Just a bit after 11 a.m. this morning, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane received an e-mail from the Checks and Balances Project, a nonprofit government and industry watchdog group.

Attached to the message was a letter signed by fifty journalists and journalism educators calling on Brisbane to push the Times to meet a new standard of disclosure for its op-ed contributors. (A website for the campaign also launched today.)

That e-mail marks the start of an initiative by the organization to improve the overall level of disclosure by the authors of opinion pieces at media outlets all over the United States, according to Gabe Elsner, deputy director of the Checks and Balances Project.

“We see The New York Times as the standard bearer of journalism, the nation’s paper of record,” he said when we spoke yesterday. “We think that they can set the standard and everyone else would likely follow. It’s a common sense practice that if there are people putting out opinions, readers should know who they are and where they’re coming from.”

The petition includes this request:

We are asking the New York Times to lead the industry and set the nation’s standard by disclosing financial conflicts of interest that their op‐ed contributors may have at the time their piece is published. By simply asking a few standard disclosure questions, the New York Times can avoid any confusion and ensure better transparency.

Those questions could include things like: Do you have any financial interest or relationship with any of the organizations or companies mentioned in your article? Do you have any personal relationships with any of the people mentioned in this article, or with anyone associated with the organizations or companies you mention in this article?

The idea is the paper would then be able to better determine the value of the contribution, and add necessary disclosures as part of an author’s bio.

The result, Elsner said, is “that readers who are digesting these opinion pieces can really have all the information there to inform their [own] opinion.”

The inspiration for this campaign came thanks to a Times op-ed by Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of books such as Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. (Coincidentally, the Times review of that book required the correction of a few factual errors.)

The piece, The Gas Is Greener, highlighted what Bryce deemed “the deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement.”

What it didn’t highlight is that the Manhattan Institute received close to $3 million in funding from folks like ExxonMobil and organizations tied Koch Industries and the Koch brothers. This wasn’t disclosed in Bryce’s bio. Elsner said it should have been.

“As an ordinary reader of The New York Times I have no idea what the Manhattan Institute is,” Elsner said. “A little bit more information could really help me to read his commentary and then form my own opinions about the energy industry.”

A Higher Standard of Disclosure

I asked Elsner if his organization is critical of fossil fuels, or if it has a position in the energy debate.

“We don’t have a stance on energy policy,” he told me. His organization’s tag line is, “Holding government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.”

Update, October 6, 2011: Elsner followed up after this column was published to clarify his organization’s view of energy policy. He e-mailed this statement:

While we do not take a position on legislative energy policy, we do openly support and promote the transition to a clean energy economy. We feel that pundits who simply attack the clean energy industry like Mr. Bryce should be open about their support to the fossil fuel industry. We believe that this campaign will help ensure transparency amongst pundits who have clearly taken a position to promote one energy source over the other.”

I asked if his organization is funded by organizations critical of fossil fuels, or that have a particular stake in this debate. He said their sole funder is the New Venture Fund, a 501(c)3 public charity. A quick look at the board of directors for the New Venture Fund showed that it includes P.J. Simmons, the “co-founder and Chairman of the Corporate Eco Forum, a network of senior Global 500 executives focused on best practices in corporate sustainability strategies and execution.” He also “served twice as the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Deputy Chair for Energy & Climate Change and directed the first CGI University climate program.”

I don’t mean to sound suspicious of Simmons, but this bears disclosing light of the fact that this Checks and Balances Project campaign happened to pick a critic of renewable energy as its poster boy. In fact, the campaign’s website has a page dedicated to Bryce, who it says “has been successful in hiding his ties to fossil fuel money from news outlets and their readers. This means that he is free to attack clean energy while readers are led to believe he is an unbiased source.”

Does the above information negate Elsner’s comments about not having a stance on energy policy this being about disclosure and not fossil fuels? In the spirit of his initiative, I leave that up to you to decide for yourself.

See how that works?

What matters is that my questions about funding and related items were an essential part of our interview. They also form an essential part of this column. Is the same true for opinion pieces published by news organizations?

Of course it is.

We should move to standardize the way contributors are asked to disclose potential conflicts of interest and relevant related information. Once that information is provided, we should meet a higher standard of disclosing it to the public.

Times as a Target

Elnser and his colleagues may not know it, but their choice to focus first on the Times has some history behind it.

(Let me also pause and say that Brisbane is in no way able to require the paper’s op-ed section to adopt this proposal. He could choose to write about it. He could even endorse it. But it’s up to top editors at the paper to decide if they want to make it happen. I pointed this out to Elsner when I first met him a few weeks ago at the Online News Association conference.)

The first bit of relevant Times precedent relates to corrections. The reason that so many American newspapers publish corrections on page two is because the Times started doing it in the early 1970s. The media universe has greatly expanded since then, but the Times is still a paper that other news organizations look to as an example.

The second notable bit of Times history is that it instituted a similar questionnaire for its freelancers back in 2006. A memo sent to staffers in April of that year explained that writers “will be asked to fill out a questionnaire about their affiliations, work history, financial and personal connections and any past instances when questions were raised about the accuracy or originality of their work.”

Yes, that sounds very familiar. I don’t know if the paper uses the same or a similar questionnaire for its op-ed contributors. What is clear, however, is the bios appended to at least some of those contributors could benefit from increased disclosure. So, too, would the public.

One of the last questions I asked Elsner was what he thought the reaction would be for readers if they read the Bryce op-ed and also saw a note about the Manhattan Institute’s funders.

“Yeah, it’s a really good question about how readers would react to that,” he said. “I think the important thing is that readers would be provided a little bit more background, and hopefully [that] gets people to actually do their own research and look beyond just this one article or one opinion piece.”

That raises a key question in implementing this kind of policy: How much disclosure is necessary? If the Institute’s funders are relevant to Bryce’s topic, is there additional context that should be offered as well? How much is enough, especially if you have to deal with space constraints in a print edition? What’s fair to both the contributor and to readers?

Those questions aren’t meant to excuse the press from increasing the level of disclosure. They should form the basis of a substantive debate about how to do this, rather than provide reasons maintain the status quo.

Correction of the Week

“AN article on 16 August reported that Manchester United footballer Tom Cleverley had begged a girl for sex after meeting her at a night club, even though he was dating a Page 3 model. In fact, entirely unknown to the girl it now transpires that the man involved, who looked like Tom Cleverley, was impersonating him. We apologise to Mr Cleverley for any embarrassment caused.” — The Sun (U.K.)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.