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May 14, 2013 8:00 AM “Full DisclosureBrag” in Political Reporting

By Keith Humphreys

How many times have you seen something like this in an article by a Washington-based political reporter:

What’s also true is that Obama and [Kamala] Harris are longtime friends. She was a featured speaker at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte. And Harris was a guest at the state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron. (Full disclosure: We were at the same table that night.)

The principle behind full disclosure is a noble one: To let the reader know that the journalist may be biased by personal association with the subject s/he covers. But not infrequently it is used in a way that makes me throw up a little in my mouth: To emphasize that the journalist is important, connected and fabulous.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself a question. If the goal of full disclosure is to completely reveal the truth, why don’t roughly half of all “full disclosures” put a political reporter in a negative light? Surely, negative feelings and experiences can bias judgment as much as positive ones. But I have never seen anything by a political journalist along the lines of “The Governor is known to have a harsh and unforgiving interpersonal manner (Full disclosure: We used to date but she dumped me because I was chronically impotent)”.

The other striking thing about some full disclosures is that the only reason they are “ethically required” is because the journalist has inserted an unnecessary detail into a story that allows parenthetical full disclosurebrag. Did for example the above story by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart really need to cite the state dinner with David Cameron in order to establish the widely-known fact that Attorney General Harris and President Obama are long time friends? No.

But once that detail was in the story, Capehart was forced to do his solemn duty of letting us know that he got invited to a fancy White House event (Full disclosure: I wasn’t invited, and if I had been, I probably would not have written this post. Also, I should note, in candor, that I have published in the Washington Post, as well as other newspapers — such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal — that are often mentioned in the same breath as the Post as highly desirable places to publish. But, for honesty’s sake, I should disclose that I haven’t done as much publishing in national newspapers as I have in academic outlets, where I have over 200 peer-reviewed papers. And several highly-regarded books. Just thought you had a right to know).

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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