Members say ethics code vital to editorial and sales

In a huge response to ASBPE’s questionnaire, ethical lapses are noted, along with a lack of reader understanding about what the standards are.

Dec. 21, 2005 – ASBPE members feel very strongly about editorial ethics issues, according to an online study just completed. For proof, look at the high response rate of 43.6% to the 39-question survey and the large numbers of members (92%) who believe ethics codes are important to have.
The survey examined the attitudes and behavior surrounding a number of ethical questions. Responses suggested certain provisions that ought to be in a code or guideline, and indicated that transparency — publishing the code to make it available to staffers and readers — must be considered.
Some 360 B2B magazines have ASBPE members. The survey invitation was sent via SurveyMonkey to the highest-ranking member of each magazine. Responses came from 157 members (157 magazines), a very high response rate for a survey.

Why the ethics research?

CFO magazine. “A lot has changed since the Society last did an update five years ago.
““The current media environment invited a survey, too, with new controversy raging over product placement by advertisers and over activities among journalists at reputable news organizations that are questionable at best.”
In preparation for an ASBPE code revision, the Society has studied the codes of other journalism-related associations and publishers. Additionally, ASBPE has had some spirited discussions by members at our online discussion forum.
A new code is expected to be in place some time in the first quarter of next year.
While the vast majority of respondents (92%) said it is important for an organization or a magazine to have a code, only 59% said that editorial codes of ethics were in place at their magazine or their organization. Of those 59%, 37% said the codes were formal (officially adopted), while 42% said they were informal, defined as an “ethical editorial environment&8221; in which no code had been officially adopted.

Environments often lack ethics

In addition to their strong feelings for a code, nearly 83% of respondents felt that such a code should offer both a general statement of principles and provide guidelines on specific issues, such as accepting gifts from sources or advertisers. The response strongly suggested that editors want help in dealing with specific ethical situations.
Among those publications with a formal editorial code of ethics, 64% of respondents said that their company or organization backs them up and buys into the code, while a significant 32% minority said that is only sometimes the case.
Among editors whose publications lack a code, 53% said their company backs them up or buys into the ethical editorial environment. All the remaining 47%, however, said that is only sometimes the case.
The study indicated that many (31%) of the respondents’ organizations use ASBPE’s current code of ethics as a template for development of their own codes. ASBPE’s guidelines are used by members more than any other organization’s code. Additionally, ASBPE’s code was said to be more useful than other organizations’.

Survey in line with previous results

The survey, which called for a large number of open-ended responses, suggested that the current world of editorial ethics leaves much to be desired. These sentiments, along with the general economic climate and other business upheavals, are in line with the results of a survey ASBPE conducted two years ago, in which 76% of members who responded said they faced ad-related editorial demands, and 30% said they succumbed.
The current results are also in line with ASBPE’s salary survey last year, which had a sample of almost 3,900 editors and which indicated that 43% of editors are unhappy with their jobs, partly over ethics issues.

Little transparency for readers

Almost 85% of respondents said that their magazine or company/organization does not officially publish the code of ethics, or other statement of ethical principles, for readers to see.
The open-ended responses to the follow-up question here — “Why not?” — yielded interesting replies. Common answers included “I hadn’t thought of it” or “We should. I intend to pursue it.”
Others responded that such codes are internal documents on how business is conducted, and that if the principles are followed, it should be apparent to the readership.

Non-editorial staff have ethical lapses

The survey suggested that editors have other problems with the ethical codes that are in place today. In answer to a question about whether ethical violations had been observed among staff, 40% said they were aware of sales staff engaging in unethical behavior. The response for awareness of unethical behavior among editorial staff was 22%, with 19% saying they were aware of such behavior with the person holding the publisher job title.

Enforcement is problematic

Additionally, 70% of respondents from magazines with a code said that either there are no consequences when it is violated, or that they don’t know of any consequences.
An open-ended question on what types of ethical breaches are seen the most yielded a huge response. Answers ranged from notations that publications blur the line between advertising and editorial to cases of employees owning stock in companies that advertise.
In those cases in which there is enforcement of ethics-code breaches, one respondent — from a magazine on which all staffers must sign the code — said formal investigations are held when a violation is reported.
Among the larger number of respondents whose organizations didn’t enforce, answers about the alternative course taken in the case of an ethical lapse suggested a subjective response. “I’d check my gut,” said one. “Use common sense,” said another. And, according to a third, “I’d check with all parties.”
ASBPE members can access the complete survey results online.
Not a member? Find out how to join now.

What some members want in an ethics code

  • The code must make clear that … reporting, writing, editing and presenting information … is not created or adapted to conform to the needs of advertisers, the predilections of publishers, or, in fact, the arbitrary whims of editors. Reporters and editors do not make sales calls. They do not advise advertisers. They do not accept more than token gifts or reasonable entertainment — no junkets, no favors. … Any and all possible conflicts (stock ownership, family relationships) must be disclosed.
  • Clarification for readers of what is paid content and what is editorial content.
  • No prior review of edit material. [A] corrections policy [is needed].
  • Disciplinary actions … against those who don’t follow the code of ethics.
  • Statement of editorial values superseding advertising and revenue-producing values.
  • Statement that the publication pays all expenses— not advertisers or sources.
  • Rules about how stories are covered, including digital media, and how we treat sources, confidential materials, unnamed sources.
  • Editors should have the final say in what gets printed. Companies interviewed should not be allowed to review articles before publication, except for checking technical accuracy.
  • A clear position on employees’ accepting outside work — freelance assignments or part-time teaching, for example. Clear direction regarding employees’ political activities and expressions of opinion in blogs, columns, …
  • The role of the editor on sales calls.
  • We need to hold ourselves to the type of standards we are asking of our readers, or specifically of the companies that are the primary readership. Transparency and disclosure.