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A little extra Mayo

The Strib editorial writer who covers health care once worked for an operation she now praises. How big is the conflict, and what best serves readers?
By David Brauer

So five minutes after yesterday’s post on coverage of Mayo Clinic’s health care lobbying, I got several emails and tweets informing me that Star Tribune editorial writer Jill Burcum — whom I identified as the clinic’s “real cheerleader” — once worked for the place whose efforts she supports.

I didn’t know that; for transparency’s sake, though, you should know. Editorial Page Editor Scott Gillespie, Burcum’s boss, says, “Jill worked at Mayo 12 years ago as an editor in the tech transfer and consumer health publishing division.”

Although this disclosure leaves the stench of conflict of interest, I have to say I’m not the best messenger. Twelve years ago, I was working as a morning host at KSTP-AM, a place I now regularly cover.

In fact, I spend far more of my time writing about former employers than Burcum does. (Though, for those of you who keep assuming otherwise, I’ve never worked for the Strib or the Pioneer Press).

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I may seem more credible because I’ve bitten the hands of places that fed me, including AM1500 and City Pages. With a few exceptions, I haven’t gone out of my way to boost KFAN, Mpls.St.Paul, Minnesota Monthly, the Business Journal, Southwest Journal, Downtown Journal, KARE11 or Minnesota Law & Politics.

On the flip side, as noted yesterday, while I disagree with Burcum and Mayo on some of their positions, her opinions aren’t beyond the pale either.

The clinic has earned its credibility by helping millions of people and Burcum — formerly an award-winning health care reporter for the Strib — is hardly the only one who agrees with its payment reform lobbying and public option opposition. She’s also edited by someone who, as far as I know, has never worked in health care.

(Did I mention Gillespie is a former editor of mine?)

Ultimately, the case you make is more important than the place you worked — but where you worked is not trivial. I better understand my former employers, and for the most part, have better connections.

In the end, it comes back to transparency. Even if you think your Clinton-era job has no effect on what you write in the Age of Obama, and disclosure only aids those who question your integrity — well, too bad. Especially when you’re covering a company you took a paycheck from, the reading public has a right to know.

How best to do this? A disclaimer in every story would be awesome, but impractical. At the very least, there should be disclosure in Burcum’s online bio, which, like most at, is too threadbare. Hers shouldn’t be the only one augmented.

Naturally, I truncated my MinnPost bio just last week so we could fit in a Twitter feed. (It’s coming.) Although my descriptor is a bit more illuminating than Burcum’s, after pondering this case, I’ll list specific local employers, at least the ones who are still around.