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Understanding conflicts of interest in freelancing

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By Sherry Robinson

Journalists are quick to go after elected officials who cross the line, so a skeptical public should know that we’re just as quick to go after one of our own. Sometimes too quick.
In writing about the Interstate Stream Commission’s decision on the Gila River, I ran across a scuffle in which one newshound accuses another of conflict of interest.
This is not just a family squabble. Because a lot of work gets farmed out to contractors, consultants and freelancers, it’s worth a look.
Mary Alice Murphy was a reporter for the Silver City Daily Press. She retired in late 2007, but continued with the paper as a freelancer.
In September 2008, an Arizona Water Settlement Act committee asked her to create a website, take minutes and post agendas. The newspaper reported this on its front page. She was paid alternately by the county, the ISC, or the Gila Conservation Coalition and at times did the work gratis.
In September 2010, Murphy stopped freelancing for the Daily Press. By then, her independent website, The Grant County Beat (grantcountybeat.com) was operating. It’s a great community resource, but she works on the side to support it.
In 2013, the ISC asked Murphy to take notes and write minutes; she used the same information on her website, posted in blog format. The ISC gig ended early last month. Afterward, she wrote an opinion piece on her website in support of using the water, which sparked angry reactions from opponents, followed by a furor over her paid work with the ISC.
“I never hid it from anybody,” she told me. “This is a small town. Everyone knew.”
Well, not everyone, it turns out.
Just before the ISC made its controversial decision to tell the federal government New Mexico wanted to use its share of the 2004 water settlement, Murphy got a call from Philip Connors, who asked her a lot of pointed questions about her ISC work.
In the Daily Press, he wrote that Murphy was paid more than $4,000 in the past 16 months.
“This is a peculiar expenditure by a government agency, to say the least,” Connors wrote. “Instead of paying a supposedly independent journalist to be what amounts to a court stenographer, why not buy a $50 audio recorder at Radio Shack?”
I can answer that question from experience: Recordings aren’t reliable. Speakers forget to identify themselves. They mumble and ramble. Attendees cough and have side conversations. Organizations need a reliable human recorder.
Connors then took Murphy to task for not disclosing her relationship to the ISC with each story and editorial.
“As a product of a journalism education that emphasized ethics and independence, I find her acceptance of the money distasteful at best. She covered the ISC first at the Daily Press and then the Grant County Beat — while accepting money from the ISC.”
He also accused the ISC of motives beyond meeting minutes, “neutering critics and paying to hear what it wants to hear.” Working up a lather, Connors trashes the process and saves a blow for “a simpering and toothless press corps.”
The Daily Press first said Murphy’s freelance Gila River stories occurred while she was being paid by the ISC and then said Murphy didn’t write for the newspaper while being paid by the ISC.
What happened here?
One challenge of the self-employed is keeping your clients and conflicts sorted out. Murphy should have disclosed her ISC work during the period of payment. However, the outlet is her website, and she can say what she wants. She lacks a journalism degree but works hard to write accurate, balanced stories and understands conflicts of interest.
Connors didn’t disclose upfront to Murphy that he was working on a story, he rushed to judgment without checking his facts, and he published unfounded accusations.
I know which one I’d trust.