By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
It’s generally recognized that keeping the news side of a media company separate from the business side is the ethical way to do business.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics is very specific on that point: “Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.”
Yet AdviceLine occasionally gets calls or emails from journalists worried that their bosses are crossing that bright line.
One of those callers was an online editor working for a trade publication.
“She wrote a brief item that drew a complaint from sales staff because an advertiser was not mentioned,” wrote David Craig in his case report. “She said her editor is pressuring her to add information about the advertiser even though she does not think it fits with the original story. She was looking for confirmation that this is an ethical problem and trying to decide how to respond.”
This editor is like other journalists who contact AdviceLine: She has a hunch she has an ethics problem and wants confirmation to be sure. And like others, she wants guidance on how to tell her bosses they are straying from good ethical practices – a very delicate situation.
“We talked about the SPJ code and I agreed that there’s an ethical problem here based on the principle of acting independently,” Craig went on in his report. “She was considering quitting her job, so I asked her whether this kind of request was part of a pattern or an isolated incident, and whether the incident itself was serious enough to justify quitting now versus making her case for ethical conduct.
“She said this had not happened before but she is troubled by the support for the advertiser’s view.”
The online editor explained that she had drafted an email to her supervisor asking for the removal of her byline from the story in question, and that she thought the decision to add information about the advertiser was unethical.
Craig suggested that she explain why she thought it was unethical and that her position was based on the SPJ code of ethics, “so it was clear this was not just her individual judgment but reflected the standards of the profession.”
The caller decided to raise the point about acting independently and to include a link to the SPJ code in her email to her editor.
AdviceLine has no further information on this case, so the outcome is not known. But journalists who contact AdviceLine often express appreciation for having someone to call in cases like this and to talk about the issues involved. The discussion often leads to some ideas on how to overcome the ethics dilemma.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.
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