Developing a process for B2B ethical decisions

By Joelle Harms, Senior Digital Media Content Producer, North Coast Media, and Alexa Boschini, Associate Editor, Home Accents Today


For business-to-business editors, ethics can be more complicated than they are in the consumer media world. The scope of B2B products extends well beyond journalism, from sponsored content and special events to data analysis and consulting. So walking the ethical line when it comes to revenue generation, for example, often means extra levels of tough decision-making for B2B editors.

But acting ethically and making a profit are hardly mutually exclusive. And indeed, as media ethics expert and Poynter Vice President of Academic Programs Kelly McBride put it in her presentation at ASBPE’s 2016 National Conference: “There is no reason ethics cannot accommodate those big business opportunities.”

“Ethics is a process,” McBride repeated throughout the presentation. And to make the process work at its best: “Spend a lot of time getting the process down, and solving each individual issue will come easier.”

Creating one’s own formal ethics code, or adapting an existing organizational code to your publication, is one step McBride recommended—a step reflecting the position of ASBPE’s own ethical Guide to Best Practices. But whether or not one has a formal code, it’s still wise for B2B editors to have a process, and to use it regularly, she said.

Lessons from the consumer press

B2B ethical pressures are increasing all the time. Why? For one thing, publications often have fewer resources and full-time staffers, who have been replaced by contractors and freelancers—a trend that’s true as well for the consumer press. And indeed, ethical lessons these days may apply in both segments. Thus, McBride asked attendees to consider a 35-year-old case from Runner’s World.

McBride had found the ethics example involving Runner’s World—now an established 50-year-old magazine, but only a teenager when it faced the ethical challenge—in a 2011 article in the New York Times Magazine about the history of recreational running. The magazine had been carefully reviewing competing brands of running shoe, and in a 1981 buyer’s guide one shoe, a Nike, didn’t do well. Nike (which had started its own magazine, Running) pulled $1 million of advertising from Runner’s World. And four years later, when the publication was sold to Rodale, the Runner’s World rating system was abolished—with its shoe guide being replaced, with every shoe now carrying what is effectively a “recommended” grade.

The Poynter ethicist launched a discussion of what the magazine might have done, besides eliminating a shoe rating system that benefited readers—even if it tweaked Nike.

One possible approach: installing more transparency into the rating system, and explaining the fairness of the system to both readers and shoemakers, including Nike.

One step at a time

“Ethics is a process,” remember? So here’s the four-step workflow technique that McBride recommended for dealing with ethical issues that arise. (Note: The approach also works when actually creating an ethics guide):

Step 1: Consider values. Journalists tend to face challenges even when establishing their publication’s values: weighing one journalism value against another journalism value, or weighing a business values against a journalism value, for example. (B2B is particularly susceptible to the business-versus-journalism-value issue, she said, because B2B editors have one foot in both business and journalism camps.) Telling the truth about what exactly your articles offer the reader—being transparent, as she suggested Runner’s World might have done with its product review—was an option that might have been considered. Explain to readers what exactly you are promising them, and be transparent about the decision-making that went into delivering on the promise.

Step 2: Consider principles. Once you establish your publication’s values, translate them into principles. If you value the truth, examine just how you’re going to seek the truth? If you value community, how are you going to foster a meaningful relationship with your audience? McBride said every publication needs to be able to say, “We exist because.…” and list three to five things that are core to your identity. Those three to five things are your principles.

Step 3: Identify journalistic purposes and alternative actions. Every revenue line – whether journalistic or otherwise – must have a purpose that fits within your principles. If that purpose presents an ethical conflict, McBride said it’s imperative to come up with an alternative that works. Going back to the product ranking example, don’t label it “the best products” if it’s not a true product review. Create another angle that promises your readers something else, such as “the newest products.” Call it what it is.

Step 4. Match outcomes to values. When faced with an ethical decision, as the Runner’s World editors were, make sure whatever solution you reach reflects your publication’s values. According to McBride, consumers of media are so overloaded with information that they often approach what data they receive with cynicism. So it’s important that they understand what data it is they’re consuming. Ultimately, your honesty and integrity will lead to a stronger relationship with your audience.

If you do decide to create a formal code…

The ethical process should also be the basis for developing a code of ethics, if your publication chooses to. Fill it with clear examples and rules – though writing a rule for every issue that could potentially arise is impossible.

McBride recommended using a “Green Light Ethics” approach–listing in your code what to do in certain situations (green lights) instead of what not to do.

She noted that a good code of ethics addresses conflicts of interest, anticipates challenges, states company values clearly, contains standard practices, allows deviation through other established pathways, and allows a certain threshold for that deviation.

The process still may seem overwhelming, but ASBPE offers examples of ethics codes for several business, trade, association and professional publications.


This blog post is based on a presentation from the ASBPE 2016 National Conference. Stay tuned for more blog posts about conference presentations.

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