Don’t Have Formal Ethics Guidelines Yet? Here Are Two Ideas

By Howard Rauch

B2B editors unhappy with the state of ethics at their companies have yet to create written policy statements covering their concerns. Arising disputes are handled from scratch, on a case-by-case basis. For those of you seeking a better way, here are two approaches I found during some recent research.

Computerworld posts its policy online. Yep, you can’t miss the “Code of Ethics” link on the Web site’s “About Us” page. Visitors who connect see a modified listing of ten principles excerpted from a more detailed internal policy:

1. Computerworld’s first priority is the interest of its readers.

2. Editorial decisions are made free of advertisers’ influence.

3. We insist on fair, unbiased presentation in all news and articles.

4. No advertising that simulates editorial content will be published.

5. Plagiarism is grounds for dismissal.

6. Computerworld makes prompt, complete corrections of errors.

7. Journalists do not own or trade in computer industry stocks.

8. No secondary employment in the IT industry is permitted.

9. Our commitment to fairness is our defense against slander.

10. All editorial opinions will be labeled as such.

“The issue is not the code itself but how it is interpreted for a type of publishing that wasn’t in existence when it was written,” says Computerworld editor-in-chief Scot Finnie.

Before moving on to my next example, here is some additional advice about complaint-handling policy. In my preconsulting days, when I was VP/editorial of a leading B2B multipublisher, proper complaint handling was accorded high priority. We had a written policy in place. What’s more, periodically we would run a complaint-handling workshop for new editors and/or salespeople. The session usually was led by our executive vice president. Here are a few policy excerpts specifically directed to editors:

  • If you receive a complaint via telephone, take down all the information – and make the caller aware that you are doing so. Do not argue, and don’t constantly break in to pass the buck to your printer, the advertising department or anyone else. For the moment, you are the magazine to the complaining party – and that party expects results from you.
  • The very same day, a letter should be sent to the aggrieved party confirming the conversation, offering a solution, or indicating a deadline by which you will get back to that person with a solution. If appropriate, attempt to resolve the problem by offering to print a prompt correction, a letter to the editor or “compensatory editorial” in an early issue.
  • Your readiness to resolve the complaint may in itself be the ticket to neutralizing the anger of the person at the other end of the line. Before you end the call, always ask the complaining party whether there are any other concerns that should be addressed.
  • If the complaint is serious to the point that you can’t arrive at a solution, try bumping the matter up to your boss. Attention from a superior often scores points with the complainant.
  • A conciliatory approach may make a friend and avert a crisis!

Eight issues to consider when a proposed article involves an advertiser

Here is an interesting list I came across that at one time had been used by an association publication.

1. Where did the proposed story originate? If from the advertising department, is the motivation to inform the reader or to curry favor with the advertiser?

2. Is the article’s subject legitimate news or information regardless of who originated the idea?

3. Assuming the article is journalistically valid, is the editorial department free to pursue it independently regardless of where the story leads? Will the advertising department have any voice in determining sources to be interviewed? Will the advertising department have any censorship powers over the final version once the article is written?

4. Will publication of the article benefit one advertiser primarily or competing advertisers generally?

5. Will publication of the article give the appearance of weakening the editorial credibility of the publication? Can competing magazines use the article against you as evidence of a sell-out? Can competing advertisers claim foul or unfair influence?

6. Will publication of the article adversely affect morale among your own staff?

7. Taking all of the above into consideration, is there a way the article can be published that both the editorial and advertising departments can live with? Can the editorial focus be shifted in a way that permits editorial independence and still gives the advertising department something to take back to the advertiser?

8. Using your best journalistic training, experience and judgment, does publication of the article “feel right?”

If you have interesting examples of ethics policy statements that you are able to share with other ASBPE members, please contact us.

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