Welcome to the world of digital ethics; it’s a Wild West frontier out there!

When the trio of ethics committee members involved in revising ASBPE’s ethics code began work on the digital section, they knew they would have their hands full.  A multitude of concerns were on the table, with still further unknown changes lurking in the immediate future.

New high-profile challenges involving proper ad labeling clearly required attention.  But there were other ongoing past concerns to address.  In this article, the three sub-committee members engaged in code deliberations comment on matters – some obvious, others less publicized – that are clogging efforts to preserve editorial quality and integrity.

Robin Sherman:  When it comes to advertiser/editorial disputes, it’s a Wild West frontier out there.  Evidence of ethical lapses is far more visible on digital platforms, if for no other reason than that there are so many more platforms on which it can occur.

Digital advertisers also realize that compared to print media, more technical advantages and platforms exist that will allow their messages to resemble editorial content. Why do advertisers want their content to look like editorial? Is it because editorial content theoretically has more integrity than an advertisers own message? That journalism and editorial is beholden to the reader first and foremost, not to the advertiser?

In any case, without the clear distinction between editorial and advertising no matter the platform, and without the subsequent labeling of content as advertising or sponsored content, readers get confused about the integrity or the agenda of the content. The answer is clear: Clarity.

Moreover, in digital we see more cases of sponsored posts interspersed with editorial content interfering with reading continuity.

Next let’s turn our attention to sponsored webinars.  An ongoing integrity snag is the publisher’s insistence that editors moderate advertiser-controlled webinars.  Thus, the editor’s responsibility inherited by default is that of delivering commercials on behalf of the sponsor.  An ASBPE ethics code webinar advisory clearly indicates that editors should not be required to market a sponsor’s brand.

Actually, I don’t understand the mindset of publishers who avoid being moderators of advertiser-controlled webinars.  The role provides a perfect opportunity to gain favorable visibility before a group of webinar attendees (and the sponsor) not always readily achieved during conventional sales calls.

Perhaps the most critical thing to me is how so many editors don’t care about ethics or are unprepared to put up the fight necessary to resist attempts to undermine integrity and quality.  Undoubtedly, many people are scared of losing their jobs if they champion ethical journalistic behavior.  Or they don’t know how to change a poorly conceived sales proposal into a win-win for both editorial and sales.

Roy Harris: This year’s revision of ASBPE’s ethics guidelines – like earlier versions – devoted prime space to a variety of conflicts including those involving advertisers, public relations functionaries, and sources.  But little was said about the “internal” conflicts that can arise when freelance writers are contracted to research and report stories, to be delivered to staff editors.

At the close of our Code’s Conflict of Interest section, the following statement appears:  “Where bloggers have relationships with companies about which they write, a disclosure should be added to explain the connections.”

Shortly after, the Standards for Editorial Operations section includes this freelance guideline:  “The same guidelines governing regular staff should apply as well to paid or non-paid contributing writers, editors or artists.  Editors should respect the right of freelancers to work for other publications, although editors are entitled to discuss limitations, so that the same contributor doesn’t have bylined work appearing in a competing publication, for example.”

(Editor’s note: ASBPE’s Ethics Committee, which wasn’t able to get significant response to its pleas to freelancers for guideline recommendations, continues to seek freelancer feedback. If you wish to comment during our next round of revisions, e-mail ethics@asbpe.org.)

In fact, this area needs special attention in an era of increased freelancing and online writer byline credits that sometimes are extremely thin.  More and more, writers for B2B publications are outside contributors specializing in certain business-to-business fields, and taking home paychecks from independent B2B publishers as well as corporations that pay them to do white-papers or other special projects.

That shouldn’t be a problem – as long as those relationships are disclosed in the B2B publication, both in print and online.  Especially in online publications, it should be easy to give a summary of writers’ background that includes work done on behalf of the industry.  In reading through B2B stories, however, I find that any disclosure of possible conflicts in those “about the writer” summaries is relatively rare.

Perhaps such disclosure should have a standard– following the approach that many newspapers, as well as B2B publications, take when they print articles or Op-Ed pieces.  Certainly, not disclosing paid work that B2B contributors have done for industry could undercut the integrity of B2B media.  That’s something none of us needs in this day of multiple other pressures.

Howard Rauch: Most ethics codes I’ve reviewed stress the importance of maintaining editorial quality at the highest possible level. While nobody could possibly disagree with this mandate, the advent of digital media has made a steep uphill battle even steeper. I’ve seen evidence of this shortfall in results of three studies of B2B e-news delivery completed to date. And the 4th study just getting started promises to produce the most depressing results so far.

Two key glitches have yet to be remedied:

  1. Absence of enterprise reporting; and
  2. Inability to maintain a neutral editorial position.

Factor 1 is now coming under more fire from critics because of the emerging race for editorial superiority involving B2B publishers on one side, and their advertisers and other would-be publishers on the other.

Factor 2 continues to be apparent at publications where inexperienced editors are in lead positions.  For example, I remember my days as a junior editor when my managers took great pains to be sure that new product announcements maintained a neutral tone.  Claims of superiority and competitive slurs were routinely axed.  And equipment photographs, if used, had to be generic – meaning visible brand names or symbols were erased.

Now more than before, quality must be elevated to the highest possible level.  In line with that concern, our ethics committee has discussed conducting a study assessing the status of editorial quality in today’s digital marketing environment.

Even without research, one obvious remedy is rebuilding editorial staff resources.  It is clear from dozens of conversations that workloads have reached swamp status.  The latest thorny situation arising is who originates sponsored posts.  Several publishers seeing the light have formed special projects departments to handle content creation assignments.  Others muddle through with existing staffs, further undermining the quality picture.

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