Journalism: What Does It Mean to Be Ethical in the Media?
March 19, 2002
The saying goes, "fast, good, cheap: pick any two," but in today's publishing climate, we might do well to add a fourth element to the string—"true." A panel of five editors from various areas of journalism offered their thoughts and observations on ethics in the digital age to BAEF members at the March forum. The panel was organized and moderated by Tom Hinds.
The consensus was that regardless of your medium or audience, you can't escape daily ethical judgment calls. "What all the judgments of editorial integrity spring from—forget writer's ego, advertisers, and so on—is, 'Is it a service to the reader?'" said Chris Clarke, publisher of Faultline.org.
The Almighty Dollar
Publishing, like any other business, is a money-making venture. It doesnt really matter if your publication is online or print, daily or quarterly; showing some type of success is a must in this competitive market. In the online publishing world, where the initial model was free content, eking out even single-digit profits is a challenge. At times, this quest for profits brings up ethical questions.
Salon.com has recently begun a paid-subscription service with some subscribers-only premium content. Yet when Salon published an investigative story about a man on death row, some readers protested that Salon had a moral obligation to offer this story for free. The publication ended up compromising: offering the story to subscribers only for the first two days, then releasing it to the general public. "We had to come up with a compromise that would satisfy our readers and meet our business needs," said Scott Rosenberg, managing editor of Salon.com. "Over time, people will become more accustomed to the notion of paying for professional content on the Internet. If the Wall Street Journal has a scoop, people don't expect them to offer the paper for free that day."
The Wall Street Journal requires reporters to adhere to an extremely detailed code of conduct, according to Don Clark, deputy bureau chief of the WSJ. One reason why they have such strict policies is because of the great potential for their reporters to profit from knowledge gained in interviewing sources who are in the financial know.
"At the Journal, they teach you all about making money, but you're not allowed to make it," Clark joked. "Our code of conduct has evolved over the years as scandals have happened. When there's no code of conduct, no one knows what to do."
As the editor-in-chief of the lifestyle magazine San Francisco, Bruce Kelley has to juggle selling on the newsstand (making advertisers happy) and having people need his publication. His solution is to mix service journalism (good restaurants, good deals, real estate, etc.) with investigative pieces that expand the views of readers.
"Where my ethics are tested is in the need to satisfy my readers and also do something for the community," Kelley said. "I try for balance: how to sell out a little bit to get a lot."
According to Kelley, magazines are under extreme pressure to show growth. For example, when he was at Time, the goal was 20% growth per year—not an easy goal to attain. That can bring on the temptation of favoring certain advertisers, which definitely crosses an ethical line.
"There is a built-in suppression," Kelley said. "When reporting about advertisers, you stay away from certain things. If it's a big story, you'll do it, but if it's a small story you ask yourself if it's worth the many thousands of dollars that it may cost."
Those seeking a toehold in advocacy journalism can experience similar difficulties with those who hand out the funds. As Chris Clarke noted, "In the advocacy world, if you're supporting a publication, the publisher had better not do anything to piss you off. There's always that tension, nonprofit or profit."
Alastair Paulin, managing editor of the nonprofit Mother Jones magazine, noted that his magazine has found that readers are the best source of fundraising. While about 15% of the magazine's revenues come from advertising, a large amount of its support comes from donors. Mother Jones does have some grants from nonprofit foundations, but those are few and far between because funders do not have any influence on its editorial policy or lineup.
The American Society of Magazine Editors advocates a clear demarcation between editorial, "advertorial," and advertising. Don Clark noted that often large conglomerates, such as Knight-Ridder, are less prone to advertiser influence than local or regional publications; since local publications have a smaller economic base, they can be more easily affected by the decision of a single advertiser.
Running with the Story
Maintaining profitability isn't the only motivating factor for publications. Sometimes the desire for a really good story can get writers and publications into trouble, as demonstrated by recent and not-so-recent scandals involving character composites (e.g., Janet Cooke of The Washington Post in the 1980s and Michael Finkel of The New York Times Magazine in 2002).
"Even if there's no pressure to produce a profit, the pressures are still there to cut corners, juice the story a little," said Paulin "Who will know? Maybe you, a fact checker, and six other people. What harm does it do? Well, harm is done because we deal in trust. Every time you cut a corner, you've lost some of that."
Disclosure, Disclosure, Disclosure
When writing a story, the writer has an obligation to disclose any information that may influence an editor's decision. For example, financial writers must be particularly meticulous about disclosure, according to Don Clark. Personal relationships with sources should also be disclosed. And informing his editor that the character in his story was composite might have saved Michael Finkel, Rosenberg said. "The rule is disclosure; then the editor can make a decision," Rosenberg said. "When deception of any kind is involved, you're almost always stepping over an ethical line."
Publications also have an obligation to disclose. For example, when Entertainment Weekly writes about its parent company, Time Warner, Inc., they disclose the relationship. "It's good to see that a pop culture magazine takes disclosure so seriously," Paulin said.
In the aftermath of September 11, the journalistic community is bearing the weight of reporting all sides, but journalists are also feeling pressure to choose between "being an American" and being a journalist striving for objective reporting and freedom of the press.
Chris Clarke brought up the difficulties that he experienced as the publisher of an online advocacy publication. "There was a time right after September 11 when minority opinion holders were someone to watch," Clarke said. "Even a small publication like Faultline.org got a lot of heat. For me as a consumer of journalism, a lot of controversy centers around the rapidity with which the media started referring to the war in Afghanistan as the 'War on Terrorism.'"
Rosenberg noted that the name of the war is a working journalistic problem because of the U.S. government convention of calling it the "War on Terrorism" instead of a war against Afghanistan or a war against al Qaeda.
Other political forces can come down on publications. Following a series of stories about the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the IRS decided to investigate Mother Jones's nonprofit status. And Faultline.org's staff was investigated for possibly harboring the Unabomber.