Literary side-projects are common with journalists, though many publications have vague policies on them
When British Columbia shifted from a BC Liberal government to an NDP one in May 2017, legislative reporters Richard Zussman and Rob Shaw went behind-the-scenes to chronicle the dramatic political campaign. By this spring, they had published their tell-all book, A Matter of Confidence.
Many reporters, immersed in their beat, eventually decide to turn their experience or expertise into a book. But as the ensuing termination of Zussman by the CBC highlights, not all reporters are treated the same when they decide to do so.
Zussman, who was CBC’s provincial affairs reporter at the time, found himself out of a job in December 2017 after a third-party investigation concluded that his forthcoming book breached CBC’s code of conduct, conflict-of-interest rules and the collective agreement with the Canadian Media Guild. He was not, stressed CBC spokeman Chuck Thompson in a statement, “terminated simply for co-authoring a book.”
The controversy, however, brings up an important discussion within the journalism industry about the policies that are set between book authors and their employers—and what reporters can and cannot do.
The code of conduct for Postmedia, publisher of the Vancouver Sun and The Province, discloses rules on third-party relationships and dealing with unethical issues, but nothing appears to be set in stone about side projects, such as books. The Globe and Mail code of conduct, meanwhile, states a reporter can’t withhold scoops from the publication.
Harold Munro, editor of the Vancouver Sun, says he would like to be notified if a Sun reporter began a side project and would want them to work on it on their own time.
“It’s common sense,” Munro says. “Using your connections, and the access that you get from being associated with a major publication like the Vancouver Sun or The Province, opens doors and gives you access. You can’t exploit that access for some other purpose.”
Rob Shaw says he doesn’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t told his editor about the book. “It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for me not to tell him. I think they would have wondered what I was doing, but I honestly don’t know.”
According to Shaw, he and Zussman, who are long-time legislative reporters, have built up contacts from their beat and were able to do interviews outside of work. He adds that he usually deals only with his editor and doesn’t interact with other staff at Postmedia.
Travis Lupick, staff writer at The Georgia Straight and author of Fighting for Space, a book about activists pushing for safe injection sites in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, says smaller outlets are often more lenient.
“There’s probably more flexibility in a smaller corporation,” Lupick says. “They can react and respond a little quicker because they don’t need to go through five levels of management.”
Six weeks after Zussman’s dismissal, he was hired as an online reporter by Global BC. His CBC arbitration hearing was scheduled for the fall of 2018. n