ASBPE ethics code revisions: Key change aims at protecting front cover integrity

Preserving the integrity of publication front covers via an ASBPE ethics code revision was a step long overdue. Field reports mentioned infractions ranging from false covers involving publication logo misuse to tales of new sales managers coaxing editors to clutter covers with commercial plugs.

The final straw was a practice launched by one publisher guaranteeing advertisers cover blurbs hyping advertorials located within the issue.  Even worse, the same deal assured clients that a staff editor would be made available to help write the advertorial copy.

Our newly-revised ASBPE Guide to Preferred B2B Journalism Practices includes this advisory:

“Because cover or home-page advertising may raise concerns about the publication’s credibility, such advertising must be approached carefully.

“‘False covers,’ designed to resemble genuine editorial format, should not be used, nor should teaser blurbs that refer to advertiser-sponsored sections or supplements.

“A full-page cover ad that includes a magazine’s logo, whether a false cover or not, represents a conflict of interest, suggesting that the publication supports or endorses a product or service.  Such commitment to an advertiser of what traditionally is regarded as editorial space may create the impression that editorial content inside the publication also has been sold.”

One member already has been put this provision to good use. However, the revised code includes other significant improvements stemming  from several months’ of Ethics Committee deliberations.  For example, we’ve introduced a social media section and expanded coverage of digital media concerns.  Also notable is a less rigid stance pertaining to editorial engagement in marketing activity.

Involvement taboo has been softened

The previous code supported the once-traditional mantra that editors should absolutely have no involvement in marketing activity.  This directive clearly runs contrary to top management preferences that editors be engaged in revenue-building efforts.  Even so, preservation of quality and integrity must be taken into account, particularly where special advertising sections or supplements are involved.  Here is the revised advisory addressing the editorial role:

“While the publisher is responsible for ensuring that these materials meet high ethical standards, editors should review the materials to ensure that guidelines in such areas as separation from editorial look, feel, and placement are followed.  An editor who has ethical objections to such content should alert the publisher about the objections.

“A senior-level editor may work with sales personnel to ensure that no conflict exists between the advertiser-sponsored content and editorial content.  Thus, the editor may suggest topics for the sponsor, but the publisher or the sales staff should be the ones to communicate these suggestions to the sponsor.  (In other words, the editor should not directly communicate with the advertiser.)

“A publication’s editorial staff should not write, edit, design, or lay out special advertising sections or supplements.  This role should be handled by:

  • A freelancer hired by the sales staff or publisher or
  • A separate non-editorial department.”

(Editor’s note:  Considerable debate centered on how much clout the editor should have in approving or rejecting sponsored content.  A reminder is necessary here: Even if sponsored content is properly labeled as an advertisement, the readership – including competitors of the sponsor – will perceive that the publication’s staff has endorsed the inclusion of any unjustified claims of superiority.)

Updates to be more frequent

Because of imminent developments, particularly those pertaining to the impact of “native advertising,” you can expect more frequent announcements regarding ethics code updates. A recent New York Times article defined native advertising as “wearing the uniform of journalism, mimicking the storytelling aesthetic of the host site.”

Article author David Carr observed that “publishers might build a revenue ledge through innovation of the advertising format but the confusion that makes it work often diminishes the host publication’s credibility.”

(Editor’s note: Reactions to this article will be included in an upcoming “Ethics Mailbag” summary.  Send comments to ethics@asbpe.org.)