  March 12, 2010

The irony, obviously, is that threatening another reporter with libel when they question your coverage isn't exactly savvy journalistic diplomacy. When I ask Globe editor Marty Baron about the pre-emptive libel threat, for example, he strikes a disapproving note. "We're not a party to any veiled libel threat," Baron says via e-mail, "and we do not approve of anything of that sort."

And what about the original issue: the omission of any BU sex-assault data from the Globe piece?

Like Bergantino, Jennifer Peter, the Globe's metro editor, insists that the absence of sex-assault numbers at BU was appropriate. "This was a story," she says in an e-mail, "based on statistics provided by New England universities who participate in the federal-grant program."

That's true. But it was also a story that made local colleges and universities working with the DOJ look bad — while simultaneously ignoring the same problem at schools that, for whatever reason, aren't participating in the DOJ program. Since BU falls into the latter category, the reportorial framework chosen by Bergantino and Mulvihill and endorsed by Peter may benefit BU, albeit inadvertently. (It's easy to imagine a distracted parent reading the February 25 story at the breakfast table and thinking the following: "Rape at UMass? And Tufts and Northeastern? Little Betty's going to BU!")

Given this, it's hard not to think that a bit more disclosure might have been wise. NECIR's affiliation with BU could have been mentioned in the byline of the Globe story, for example, instead of after the piece's conclusion, in a kicker many readers may have missed. A parenthetical aside about BU's track record on sex assaults would have been even more useful. It could have been brief, using information already accessible on the Web, such as: "Boston University, where we're based, isn't participating in the DOJ program, but reported five forcible rapes in 2008 and 22 forcible sex offenses on its Charles River campus in 2006–2008."

New rules?
This isn't the first time a conflict of interest involving an established news organization and a start-up has caused controversy. Late last year, for example, the Washington Post published a piece by a new digital organization — the Fiscal Times — on increased support for a bipartisan commission devoted to reining in the national debt. The piece quoted the head of the Concord Coalition, an organization dedicated to balanced budgets and entitlement reform — and funded by the foundation of Peter G. Peterson, a billionaire deficit hawk who also happens to be the publisher of the Fiscal Times. "We didn't sufficiently disclose," Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli later acknowledged.

According to Baron, the Globe subjects material created by outside organizations — like the NECIR story, or the multiple pieces generated by investigative-reporting students at Northeastern University and given prominent Globe play — to the same editing process that's used for other content. "We edit all stories using the same standards," says Baron.

But the same standards may not be sufficient as collaboration with non-traditional outlets increases. At an organization like the Globe, some individual staffers or freelancers will have problematic conflicts of interest; many won't. But outfits like NECIR or the Fiscal Times will almost certainly see conflicts arise on occasion, whether via affiliation with a major institution, funding from a deep-pocketed and powerful donor, or some other consideration.

That doesn't mean, of course, that NECIR shouldn't cover stories that might somehow help BU, or that the Fiscal Times should eschew subjects of interest to its founder. But if and when this happens, full disclosure and wide-ranging, well-balanced reporting are a must. That's not libelous — that's just common sense.

To read the "Don't Quote Me" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/medialog. Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly@phx.com.

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