The Meat of the Issue

Bill Coffin, editor-in-chief of National Underwriter Life & Health, vents some steam over an award-winning magazine’s recent photo scandal.

As a publishing professional with nearly 20 years of experience, and also as a long-time vegetarian (and a recent vegan for health reasons), I am seeing red over VegNews’ recent photo scandal, as reported on Treehugger and elsewhere.

Long story short, it has been running stock images of meat-based dishes to illustrate vegan dishes, sometimes Photoshopping out incriminating details (such as bones) to hide the origin of the images.

Now, vegans have a history of getting outraged over things the rest of the world does not find all that objectionable. I’m okay with that. But my problem with VegNews is not a personal hang-up. It is a professional one.

Not only is VegNews’ duplicity deeply offensive to its core audience, but it is an ethical breach as well. VegNews then compounded the problem with an equally unacceptable apology letter that simply waves off the practice because it is expensive to run a magazine, and they can’t always afford custom photography. Moreover, there is little stock imagery that is of vegan food, so by Vegnews’ reasoning, they had no other option but to doctor non-vegan photography. Apparently the entire staff was complicit in this, because VegNews noted that the entire staff would discuss the use of non-vegan photos each time they did it. Frankly, I can’t decide which is worse – that the rank-and-file of VegNews was in on this too, or that those most responsible for this (namely, art director Sutton Long, editor-at-large Laura Beck and publisher Joseph Connelly) have yet to take direct responsibility for any of it.

My wife runs a blog – – with no external funding and a personal camera and guess what? She manages to shoot all her own imagery. That VegNews cannot do the same and expects the public to believe it is a slap in the face to every hard-working art director or editor who ever had to scrounge to find the perfect image, or had to cast budgetary magic to afford the shots they wanted to buy. VegNews took the easy way out at a time when our fine industry must be setting examples to follow.

On the heels of all of this, I was especially disappointed, then, to see that VegNews won a 2010 Eddie award for the “Consumer, Enthusiasts/Hobbyists, Website” category. To win a FOLIO award is no small thing, and it carries with it significant professional honor. I should know – my publication, National Underwriter Life & Health, won an Ozzie this year. But publications that cheat their audience, that practice duplicity and that do not fully own up to their misdeeds do not deserve to carry the FOLIO name in their list of accolades. At this point, I almost don’t want to know what other awards VegNews has won while it has been duping its readership.

I hope that FOLIO will  withdraw VegNews’ 2010 Eddie, and make news of it public. The print industry is under great pressure right now. We cannot afford to have the gold-standard awards-granting body turn a blind eye to a publication that, in hard financial times, cuts corners that must not be cut. There is no price on ethics and honor, though VegNews tried to set one anyway. But whether VegNews keeps or loses its 2010 Eddie, the bigger issue here is what this will do to its readership, its advertisers and the segment in which it publishes.

Anybody who lives on a media production deadline knows how stressful it is. And every single media pro I have ever encountered has been tempted at one time or another to do something dodgy in order to make their lives easier. This temptation is only natural. But here’s the thing: most of us know better than to give in to such base instincts, and we let our professionalism, our integrity and our pride guide us. That is what responsible media does, whether it is covering vegan recipes at home, foreign wars, and everything in between.

I have always respected the strong line ASBPE has taken to promote ethical journalism and editorial integrity. I would be very interested to see what the rest of the ASBPE community has to say about this and other such ethical breaches.

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