Letters to the Editor

“Actress Olivia Wilde Campaigns for Obama” (2/22)

Madam, I write to follow up on a query addressed to The Phillipian this weekend that, at the time of this letter’s drafting, remains unanswered. The Phillipian’s recent decision to have a reporter cover his sister in a News story constitutes an indefensible repudiation of its charter, which calls for “professional standards of accuracy, objectivity and fairness at all times.” How can The Phillipian guarantee objectivity and fairness in the reporting and writing of a story on Olivia Wilde’s ’02 recent decision to campaign for Barack Obama, when it is covered and written by her brother, Charlie Cockburn ’11? The appended note mentioning the kinship of Cockburn and Wilde, who was born Olivia Jane Cockburn, testifies to The Phillipian’s knowledge of the relationship prior to publication. What unusual conditions, then, made the story valuable enough to merit the compromised ethics of having a brother write about his sister? Did the actress steadfastly refuse to grant an interview to anyone but her brother? Did The Phillipian have no disinterested writers available to cover the story in his place? Given that The Phillipian’s Charter requires its members to observe the “ethical responsibilities expected of them as practicing journalists,” it is arrogant of the paper to expect a student journalist to overcome the inevitable conflict of interest in writing about one’s family. In doing so, The Phillipian betrays the same values it professes to uphold. If The Phillipian is serious in its expectation of ethical conduct befitting a professional journalist, I would politely direct its editors to the New York Times’ Ethical Journalism, which states, “… staff members may not write about people whom they are related by blood or marriage or with whom they have close personal relationships…” While the report on a famous and recently graduated alumna’s political activism may be of interest to the Phillips Academy community, The Phillipian’s editorial decision to flout journalistic standards by publishing a story with a recognized conflict of interest disregards the reader’s expectation of accuracy, objectivity and fairness. Sincerely, Cassius Clay ’09 ADDENDUM: Less than two hours before the deadline for letters, The Phillipian contacted me with a long-awaited statement explaining that they “carefully reviewed the article in question before and after publication for the presence of any bias,” and “fully disclosed the relationship between the author and the interview subject to inform the reader and address the possibility or appearance of a conflict of interest.” This is true. The Phillipian’s editors fail to realize, however, that merely declaring a conflict of interest does not make it go away. If editorial wishes were fulfilled as easily as this, newspapers like the New York Times would not bother to address this particular aspect of its ethical standards. Avoiding the semblance of bias is nearly as important as avoiding bias itself. If standards of credibility are to be maintained, The Phillipian should not only avoid bias, but also avoid putting itself in situations where it appears as if bias would inevitably arise. The Phillipian has not defended the case that the story was either so important or so difficult to capture that violating journalistic standards was justified. It is on these points that The Phillipian stumbles maladroitly. Editor’s Note At the time this article was assigned, the relationship between the author and the interview subject was not known. When the editors of The Phillipian became aware of the relationship, we used our discretion and determined that the article was accurate, fair and appropriate for publication with a disclaimer. The Phillipian does not promote the writing of articles by persons with conflicts of interest or personal relationships with the articles’ subjects. The Phillipian welcomes questions about any and all editorial decisions.