Hey VIN News, Where Are Your Ethics Policies? An open letter

Dear Paul and Edie:

Hope this finds you well. I read Edie’s story about the pet insurance model law with great interest [https://news.vin.com/default.aspx?pid=210&Id=10632147].

I am reaching out to follow up on our exchange a few months back and to ask if you would reconsider the discussion I proposed.

Would you be willing to engage me on the record in a discussion about how VIN News operates, including how your quote approval policy is implemented and explained to readers (who might want to know that you offer this self-editing service to those you interview), as well as to new reporters — and how often reporters make changes as a result?

Is there now a written ethics code in place for your reporters? If so, would you consider sharing it with me or publishing it on a website that is accessible to any member of the public? If not, can you explain why you continue to withhold it and decline to discuss it?

Most reputable news organizations publish policies on their websites.  Here’s TCR’s ethics code, which draws on the policies of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Associated Press, Reuters, and ProPublica among others. The best news organizations not only publish policies, but have teams and leaders who are eager and willing to answer questions about their journalism. This was my experience when I reported on policies and practices of major news organizations for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), which the media world regards as an authority on press ethics and criticism. Where does this leave VIN News?

Here are my specific questions about Edie’s story about the pet insurance law:

1) Why does your reporting exclude practicing veterinarians and the AVMA?

Many of your readers are veterinarians, and the AVMA, as you know, has two active member participants in the Pet Insurance Working Group. Veterinarians have strong, well-informed, credible views on pet insurance. They certainly have a stake in how the industry is regulated, and their clients certainly have an interest in hearing those positions. Yet the only interest group whose positions you covered in this report, beyond one consumer advocate, is the insurance industry trade group that would be regulated (NAPHIA). I am also confused by how your exchange with NAPHIA is reported, but the AVMA information vacuum is what is most surprising.

I am wondering why there is nothing in your report about what practicing veterinarians or the AVMA think about the model law. Did you ask Dr. Golab and/or Mr. Jones for the AVMA’s positions on any of the key policy debates you listed? If not, why not? If you did, can you explain why it’s not in your reporting?

Can you appreciate why a lay person, and certainly why a veterinarian, might find it strange that a news service for veterinarians would publish a policy story about pet insurance regulatory work that does not report in any way on the position of the AVMA – the veterinary industry’s policy representatives?

2) Use of paraphrasing and anonymous sourcing even when the identity is obvious:

Is there some reason Nationwide’s representative, Dr. Jules Bensen, is not named or quoted in your paraphrasing of the heated waiting period discussions this summer? You attribute Dr. Bensen’s comments to “insurance representatives” (plural) although Dr. Bensen made a lengthy argument for Nationwide’s six-month orthopedic waiting periods, also noting that he was speaking for the pet insurance industry trade group NAPHIA (perhaps this is why Dr. Bensen’s identity is pluralized). Dr. Bensen spoke over the course of two Working Group meetings, even delivering a PowerPoint presentation on the necessity of six-month orthopedic waiting periods. Why is he not named and quoted? Is it because you did not want to offer him your quote-editing opportunity? And why not go to different insurance companies and ask them to take positions?

3) Quote Approval Non-Disclosure:

Why not disclose your quote approval policy? Especially since substantive changes are often made. With that in mind, what were the ground rules for your interview with the insurance industry’s trade group spokeswoman Kristen Lynch? Your story also omits the medium through which your exchanges occurred, although if content was edited after the fact, this presumably occurred over email, even if the original interview occurred via telephone. If you and Paul feel strongly about this after-the-fact quote approval, why not be up front with your readers about your process?

I hope you can appreciate my interest in these issues – which reflects my readers’ interest.

Accordingly, please know that I plan to publish this as an open letter tomorrow evening at 8 p.m. ET (Sunday, December 12) .

I welcome your responses and hope to include them. Most of all, I hope you will consider my request for a candid discussion about reporting practices.


Very sincerely,

Emily Brill