Of 17 editorial ethics challenges, sponsored content is most vexing to Ethics Chat attendees

If asked to choose the most irksome among 17 common ethics concerns, which would be your top choice?

According to a list based on my recently concluded term as ASBPE’s ethics committee chairman, job jeopardy and faltering editorial quality would vie for first. But an impromptu brainstorming session during last month’s ASBPE Ethics Chat suggested that sponsored content is a major grief producer.

For example, consider the following quotes from the Chat:

  • “With new advertisers, we always have to explain the reason for labeling sponsored content. Customers are angry when they learn labeling is required.”
  • “We try to avoid honoring advertiser requests to have their ads positioned adjacent to compatible editorial.” This must be tough going at many companies where policy requiring comparable adjacency is the rule rather than the exception.
  • “Our salespeople try to push editors to interview advertisers.” In fact, I often heard complaints about advertising reps guaranteeing editorial coverage when making a pitch.
  • “A company owner must decide whether to prioritize marketing or journalism. If the former is preferred, all bets are off as far as integrity is concerned.”
  • “We don’t want to cater to advertisers, but with B2B pubs, our readers do need to know about the type of things advertisers offer readers to do their jobs.”
  • “Our editorial team is increasingly being asked to create marketing and promotion materials, especially whitepapers, and in an extreme case, a full editorial article series on trends/technologies that the company plans to distribute to hundreds of its clients.”

Larger companies are in position to create separate [marketing] departments to deal with such requests. But as one registrant noted, for many smaller companies with limited staffs, ASBPE ethics standards are tough to observe.

A continuous source of sponsored content confusion involves native advertising. Conflicting opinions on policy are non-stop. The alleged key merit of the native way is a format resembling editorial content. However, that practice recently was challenged by a content marketing insider who emphasized that “blending is bad.” ASBPE’s guidelines call for no blending.

Another recent problem for ethicists comes from an interview with Pete Wootton, managing director of Digital at Dennis Publishing, U.K. His declaration that full-time editorial staff members should create native advertising content is particularly annoying.

17 ethics traps identified

When ASBPE’s April Ethics Chat was announced, it was billed as discussion of “the terrible 10” common ethics dilemmas. But based on input provided by several interested parties, the total was expanded to the following 17, listed in ascending priority order:

  1. Plagiarism explosion. Recently an association attorney recommended that written assignment instructions to freelance writers include a warning that plagiarized material would not be tolerated. One consultant specializing in plagiarism issues maintains that the so-called explosion has been prompted by unreasonable workloads brought about by addition of online media responsibilities.
  2. Fabrication. A typical manifestation is including fictitious quotes from alleged sources.
  3. “Unbright future” recruitment dilemma. Employers fudge answers to questions from job applicants about future growth because the outlook is gloomy.
  4. Burying complaints. Folks who do so hope the offended party will not persist.
  5. Trade show monkey business. One show manager recently attempted to exact favorable editorial coverage by informing publishers they would be banned from the event unless compliance was assured.
  6. Do-no-harm decisions. There are cases when factual coverage may destroy a well-meaning source’s career.
  7. Blacklisting non-advertisers. Apparently, some publishers continue to issue edicts along this line. Possible result: Comments from known industry leaders are omitted.
  8. Requests to “unpublish.” This may occur when publishers receive requests to scrap allegedly damaging articles. ASBPE’s Ethics Committee has recommended that in today’s times, written policy covering response to such requests is mandatory
  9. Exaggerated claims of inaccuracy. A source who has agreed to be interviewed and who has pre-publication review rights now claims the entire coverage is inaccurate and must be scrapped. Investigations of such declarations often find the request is a smoke screen.
  10. Sponsored content integrity. An ongoing problem exists when publishers insist that editorial staff members write ad copy. ASBPE’s ethics code insists that freelance writers provide such content. Meanwhile, astute publishers have resolved the issue by establishing a separate non-editorial department to handle sponsored content assignments.
  11. Fact-checking/fake news policy. One ethics committee member notes that there are a variety of areas where B2B publications “are increasingly being tempted to lower their standards for vetting and fairly presenting their material.”
  12. Bad news/controversy ban. B2B editorial quality continues to be undermined by publishers who insist that important coverage be squelched because it may offend advertisers. Other publishers simply fear any form of controversial reporting.
  13. Front cover integrity. While Ethics Committee chairman, I dealt with several inquiries where publishers new to that job either wanted to sell front cover position or include plugs for advertiser-sponsored content as cover lines.
  14. Absence of in-house ethics code policy. This document need not cover the waterfront. Some companies have issued policy statements focusing on a single matter such as advertiser/editorial relationships. But ASBPE strongly recommends creating your own, more complete code or adopting ASBPE’s ethics guidelines.
  15. Research/numbers integrity. Before publishing research reports, check that the math is correct. The two articles below discuss the quantitative metrics that you minimally should carefully examine before publishing research data:
    1. Too many editors and writers publish the research that is just handed to them
    2. How the ethical editor and writer can meet the minimal research vetting standard
  16. Job jeopardy. Said one editor who fought for higher quality and lost: “I’m afraid I’m compromising my editorial quality and ethics if I don’t stick up for our audience; yet I’m risking my job if I do. I suspect I’m not the only editor in B2B that has these same worries.”
  17. Faltering editorial quality. Introductions of most published ethics codes make a strong case for maintaining the highest possible quality in every issue. But B2B clearly is not living up to that mandate, especially where e-news coverage is concerned. For the past six years, I have conducted an annual B2B e-news delivery study. Consistent finding: 65 percent of posted articles appear to be PR announcement rewrites reflecting no evidence of editor direct interaction with article sources.

One brainstorm contributor deviated from marketing concern to address current legislative issues pertaining to taping interviews. “Recording ethics should be added to the ASBPE ethics guidelines,” noted one committee member. “Only 23 states require by law that all parties being recorded give permission, so there are plenty of journalists out there who legally can record without the source knowing it. If it’s to use that recording as a back-up for the reporter (and to fact-check complaints about misquoting), it seems like a fine practice.

“Twelve states require, under most circumstances, the consent of all parties to a conversation. Those jurisdictions are California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington,” according to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. Also see: Tape-recording laws at a glance.

Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions, Inc. He is immediate past chair of ASBPE’s Ethics Committee and an ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. Rauch was the corporate vice president/editorial director for long-time B2B publisher Gralla Publications, Inc. He is the author of “Get Serious About Competitive Analysis,” a mini-manual for B2B publishers. Later this year, his second book, “Editorial Managers Guide for Business-to-Business Media,” will be available.

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