Does editorial integrity have a bright future?

by Howard Rauch, editor-in-chief

WASHINGTON, DCWhen Aviation Week marine editor Mike Fabey launched an investigation of possible flaws in a new U.S. navy warship, he knew there would be rough seas ahead. At a critical point in his project, AW “higher ups got involved and gave 155% backing so I could do the right thing,” Fabey told Ethics News Updates.

“Do not underestimate the lengths the military organizations will go to stop a story,” Fabey wrote in a recount of his experience written for The IRE Journal. “In the end,” he said, “not only did the Navy retreat from its promise to bring charges against me, but the service brass started to acknowledge the veracity of the Aviation Week stories.”

Fabey recently was named 2014 winner of the Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity sponsored by American Business Media (ABM), a  division of the Software & Information Industry Association. The award is given “to a business editor who demonstrates bravery, integrity, passion and quality of product.” ABM notes that the Award established in 2004 “is only given when a deserving candidate is identified.”

What about the accomplishments of previous candidates? Take the case of Julie Triedman, the 2013 winner, a senior writer with The American Lawyer. She was honored for her coverage of the collapse of the largest law firm bankruptcy in U.S. history. At the time she was doing her reporting, noted ALM, law firm managers “were aggressively trying to discredit her efforts.”

A number of industry observers “point to Triedman’s tireless reporting, and unusual editorial courage to publicly correct reports in her own publication based on her follow-up reporting, as among the key developments” that led to the law firm’s subsequent dissolution.”

But outstanding coverage is not the only accomplishment recognized by ABM. When Harry McCracken got the nod in 2008, integrity took the form of resignation from his position as VP/editor-in-chief of PC World. The dispute triggering his action was the pulling of a news feature that would cast an unfavorable light on an influential advertiser. McCracken eventually was reinstated, and the entire episode was the talk of the B2B industry.

The Timothy White Award, launched in 2004, is named after the longtime editor of Billboard magazine. It is given annually to “an editor whose work displays courage, integrity and passion.”

As former president of the Nielsen Business Media property that included Billboard at the time, ABM managing director Michael Marchesano was familiar with White’s accomplishments. “He took a very critical stand with labels for some of their record releases,” Marchesano told ENU.

According to an ABM description of White’s career, he was adamant that his publication cover not only the most acclaimed or famous artists but also the unsung performers.

Four factors define integrity

While the Timothy White Award clearly honors deserving journalists, is “editorial integrity” defined appropriately? By way of answering this question, let’s first consider the criteria Award entries must demonstrate:

  1. Standing up to outside pressures – whether from advertisers, industry executives or upper management – that threaten to interfere with the goal of placing readers first and maintaining independent, honest and ethical journalism.
  2. Serving as the “conscience” of the audience that his/her publication or website serves and fearlessly supporting important industry causes.
  3. Upholding the integrity of business-to-business journalism as defined in ABM’s Editorial Code of Ethics and other professional standards.
  4. Mentoring editorial colleagues and other members of the publication to instill the highest ethical standards in them.

These are all laudable goals, but many editors may not be fortunate to have adequate resources or top management backing when controversial situations arise. Thus . . . editorial integrity is accorded second-rate status.

If current definitions of integrity require improvement, how so? Consider this comment from Kerry Knudson, editor and publisher, W.I. Media, Inc., Ontario, Canada:

Integrity superstars exist, he says. However, “I am going to suggest you will find them among the small, reader-oriented, one-owner trade books and not in the big publishing houses.”

In the 40’s and 50’s, says Knudson, trade magazines developed when new industries needed information. Usually the new publications “were started by an industry insider, and they began to be successful. In the late 70s and 80s, conglomerates saw trade magazines as a way to print money, and they bought them up by the barrelful. The thing is, the old editor/publisher that had the faith of the market either got moved out, or, if a good salesman, moved up to be a group publisher. Either way, the direct, long-standing connection to the market faltered.”

A former multi-publisher, corporate editorial director, now Editor of an association B2B magazine, says this: “While they might understand the importance of integrity, far too many of today’s editors, swamped by exploding content demands, are only concerned about getting out the next issue, no matter what it takes.”

One editor-in-chief, when asked, declared that editors “had tanked” when it came to ethical matters. And still ringing in my ears is a comment made by a B2B multi-publisher president during an industry convention: “We have rushed so much to meet market demands that we have become less good in the process.”

Meanwhile, this practical observation was offered by Jean Christofferson, manager of publications, WorldatWork, Phoenix, AZ. “Editorial integrity is preserving the reputation, quality and impact of your publication, while being open-minded enough to consider new ideas that will ensure the presence of your publication well into the future.

“Journalism continues to evolve and editors will continue to experience new dilemmas as the lines blur. A good editor must listen to research on all sides of the issue and bear in mind the needs of the reader before anything else.

“While revenue often rules, the editor should feel it is his/her duty to educate the management team or executive leaders on the impact of a decision even if he/she doesn’t have the power to say, ‘No’.”

Which brings us back to the question posed at the outset of this article: Does editorial integrity have a bright future? How do you define the necessary qualities needed to qualify as an “integrity superstar?”

(Editor’s note: For more ideas on the subject, see accompanying “reader-centric” article in this issue. Then submit your reactions to ethics@asbpe.org.)