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An Avoidable Potential Conflict

journalism-under-questionLast week the Toronto Star ran this story. It was a mostly pro-mortgage broker article.

It featured Christina Cleveland, a first-time home buyer portrayed as someone learning the benefits of brokers, and Raj Babber, a broker and a director of the Independent Mortgage Brokers Association of Ontario.

The story landed immediately in the crosshairs of real estate critic Garth Turner.

Turner discovered that Cleveland is actually the sister-in-law of Babber, and his firm’s client as well. This potential for bias was apparently not disclosed to the Star (according to it), and the Star didn’t ask, something Turner termed an “appalling breach of reader trust.”

In addition to the article, this testimonial from Christina Cleveland was found on Babber’s website, to which Turner wrote, “Christina Cleveland claims to have first met Raj Babber as a mortgage broker – even though he is the husband of her sister.”

As most anyone in business knows, the perception of impropriety can do as much damage as impropriety itself. Without judging Babber or Cleveland, it’s clear that a reasonable person might view these non-disclosures as intentionally misleading. So why take the risk?

I asked Babber for his thoughts and he provided this comment by email:

The Toronto Star article ‘The pros and cons of using a mortgage broker’ was accurate, balanced, and quite frankly painted the role of the independent mortgage broker in a very favourable light. It did not promote me or my firm, nor was it ever intended to do so.

The article did not identify the woman being quoted as my sister-in-law, perhaps because no one involved in the preparation of the story felt it was pertinent. In any case, the merits of consulting an independent mortgage broker stand. If blogger Garth Turner wants to squabble about that with his fellow journalist that is his privilege.

This is not the type of story we normally cover, but it’s important to address one issue. A broker’s choice to:

a)  recommend family/friends/clients to the media as interviewees, without full disclosure of the relationship, or

b)  use family or friends in testimonials without full disclosure of the relationship,

…can be reputation suicide if uncovered.

It is never worth it, regardless of innocent intentions.

Rob McLister, CMT