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Last month, iMediaEthics investigated a report by CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta because of a possible conflict of interest.  Dr. Gupta interviewed Lance Armstrong in an “exclusive” story broadcast on July 27, 2009. He, however, failed to clearly disclose that he is on the board of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, LiveStrong.

Gupta, we also discovered, has written positively about Armstrong in the past, defending him against charges of doping–the use banned performance-enhancing drugs.  Those charges have not been sufficiently resolved either against or in Armstrong’s favor. The French sports daily L’Equipe reported the French national doping lab detected the banned performance enhancing drug–the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin (EPO)–in six samples of Armstrong’s urine.

In the July 27 report, Gupta made broad statements about Armstrong’s innocence, which do not fully reflect the controversy over his possible doping.

Not disclosing a relationship with Armstrong, especially in a report where he leaned so heavily in defense of the cyclist, seemed suspect. (Journalists are usually expected to avoid even the small conflict of allowing a source to buy them a sandwich.)  So StinkyJournalism contacted CNN and the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) to find out more about Dr. Gupta’s relationship with the foundation, and what factors might influence his loyalty.  Specifically, we asked whether the foundation pays for any of Gupta’s foundation-related expenses, or reimburses him for travel, hotels, etc.

Katherine McLane from the LAF press office responded in an email that “Dr. Gupta pays for the expenses you describe personally.” Noticing that she had specified only the expenses we “describe,” StinkyJournalism pressed the matter further, asking if there was anything at all, even a snack at foundation meetings, that the LAF provided or paid for.  Ms. McLane responded that “Dr. Gupta pays his Foundation-related expenses out of his own pocket.”

Such a stark policy on Gupta’s part seems unlikely. But even if it is true, this doesn’t disprove a competing loyalty. Dr. Gupta would be unlikely to serve on the board of the organization if he didn’t support its mission–to support cancer sufferers and survivors and fund cancer research.  As we wrote in our previous report, if it is in Dr. Gupta’s interest that the LAF succeed, it would not be in his interest to publish a negative report of Lance Armstrong with whom the foundation shares a name.

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A clear disclosure of his relationship to the athlete may have left Gupta less suspect in this article.  But disclosure alone is not necessarily a cure for conflict of interest. Disclosing a conflict generally makes the reader more apt to trust your reporting.  But competing loyalties are competing loyalties; even if a reporter admits a connection, it doesn’t necessarily mean the connection isn’t influencing their coverage.

That’s why it’s really best to avoid competing loyalties altogether, argues an essay by Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute. “Disclosure reveals and shines light. But this form of transparency must be accompanied by accountability,” he writes. “The journalist and the news organization must commit to an ongoing process of examination and oversight to make sure that a manageable competing loyalty does not grow into a problematic conflict of interest.”

Whether or not Gupta is indebted to the LAF for as little as a sandwich or as much as a plane ticket, or nothing at all, one can’t deny that his position must be one of at least some conflicting loyalties.  If a true conflict of interest is at risk, Steele says, it’s always an option to pass the story on to a colleague or another reporter.

“In some cases, it may be necessary for the journalist to change reporting assignments or beats to stay completely away from any coverage of someone with whom the journalist has a significant competing loyalty.”

Why this would not be the practice at CNN is a question we have asked of the network, which has yet to respond.

We will publish any further response from CNN or Dr. Gupta’s publicist as an update.

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UPDATE: Armstrong Foundation Says CNN’s Sanjay Gupta Pays His Own Expenses

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