Hidden Agenda.com

Politics sites that don’t disclose partisan ties lose readers’ trust


Disclosure is not just a late-90s sexual thriller starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas. It’s also the policy of revealing your bias or affiliation when writing for or running political websites.

But too many sites forgo disclosure, and by doing so undermine themselves.[rssbreak]

Take Toronto Election News, for example. Brett Bell, the site’s administrator, had a lively career as a City Hall lobbyist and Progressive Conservative campaigner.

He tells me he has no ties to any mayoral candidates and that the entire political spectrum is represented in his site content. If I check his Facebook followers, there will be NDPers, he promises.

But nowhere on his site does it say he used to run PC leader Tim Hudak’s “cellphone brigade.”

Or how about Ontario News Watch? This new site is run by Stefan Baranski, one-time senior adviser to former PC chief (and former mayoral candidate) John Tory.

He made the effort to create an “informal all-party advisory panel” to ensure nonpartisan content. Of course, he says that to me, but not on his site, where readers can see.

Speaking of bias, let’s not just pick on right-leaning sites.

VoteTO.ca, which launched this week, counts more progressive types as organizers. But they seem no more upfront about disclosing their past political affiliations. Hidden among them is Chris Tindal, a former Green party operative.

Follow as many links as you can about Tindal off the site and you’ll never find out what sort of politics he was once engaged in. Astoundingly, his about page on even his own site leaves out the fact that he was twice a candidate in a federal election.

(In the spirit of disclosure, I’ve gone on record as saying Tindal’s world view, political experience and general attitude disqualify him for most political engagement and I wish he’d take a one-way trip to Alaska.)

And while we’re sorting through sites, what of my friends at Torontoist? That publication’s disclosure policy is like a loincloth, only covering what it absolutely has to.

Torontoist’s publishing cabal includes political fixer Rob Silver, a consultant who’s been a fixture behind the scenes at City Hall. Torontoist’s bloggers are covering the election, a blatant conflict of interest only revealed at the whim of whoever’s editing the site that day.

So are all of the above simply vehicles for partisan gain? Absolutely not. But when the principals of a political site conceal their partisan ties, unintentionally or not, they’re wading into that quagmire on their own.

For readers, perception is everything. A site run by a former lobbyist will always be a site run by a former lobbyist. Being open about the past earns readers’ trust.

joshuae@nowtoronto.com

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