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Bitcoin Journalists: The Ethics of Owning Bitcoin

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There’s a manufactured controversy going on this week over whether or not Bitcoin journalists — those who write about news concerning the digital currency — should be using Bitcoin themselves. The idea is that by using Bitcoin, the journalists are creating a conflict-of-interest situation in which their stories are inherently biased in favor of the cryptocurrency.

Bitcoin Ownership Creates a Conflict of Interest?

This viewpoint may seem surprising, because Bitcoin has evolved sufficiently to be considered a de facto form of money, and therefore reporters who use Bitcoin are simply using a type of money. In addition, Bitcoin is not a product from a company — instead, it’s a technology that enables trustless, cryptographic transactions across a vast decentralized network. There’s nothing to be “biased” in favor of, besides the underlying technology that makes Bitcoin work.

But that hasn’t stopped Michael del Castillo, tech and innovation editor at Upstart Business Journal, from attempting to make an issue out of this. Last week he wrote an article for LinkedIn in which he argued that journalists who report on Bitcoin should not own any of it:

As reporters, we should be living in the gray. We should be at the parties, but not the center of attention. We should know the inside scoops, but not trade on them. And with cryptocurrency, we should know how it works, but not own it.

The only appropriate use of Bitcoin, according to del Castillo, is the bare minimum required to figured out the basics. That includes his purchase of $2 worth of Bitcoin from a Lamassu ATM — necessary for a story he was working on about Bitcoin ATMs — as well as a 1 mBTC scratch card given to him by Charlie Shrem. Thanks to these very minimal excursions into the Bitcoin space, del Castillo says that he has “got the mechanics down.”

No mention of the blockchain itself, cryptographic hashing algorithms, Bitcoin mining, or any of the robust wallet software that makes managing one’s Bitcoin easy and fun. In fact, del Castillo seems to admit this glaring omission later in the article:

And no matter how fast I learn, the bitcoin economy will always grow faster, leaving an even wider gap between my knowledge and what’s left to be known.

Well, he’s certainly got that right. The Bitcoin economy is indeed growing very fast, but it’s disappointing to hear such a defeatist attitude from someone who covers the space.

“Very Shallow Viewpoint” on Bitcoin

Jon Matonis of the Bitcoin Foundation
Jon Matonis – Executive Direction of The Bitcoin Foundation

Recently, del Castillo’s LinkedIn article caught the attention of Jon Matonis, executive director of the Bitcoin Foundation and staunch believer of the “Bitcoin is money” argument:

Michael, that is a very shallow viewpoint. It’s like saying people who write about USD and monetary policy shouldn’t own dollars. Get real.

This is a good point, and it goes back to my earlier assessment that Bitcoin has become de facto “money” because countless people around the world use it for exchanging goods and services. Many employees, freelancers and contractors get paid in Bitcoin for their work because their services are valuable, and they don’t mind — or outright prefer — having cryptocurrency as a source of income. In other words, real-life use cases prove that Bitcoin is money.

Michael del Castillo
Michael del Castillo, tech & innovation editor at Upstart Business Journal

In a follow-up article for Upstart Business Journal, del Castillo concedes that this is the best counterargument to the claim that Bitcoin reporters shouldn’t use Bitcoin. However, he proceeds to make another baseless analogy in an attempt to validate his original argument:

Since bitcoin is legally considered a property by the Internal Revenue Service, I believe a more appropriate comparison … is preventing a reporter who covers Procter & Gamble from owning stock marked NYSE: PG.

The IRS is actually unique in its definition of Bitcoin, since it’s the only U.S. government agency to consider Bitcoin a type of property. U.S. court judges have ruled on multiple occasions that Bitcoin is essentially money, and FinCEN — the federal agency with jurisdiction over financial crime — also considers Bitcoin a type of currency.  Beyond that, California recently repealed laws that could have technically made Bitcoin “illegal money” and replaced them with laws that consider Bitcoin “lawful money”. Finally, companies that revolve around it are considered to be money services businesses, or more specifically money transmitters.

But let’s put aside government definitions entirely, and decide whether use of Bitcoin equates to “use” of stock in a company. Stocks are shares of for-profit businesses that can rise or fall in value based on perception of that company’s success, or alternatively, failure. Bitcoin can also rise or fall in value, but the dynamics behind the value are much different than the dynamics behind a stock price. Again, Bitcoin is not a company, but rather a scarce technological resource.

Reporters shouldn’t shield themselves off from this technological resource, especially if they hope to become enlightened about all the intricacies involved in cryptocurrencies. Fearing a nonexistent controversy over conflict-of-interest would only limit the knowledge of those reporters, and therefore undermine their ability to report on relevant issues in the Bitcoin space. Bitcoin is a learning experience for everyone involved, including the journalists who cover it.

Full Disclosure of Bitcoin Ownership

Still, del Castillo continues his response to Matonis by suggesting that Bitcoin journalists disclose how much Bitcoin they own, and thereby inform the audience of any potential conflict of interest. After all, del Castillo cites a fellow tech news editor who disclosed her entire stock portfolio to the public in an apparent effort to gain trust at the expense of privacy.

That is something I think bitcoin reporters should also disclose, at least until the general public and the government starts treating bitcoin like a currency, and not a property.

Again, del Castillo is making the mistake of placing too much emphasis on the government’s definition of Bitcoin — and just one slice of government at that. So, because del Castillo believes the government and general public see Bitcoin as a type of property, the amount that reporters own should be revealed for everyone to see. He closes out the article by disclosing how much Bitcoin he himself owns: 0.00418 BTC, or about $2.18. How brave of del Castillo to reveal such a trivial amount of crypto wealth.

If Bitcoin and cryptocurrency journalists all disclosed how much of the digital currency they own, and were honest about it, the nonexistent conflict-of-interest problem would give way to real problems: significant loss of financial privacy for those journalists, and a giant hacking target on the heads of the most wealthy reporters. To call for such a disastrous scenario is naive, unreasonable, and irresponsible.

Most reasonable people would agree that having reporters disclose the amount of their cryptocurrency wealth is not going to happen any time soon. But on the flip side, it should be assumed that Bitcoin journalists probably do own some of it — as mentioned earlier, it helps with the learning process. But even if those journalists are biased and hope that Bitcoin grows in value, this isn’t such a bad thing either. It means they are more likely to hold bad actors in the community accountable, while promoting the aspects of the space that are beneficial. These are healthy biases, and make for more interesting and useful journalism than dry, middle-of-the-road reporting.

Hopefully one day Michael del Castillo can realize that the only way he will be seen as credible journalist in the Bitcoin community is if he actually knows what Bitcoin is all about. In the cryptocurrency space, one can do all the research in the world and still only scratch the surface of what it’s all about. Truly getting to know Bitcoin requires using it in real life, and experiencing practical use cases on a personal level. Only then can journalists transcend the barrier from outside observers, into active participants with real knowledge and credibility.

Coin Brief is an open source website for digital news. It provides cryptocurrency tools, mining calculators, tutorials, and more. It was acquired by 99Bitcoins on September 2015.

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5 comments on “Bitcoin Journalists: The Ethics of Owning Bitcoin”

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  1. Reporters cannot live in a grey area. They either possess BitCoin or they do not. There is no neutral, grey area where one sort of owns sort of BitCoin.

    Although a reporter who does not own BitCoin may be making the statement “I have no vested interest in the matters about which II report”, he could equally be understood as saying “I own no BitCoin because, despite making a living from reporting on the stuff, I have no faith in it myself”. Everything comes down to interpretation in the end – and, as we all know, there is no such thing as a purely objective interpretation of an event.

    As with the BitCoin protocol itself, transparency is the key. Most BitCoin reporters I read include a statement at the end of each article they write where they stated what interests they hold with respect to the companies, exchanges, currencies, technologies etc. about which they report. That’s good enough for me to make up my own mind about what they have to say.

    Also, of course, readers are not stupid. They will dismiss those reporters who consistently get it wrong or attempt to mislead and they will respect those who display a deeper understanding of their subject. Yes, some people may suffer along the way but mankind has never yet managed to devise a system to keep all people honest all the time. Besides, is a good reporter with a vested interest any better or worse than a bad one with no vested interest? The latter can cause just as much harm if he is persuasive, cogent, apparently well-informed but just plain wrong.

    Be open. Be honest. Hold BitCoin if you wish.

    1. You are very correct. With what I know of Bitcoin, I would be a fool to not own any. Any journalist that learns enough about Bitcoin to be interested in buying some will not necessarily be biased toward Bitcoin beyond the reasons that convinced him / her to invest in it. However, if one is restricted from buying Bitcoin, that could certainly lead to resentment and a negative bias. If Bitcoin succeeds, they will be missing a tremendous opportunity.

  2. Very concise article, I’ll have to throw some RDD your way when I get home! That’s where my main wallet is staking on the network. I hope Evan puts his RDD address at the end of his articles as well (as I have a compulsive need to tip RDD for quality content!).

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