Journalism Tips: What To Do When Presented With A Conflict Of Interest

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In all my years of music blogging, ‘conflict of interest’ is probably the one term I have heard thrown around more than any other when discussing the efforts of various writers. Site owners, much like countless industry professionals working in areas like publicity or management, often have several industry-centric efforts going on at the same time. Some see this as a problem, while others view it as simply leveraging a position those individuals have earned through hard work. I’m not here to tell you which side is right because in all honestly I’m not entirely sure, but I can provide insight into the meaning of this often thrown around term and how it applies to the world of blogging today.

To quote our friends at Businessdictionary, a conflict of interest (COI) is “any situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person’s self-interest and professional interest or public interest.” To put it in simpler terms: conflicts of interest are situations that occur when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation.

Some of the COIs taking place in music today include:

  • Bloggers writing about bands who they have an invested interest in, whether it be through management, label dealings, publicity, or any other facet of the music business.
  • Bloggers accepting cash ‘donations’ in exchange for covering certain acts on their blog that may otherwise not fit into their normal content offerings.
  • Critics scoring albums higher than they normally would because of a personal relationship with the artist.
  • Publicists contributing content to blogs featuring their clients.
  • Publicists and managers handling artists they have invested
    time/money in alongside to artists they have no financial ties to.
  • Bands touring with groups they have a financial interest in, as opposed to working with the best band for the bill.
  • Record labels maintaining music blogs under pseudonyms in order to push their latest releases.
  • Record labels paying music critics to review albums they would otherwise never consider highlighting.
  • Partnership blogging, which is an act where one writer covers a certain person’s artist so that the other individual will in turn cover their artist at some point in the future.

There are many more potential conflicts of interest taking place in the music industry today, but the vast majority are never brought to light. The reason for this is because the blogging industry, much like the wild west, is a place that is still very much trying to define itself. Everyone is scrambling to make something for themselves before the powers that be set a precedent everyone must follow, and until that happens people will use any and everything at their disposal to get ahead? Is that right or wrong? Again, I’m not a hundred percent sure anyone can really say either way.

Conflicts of interest must be addressed on a case by case basic in order to determine where they fall in the world of business ethics. That said, whether or not the person executing the COI cares for business ethics is another discussion altogether. There are far more people writing about music online for free than there are those who make a living doing it, and as a result It’s not hard to understand why people would bend rules and business practices for financial gain. That does not necessarily make it right, but in the mind of a young writer it’s not right that they often must write for years and years before seeing a single dime. COIs offer a quick leg up against the competition, be it for promotional or financial purposes, and as long as that remains true there will always be those willing to risk whatever fall out may occur if their efforts are uncovered.

Speaking of risks, it’s hard to tell what – if anything – will happen to someone whose COIs are discovered. In extreme cases there may be people removed from contributing staffs or black listed from a certain mailing list, but more often than not the only damage done in these situations is to the perceived reputation of the individual responsible. If you’re a critic and word gets out that your opinion can be bought, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for you to sell people on your word being trustworthy in the future. Likewise, if it comes to light that coverage on your blog is available for purchase your readers may look to what they believe to be more authentic outlets for news and music discovery. Then again, some might not care at all. People are weird like that.

In a way similar to how you choose the type of person you want to be in life, you also have a choice when it comes to the type of blogger you want to become. There are as many ways to success in music as there are to failure, but I can tell you from my decade of experience that nothing beats an honest voice with a unique perspective. Be yourself, regardless of what others say, and over time you will see your career flourish. You will find and audience, or perhaps they will find you, and together you will create a dialogue on music that is rewarding for everyone involved. Cutting corners for short term success or minuscule financial gain offers no longterm benefits, forging a trusting relationship with your reader is something that will reward you again and again.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.