If you're just blogging or writing an online publication on your own, then you don't have to deal with a conflict of interest all that often. It's easy to recognize within yourself, and you could perhaps use your conflict of interest as part of your branding, as part of building the business, and as part of the message you want to communicate. However, if you have a team helping you with your blog or online magazine, then you need to be able to determine conflict of interest so that you're team doesn't sacrifice the best interest of the publication for their own goals or gain. A conflict of interest is defined as, "a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest." In publishing, determining a conflict of interest involves figuring out if a story, or a source, that you're going to use or to publish is influenced by these secondary interests, such as money, connections etc. Essentially, you don't want to publish or use a source that isn't there based on its merit or its value, but because the writer was paid on the side to cover that topic or is covering something out of personal bias or gain. Here's a quick start to determining a conflict of interest and how to handle one that could jeopardize your blog or magazine.
Figure Out the Two Interests
A conflict of interest cannot exist if there isn't two competing interests. Of course, there are some conflicts i.e. the need to make money versus the desire to tell great stories that aren't all that bad and don't need to be investigated or vetted. Both of those interests are generic, and can work together. The point in figuring out the two interests is if the two conflicting interests cannot be compatible at all.
For example, if one of your writers wants to write about a particular company, and it comes to your attention that the writer currently works for that company, then there's a conflict of interest there that needs to be evaluated. The fact that the writer works at the company could skew the story that's written i.e. it could be overly positive because the writer wants to keep his/her job at the company. In this case, you would need to decide if the company should be covered at all (by another writer, of course) or if the story should be dropped. It's possible that the writer only wants to do the coverage because he/she supports the company, or knows that something will come from that relationship if the story gets published and produces good results for the company.
In this case, these two interests cannot work together. The writer cannot fulfill the interest with the company while fulfilling the interests of the online publication. One needs to be somewhat sacrificed for the other, and it looks like the interests of the online publication would take the hit. Therefore, this is a conflict of interest that needs evaluating and needs to be handled appropriately.
Finding the Conflict
Sometimes, finding the conflict of interest takes a little investigative work. In the previous example, it's unlikely the writer would disclose that s/he works for the company. If s/he does, then that makes things easier and you can decide to have someone else cover the story to ensure that there isn't an overly positive overtone or bias. If the conflict isn't disclosed, but you suspect one to be there, then you might need to ask a few questions or do some additional research. In a future post, we'll go over a few techniques to find hidden conflicts of interests as well as good questions to ask to find these conflicts before the story is written.