Alvin Snyder, former broadcast journalist, now a senior fellow at USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy, is troubled by the participation of US bloggers in Al Jazeera’s annual forum in Qatar, titled “Defending Freedom, Defining Responsibility”. He offers questions in an essay on USC’s Worldcasting site titled “The Ethical Dilemmas of Blogging”, which questions whether blogggers – including me – committed an ethical lapse by participating in the Al Jazeera forum and allowing Al Jazeera to pay our travel expenses. (The essay appears in today’s Middle East Times, an English-language paper published in Cairo.)
Snyder did not attend the event, which may explain some of the factual inaccuracies in his essay. He asserts, “…at least 100 blogger-delegates had all travel and accommodation costs covered” by Al Jazeera. While I do not have financial details about anyone’s travel other than my own, I can report that the vast majority of the participants in the forum were not bloggers – they were Al Jazeera staffers, journalists from inside and outside the region and academics. I would estimate that fewer than 20 people blogged the event – most participants did not have laptops with them.
Most bloggers in attendance – including Marc Lynch, Dan Gillmor, Haitham Sabbah, Shaden Abdul Rahman and myself – appeared on panels. We were invited speakers at the conference and Al Jazeera paid our travel expenses to attend. As I told Mr. Snyder in an email exchange, I speak dozens of times a year and generally expect conference organizers to pay my travel expenses – in some cases, I receive an honorarium for speaking, though I did not receive one for speaking in Qatar.
Snyder cites an expert in journalistic ethics to determine whether our participation in the forum was on the level:
“Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute told Worldcasting that it would be acceptable to receive transportation and housing if one were asked to appear on a panel discussion at a conference, and to later report about that panel. However, it would be unethical to “double dip” and report on other activities at the event without disclosing that the sponsor paid for the reporter’s trip.”
Snyder also asserts that “Most mainstream media chose not to attend the session.” Speakers at the Forum included Christopher Dickey, Newsweek’s Middle East Editor; Martin Bell, formerly of the BBC, now an ambassador for UNICEF; Alain Gresh, editor of “Le Monde Diplomatique”; Deborah Tunnes, chief editor of ITV News in the UK and Samira Kawar, senior producer for Reuters TV. (The speaker roster is available online as a PDF – Snyder links to it in an earlier article on the forum.)
Snyder follows this assertion with quotes from an unnamed BBC staffer, who says, “Even if a BBC person was speaking at the event, the BBC would still insist on paying its employee’s expenses at the event.” Perhaps Snyder should have asked Richard Porter, the head of news for BBC World, who spoke on the “Challenges to News Organizations in the 21st Century” panel.
Errors aside, Snyder raises an interesting question – what obligations do bloggers have towards financial disclosure? He juxtaposes the Al Jazeera Forum – where the vast majority of bloggers were speakers at the conference – with a promotional trip to Amsterdam where 25 bloggers will travel, expenses paid, in exchange for advertising space on their blogs. While this is not something I would be comfortable doing – there’s no advertising space on my blog, for one thing – it’s a reasonable question to ask whether or not this is acceptable behavior for bloggers.
But Snyder’s solution of weighing blogger behavior against journalistic codes of conduct seems like a mistake. It’s not reasonable to ask that academics who blog turn down travel spnsorship, as it’s pretty hard for us to attend conferences. It may be reasonable that we disclose when we’re attending a conference and our travel expenses have been paid – I have a disclosure policy on my blog which makes this general point, but perhaps I need to be more specific event by event. (And perhaps you guys will let me know what you think I should be saying regarding expenses when I attend events like the Al Jazeera forum.) But I think Snyder’s “ethical dilemma” around my attendance at the Forum is less a dilemma and more an objection to the organization who hosted the forum. Perhaps Snyder has some biases or agendas behind his essay that he should be disclosing?
Alas, I posted this before reading what the good Dr. Aardvark had to say on the topic. It seems he and Mr. Snyder have crossed paths before, as he documents in a post called Snyder Gone Silly! and again in S for Snyd-etta. Ah, if I only had Marc’s gift for Alan Moore references. Check out his posts for a somewhat more… forward… response to Mr. Snyder…
I’ve posted a comment on one of Mr. Snyder’s posts, asking if he’ll correct the factual errors in his post… or whether that form of correcting errors in response to user comments isn’t part of “serious” journalism. No response yet…