The Guardian's readers' editor Chris Elliott says today in his Open Door column that the failure of the paper to tell readers that a comment piece on Qatar by a sports journalists whose trip was funded by the Qatari 2022 World Cup bid committee gave readers "cause for doubt".
Elliott writes: "The Qatari trip was set up by the emirate's government, which wanted to take a team of journalists to Qatar to support its World Cup bid. The Guardian's sports department had turned down offers of a trip in the past, but as they knew that this time they would be able to have access to Sir Alex Ferguson, cover the Brazil v Argentina game and see what the Qataris had to say, the trip was accepted.
"As part of the coverage the sports desk commissioned the journalist to write about her impressions of Qatar; the piece strongly supported the Qatari bid. The journalist, who is not unfamiliar with the Middle East, stands by every word she wrote, and I have no doubt that the opinions she expressed were honestly held. But our failure to footnote the fact that the trip was funded by the Qatari 2022 World Cup bid committee, or write it into the story, gave readers cause for doubt. There were at least 30 strongly negative comments to that effect posted below the article, and it took too long for us to go into the thread to make matters clear."
However, Elliott says it would be wrong to single out the sports department. "One of the reasons that trip was not footnoted is because the rule has slipped more generally across the Guardian. While many trips are flagged up as being paid for by a body other than the newspaper, such as the recent visit to Helsinki by our education correspondent, a report of which appeared on 6 December, the rule is not always rigorously applied. Such trips are taken across a variety of areas, including the environment, and more widely throughout the Middle East. I don't think it is a wish to "con" the readers.
"Journalists worry that appending a footnote undermines the journalism in the eyes of the readers. But editors should enforce this rule without exception, because what really undermines the journalism is when it isn't enforced."