By Sam Oches
Editor, QSR Magazine
ASBPE 2014 Young Leaders Scholar

The Ethics Town Hall program at ASBPE’s National Conference invited attendees to voice ethical dilemmas they face in their newsrooms, or see in the wider publishing world. And in the responses poured: from publishers’ increasing willingness to allow magazine covers to be “sponsored,” to the use of bylines on stories that are essentially press-release rewrites, to conflicts involving freelance writers.

One subject discussed, after being raised by audience member Paul Heney, involved whether to purge archived material from a publication’s website. What to do, for example, if editors find themselves in a difficult situation when a story has been published about a member of a covered industry who is charged with a crime, but later is exonerated?

Among opinions shared: that the story, rather than being purged, could be updated with an editor’s note about the outcome. One of the Town Hall moderators, Roy Harris, said it would be unwise to remove a story from a website. Being able to check the continuity of a story contributes to “the historical nature of news,” he said.

Ethics panel with Roy Harris and Robin Sherman

Ethics Town Hall with Roy Harris and Robin Sherman
Photo Credit: Phillip M. Perry

For his part, Mark Schlack, ASBPE national president and TechTarget senior vice president/editorial, agreed. He believes purging material would not be ethical. “I don’t think you should take a story down unless it’s grievously wrong,” he said, adding that much content posted online today can never be completely removed anyway, due to the archiving nature of the Internet. He also said that a willingness to remove material from the website is a slippery slope, one that could lead to outside influences attempting to force other content to be removed.

ASBPE’s current Guide to Preferred Journalistic Practices includes only a brief advisory recommending a policy responsive to “requests to un-publish.” Guidance will be expanded shortly.

(Editor’s note: Following the conference, attendee Larissa Newton submitted a copy of the NPR archive policy followed by her publication. Read her post appearing at ASBPE’s LinkedIn group site here. [LinkedIn login required.])

The town hall event, held July 26 at the Chicago conference, started with Harris’s description of the cover art on the conference program. Designed by board member Alison Fulton, it showed a tree with large leaves marked with words like storytelling, digital, and leadership: the fundamentals of B2B publishing. On the elaborate root structure below the surface printed integrity. (See an image of the cover at the bottom of this post.)

“Integrity feeds everything we do as editors. It’s our groundwork,” said Harris, president of the ASBPE Foundation and member of ASBPE’s ethics committee. “More and more needs to be done to surface our ethical principles. … Ethics nourish everything we do, but are only indirectly seen by our audience.” A proposal in the ASBPE ethics code, he said, is that editors should compose their own ethics code, or adopt an existing code, and disclose it on their websites. (In addition to ASBPE, other organizations with codes include the American Society of Magazine Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists. Harris said editors should treat the code as a “living document” that continuously evolves with the times.)

Added co-moderator Robin Sherman, a freelance content strategist, editor, and publication designer: “It’s not just, ‘Here’s what you should do,’ but it’s, ‘Here’s what you should do and why.'” Sherman, who also serves on ASBPE’s ethics committee, said editors earn more respect in the marketplace if they publish their ethics codes.

The question of how editors and freelancers should communicate any potential conflicts earned extended discussion. Warren Hersch, senior editor of advanced markets and sales for National Underwriter Life & Health, brought up a situation in which an editor for his publication became licensed with an insurance provider to sell insurance; buyers would not know the editor’s identity, and the editor would blog about the experience.

The audience consensus on such conflicts seemed to be that transparency is the best policy. Harris pointed to a recent discussion during a Poynter Institute webinar that cited research showing that a lack of transparency concerns readers more than bias does. “People were not as upset about bias in a publication as long as they were transparent about that bias,” Harris said.

Conflicts with freelancers is an emerging area that likely will see prolonged conversation in coming years as more publications turn to freelance writers and editors. As with several other ethical dilemmas facing editors in B2B publishing, Harris said, there is no clear black and white on the issue.

“It’s a really thorny, thorny area,” he said.

Of course, the B2B publishing world always has been filled with such thorns. It’s why ethics codes are so important for editors to keep close at hand; they guide us in dealing with the hazards that these kinds of issues present. And among today’s daily pressures to create, market, and repackage content, ethics codes can be easily forgotten.

The Ethics Town Hall session reminded that, for a publication to truly flourish, it must be rooted in integrity – designed around an ethical code. That’s why this editor already has approached his publisher with the intent of drawing up a code for our magazine – QSR, aimed at the limited-service restaurant industry – to establish a firm, respected position for our marketplace.Skills Tree