Friday, February 12, 2010

To disclose or not disclose

Fellow blogger Dan Kennedy, over at Media Nation, raises a thoughtful question. I'll pose it to you for your advice.

Dan says that in a post like the one I wrote yesterday, which criticizes a proposal by the Governor, I should disclose that I am supporting another candidate (Charlie Baker) in the next gubernatorial race. You can see how I and other people responded. What's your view?

To help you get started, one friend later wrote me the following note:

I don't see that you have any obligation to state your political position on your own blog. No one ever expected you to declare who you supported for president when you commented on national health reform and other issues over the years.

Another pair of friends replied:

We agree that you are well within your rights to not disclose. Having said that, given that you are so well-positioned as an advocate for transparency, disclosure, as Dan points out, is not necessary a bad thing. We don’t think that it’s necessary to disclose every single time – once on your blog would be sufficient. You may want to consider that all of the people who read your blog may not have seen anything in the Globe about the Charlie issue, and would probably welcome the additional information.

If we think back to the early days of social media, the first question people wanted to know was how to separate the wheat from the chaff. One of the ways we learned that blogs build status is through authenticity and allowing readers to better get to know the author. Disclosing only adds to the authenticity of your blog; we’re not sure it detracts at all.

Even accepting the wisdom of these latter two friends, I have to ask the question, "What constitutes a level of support for a candidate that would warrant disclosure?" Is it that I have donated money? (This fact will be published by the state.) Is it that I have said publicly that I support the candidate? Is it that I have said privately that I support a candidate? Is it that I support a candidate in my head but haven't yet told anybody? And what if I change my mind during the course of a campaign?

By the way, while I am at it, should I disclose my electoral choices even when reporters, editorial writers, and op-ed writers in the newspapers do not do so? Should a blogger try to meet higher journalistic standards than the traditional media?


Anonymous said...

I think this is a tempest in a teapot, but it does give one pause to think about the dilemmas which face a public figure.


Dan Kennedy said...

Paul — Great response. I'll be interested to read what people have to say. Here's what I wrote over at Media Nation:

Paul Levy has written a characteristically thoughtful response to my suggestion that he should have disclosed his support for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker when he criticized Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to control rising health-care costs. We also discussed it in the comments.

Levy offers a spectrum, and I’d answer it this way: If someone is writing a public blog offering commentary on political issues, then yes, he should disclose if he has publicly endorsed or donated money to a candidate. But no, there’s no need to disclose your private voting intentions, even if you have told friends. The former makes you a supporter; the latter merely makes you a likely voter.

Levy is not a journalist, but he’s doing journalism of a sort. Thus, not all of the ethical rules that journalists have to follow apply to him (it would be anathema even for an opinion journalist to give money to a candidate, for instance). But for someone in his position, it’s better to disclose.

Final point: Of course, Levy had already disclosed his support for Baker. It’s not a matter of being open; he is. It’s a matter of informing those who might not be aware of your political activities.

e-Patient Dave said...

Terrific, thought-provoking questions, Paul. Duly tweeted.

Brenda RN said...

Well, Paul, your last questions are really thought-provoking. There is quite a debate about whether bloggers are journalists and if so, whether they should meet the same standards as traditional journalists.

I think bloggers are different. I think they have a responsibility to be truthful and accurate, using facts in their arguments as much as possible. I don't think blogging is an opportunity to spread lies to a large audience. However, I am really not sure about applying the same rules to bloggers that we do to traditional, paid journalists (as in shield laws, disclosure rules, etc...) I think this is something we will need to sort out soon, as some court cases have already been occurring.

That said, I think your blog is a way for you to express your thoughts and your opinions. You must have written somewhere about your support for Charlie Baker, because I already knew that. You never write completely as a neutral party. You have a point of view, and regular readers of your blog understand that you are honest about expressing it.

I think who you support for public office can be kept private or shared, as you see fit. Yes you are a well-known figure, but you write this blog by choice. You are not paid for it. You owe none of us any obligation to disclose this information.


Anonymous said...

As someone who reads your blog and Tweets on a regular basis I feel that you should have a disclaimer. Not for legal or even ethical reasons but because that is what I would expect from Paul Levy. You are open and honest with so much and that is why I appreciate your thoughts on matters involving health care.

I agree with others, there is a difference between voting for someone and giving them money/support. You gave Charlie Baker money, that is public knowledge but maybe new readers of your blogs do not know that. You obviously gave him money because either A) You agree with him and think he will do the best job B) He is a friend of yours or C) You think he is going to win and want to position yourself as a supporter. I Believe it is a mix of A and B but in any of these cases I think it only makes sense to let people know.

Giving money or time to anything is an investment. You obviously want Charlie Baker to win (at this moment, maybe it will change as you said.) Of course that should not prevent you from criticizing Deval Patrick, or Charlie Baker for that matter, but you really should be up front about your position. This is especially true if you have historically been supportive of Democrats as many people would not think twice about looking into the public records to verify your position to see if it could affect your thinking while you wrote the blog.

David Harlow said...

Paul, I don't think that a special mention of your support of Charlie's candidacy, when otherwise public, is required in this instance. There are a variety of codes to hew to, formal and informal. However, in the spirit of the blogosphere, they essentially require disclosure where disclosure is necessary to appreciate the perspective of the blogger. It seems to me that your perspective is already clear to your readers. If you take issue with Gov. Patrick's current initiative, which is a back-to-the-future move looking to reinstate some of what Charlie was responsible, in part, for undoing 20 years ago, then an informed, engaged reader of your blog will get it. I see it as a policy perspective, not a partisan screed. My guess is that you did not intend it to be otherwise.

Anonymous said...


The whole purpose of disclosure of conflicts of interest is to let the reader know when your underlying motives could be influenced by an outside force that might cause you to state something contrary to your true beliefs- e.g. a review of a product that doesn't disclose that the product was supplied by the manufacturer or that the manufacturer paid for the review. But in this case, it's immediately obvious that what was written was underlying opinion; it's from an expert in the field, writing about public policy that directly affects that field. The author's support of a politician who doesn't endorse that policy is eminently predictable, but also inconsequential to the opinions expressed. In fact, disclosing support for one candidate or another actually obfuscates the opinion delivered, since it implies that the opinion follows from the political stance, when in fact it is the opposite.

To apply the one-size-fits-all "rules of journalism" (which are apparently not followed very closely in any case - viz. writing a pro-administration healthcare economics editorial for the NYT and not disclosing that the administration has hired you to produce those findings) to a private citizen writing an opinion on a blog is completely unnecessary. Applying the standard of "full disclosure" would end up with a list of every campaign contribution ever made by the blogger to every active politician on every post that references a subject that public policy could impact - which on a healthcare blog would be essentially every post. I'm confident that any intelligent reader can read the opinion of a healthcare executive and deduce for themselves what politician they might be supporting.

Pam said...

It seems to me that your understanding of the issues and your ability to clearly delineate them are what is most important in your blog. I think that is the true value of the blog itself. If you declare your choice of candidate, your blog becomes instead a campaign piece. I don't want to read campaign propaganda; I can get that anywhere. What I value is your assessment of situations and opinion on potential solutions. If I agree with you, then surely I will be smart enough to pick the candidate who seems most likely to represent our opinion.

I say, please just stick with the issues. We need more of your insight, experience and careful explanation of all the various pieces of this extraordinarily complex situation.

Keep up the good work! I thank you for it.

Michael said...

Disclosure of political affiliation is a distant second to thoughtful dialog around the topic of healthcare, its accessibility to the citizens of this country and how we pay for it. I am new to your blog, but find your comments to be an important addition to my thinking about this issue. Thanks Paul!

David Ropeik said...

Paul, and Dan,

To me the issue is not what one does as a blogger vs. what one does as a journalist, a distinction with less and less meaning anyway. The issue is one of trust. I would use as my guide a sense of whether disclosure is necessary for people to trust me, which is necessary for my ideas to have impact or value. Given how sensitively humans are constantly scanning for hints of mistrust, an instinct of the social human animal, and how much mistrust can undermine the credibility and impact of any position or view we try to advance, that's the arbiter that I think should apply. Indeed it feels like it's the underpinning point to the whole issue Dan has raised.
Seems to me that if a person wants his ideas to carry weight in the public marketplace of ideas, the need for disclosure rises, in the name of trust.

Keith said...

Perhaps the best sop here would be for you not to donate to political campaigns of nor endorse publicly any candidate who could possibly influence policy that would directly effect your institution?
Stating that you agree with one's particular proposal on a particular point is fine, but the extra step to donating and/or publicly supporting takes away from your ability to comment and -appear- objective.
Its not whether you are objective, its the appearance of objectivity.

Pesha said...

How about disclosing every time your candidate causes you to shake your head in dismay? That way, you'll have some measure of whether your candidate has the intelligence and knowledge of the world around him to be able to run a complex state, i.e., can he really not be informed enough to question global warming?

Bill Reenstra said...

Paul for many of your readers, those who are not in MA, your support of a political rival of the current Governor is totally unimportant. You simply were commenting, albeit negatively, on an action of the current Governor.

For residents of MA your support of another candidate in this context is only relevant if you have reason to believe that he would have acted in a different way, one that would have been more in keeping with your views. In general this seems unknowable unless this issue has been a major trust of his campaign.

If the point of your blog had been to point out why not to vote for the Governor, then your support of another candidate would be relevant and necessary. You could easily be a supporter of the Governor and disagree with this policy. I doubt that it would have changed the tone of your post.

In truth the issue should not be which candidate you support but the policies you would have proposed in order to address the problems enumerated at the start of the post.

Paul Levy said...


You have now provided the best possible reason for me not to disclose my support for a candidate: It brings in comments about topics that are totally irrelevant to this blog and the topics I have covered.

Anonymous said...

You blog because you want to so there is no reason to disclose your political preferences. Those will likely come out within the context of the blog anyway. However, using the traditional media as a comparison (last paragraph of your original blog on this subject) is a bit off base. Op-ed writers and their papers end up endorsing one candidate or another in an election so they do declare their partisanship.

Paul Levy said...

But they write for months and months before they disclose.

Paul Levy said...

Here's my final comment on the topic over at Dan Kennedy's blog: You will need to read the comments before mine over there to get some of the context, but most should be clear:

Michael's choice to absent himself from a civic role of supporting candidates while taking on another civic role of writing about politics is, I would guess, unusual. I'm guessing it does not include voting in elections (or, maybe, talking with friends about his preferences). So although he does not give money to candidates, he certainly has underlying opinions.

Dan has suggested that it is the act of giving money that distinguishes the responsibility of a blogger to disclose to his or her readers when he or she writes about something that could be construed as opposing or supporting a candidate in that race.

Michael says that a comment on a blog does not carry with it the same disclosure standards as the original post.

Sorry, but having now considered a slew of comments on my blog, I see these all as distinctions without a difference.

I don't believe my civic rights and responsibilities with regard to candidate support -- financial or otherwise -- impose any particular responsibility on me to disclose such on my blog. When it comes to financial support, any person who is concerned about such can quickly search the state financial contributions database to check donations. We have decided that this level of disclosure is sufficient for all other public policy purposes, including even doing business with the state, and I don't see a need for an individual blogger or commenter to offer more to the public.

I don't see any conflict of interest argument here, in that there is no financial gain that accrues to my opinion. Nor can one argue that my hospital is likely to gain or lose by my underlying political support, as opposed to the opinion I offer on the blog. Said opinion, by the way, is inherently as public as could possibly be imagined and is subject to posted comments pro and con. This is about as democratic and free a method of discussing the issues of the day as could be imagined.

Finally, as also noted in comments on my blog, inclusion of political campaign thoughts in the midst of the actual topic being discussed is likely to divert discussion from the merits of that topic to the merits of the candidate. Other readers will find that annoying and off the point, and it will erode the value of the blog for those interested in its main topic.