The evolution of ethics in B2B journalism

By Dan Kubacki

Predator and prey.

Kerry Knudsen didn’t mince words when describing the relationship between advertisers and readers.

“It’s not a symbiotic relationship,” said Knudsen, editor and publisher of W.I. Media Inc.

A panel of B2B editors shared insights on balancing editorial and advertising content as well as removing or retracting content during the “Ethics Roundtable” session at the Generation B2B ASBPE 2019 National Conference, which was held at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

As a longtime magazine editor and publisher, Knudsen gave examples of moments in his career when he directly butted heads with advertisers, but he said it was all for the good of the reader. Knudsen said he’s built trust with his publications’ readers by adhering to a code of ethics.

“The magazine continues to write things that are in-depth, audience-targeted, and more valuable,” he said, adding that trade publications must “help your audience be efficient.”

Roy Harris, retired Senior Editor of CFO Magazine, said earning the trust of readers is absolutely necessary.

“The one thing indispensable to our publications is that you are trusted—that you are viewed as the trusted source—otherwise there’s no need for an ethical discussion,” Harris said. “We need to disclose more about why we write about what we write about.”

Knudsen said the format of a story or publication – whether it’s print, digital or something else entirely—is irrelevant to a trade publication’s relationship with readers. “The question is audience and content,” he said. “Can you get somebody to respond to you and tell you you’ve given them something of value?”

When asked about balancing editorial content with advertisements and how transparent to be with advertorials, Amy Fischbach, freelance writer and editor and president of the ASBPE Foundation, says it’s important to clearly label sponsored content.

“Trust is very important,” Fischbach said. “The line between editorial and advertorial is becoming blurred. The purpose of B2B media is to help readers do their jobs more effectively; it’s not just to sell a product.”

Corrections and retractions

The ethics panel also discussed the right way to handle mistakes in published copy and how online content has a longer shelf life than traditional print content.

Knudsen said his publications will issue corrections or retractions, but in some cases what an angry advertiser wants is for an article to be “unpublished,” which isn’t an easy request to grant.

JD Solomon, Editorial Director of District Administration and University Business with LRP Media, said as laws change around criminal records and the “right to be forgotten,” the B2B world must continue to re-examine its ethics.

“It really isn’t black and white,” said Solomon, who also serves as chairman of ASBPE’s Ethics Committee. “Those of us who entered journalism in the print era, it wasn’t easily searchable. Now everything we write lasts forever. … We can’t use the same criteria we may have applied as print journalists in publishing information about someone who was exonerated or a record that was expunged.”

Harris pointed to the litany of ethical issues that trade publications can face and emphasized the need to enact policies and stick to them.

“All the more reason to have a policy in place explaining why something was changed or how the story was done,” he said.

Dan Kubacki is the production editor at Hotel News Now based in Lakewood, Ohio. He is one of ASBPE’s 2019 Young Leader Scholarship recipients.

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