Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Good association, bad association

Given the recent debate on this blog and elsewhere about ethics policies and B2B journalism, I asked Paul Heney, president of Trade, Association and Business Publications International, if we could expect an ethics guideline from TABPI. Paul's response gladdened my heart.
"TABPI does not have an ethics policy of its own, but that is one project slated for the summer/fall time period ... I plan on working with some of our overseas partners to see what the range of ethics policies are in the U.K., Australia, South Africa, etc. ," Paul wrote in an email. "I would imagine that TABPI will play more of a role of endorsing one or more ethics policies (not just in the U.S., of course) and providing some links to different samples from various countries."
Furthermore, Paul said he had "agreed to be sort of a silent partner" and work with ASBPE as it rewrites its ethics policy.
Longtime readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for TABPI because the group calls me a "b2b champion, full of interesting information. Not afraid to tell it like it is." And I'm so tickled by that description I'd put it on my business cards if I wasn't afraid it would make me blush.
And although I shouldn't have to say this, I will -- I didn't pay for that mention and link on the TABPI site.
I mention that because of the actions of another trade association that claims to represent journalists.
I received an email yesterday from
Patti Wysocki at the Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association. I'd asked NEPA if that group had any plans for an ethics guideline. I found Patti's response less than encouraging.
"Our board of directors has voted not to have a code of ethics at this time. It has been considered several times during my 20+ year tenure here and every time we have concluded that we don't want to enforce a code of ethics and remove members who don't follow the code," she wrote.
Now I'd argue that enforcement is a separate issue. Ethics guidelines are guidelines, not laws. And not having an enforcement policy is not an excuse for not having an ethics policy.
I hope that NEPA will reconsider its decision. And it appears that is possible. "I would not rule it out for future discussion," Patti wrote.
But let me be frank. I don't anticipate that NEPA will do the right thing. Here's why:
Perhaps the most common ethical lapse in B2B journalism is disguising advertising content as editorial content. And not only does NEPA not tell its members not to do such things; NEPA does it itself.
Look at NEPA's homepage. On the left hand side you'll see a link for recommended suppliers. Click through, and you'll arrive at this list.
I have no doubt that many of the companies on that list are wonderful outfits worthy of recommendation. But that's not how they got on the list. NEPA doesn't review the suppliers. NEPA doesn't choose one competitor over another. Companies get on the list by paying to be on the list. If you pay a membership fee, you're placed on the recommended list.
I asked Patti about this, and suggested that NEPA was blurring the lines.
She disagreed.
"We are a membership organization. Those suppliers listed on our Website are members. They don't pay specifically to be listed on the site," she said.
Now perhaps I'm too rigid. Perhaps I'm naïve. But I find that reasoning grotesque.
It doesn't matter what NEPA chooses to call it -- a membership fee, a promotional fee or an advertising fee. It's all the same. The list is clearly a collection of paid links. And paid links must be marked as such.
Here's what ABM's guidelines say about such things: "Hypertext links that appear within the editorial content of a site, including those within graphics, must be solely at the discretion of the editors. Links within editorial should never be paid for by advertisers."
Over on the left-hand side of my blog, you'll see some links marked Trade Press Resources. I've had a link there for NEPA since the day I launched this site. But by the time you read this post, that will be gone.
That may not be much of a gesture. But it's the least I can do. I can't possibly recommend that any journalist use NEPA as a resource for anything.
On the other hand, if NEPA would like to see the link returned, the group can send me a check. Don't think of it as an advertising fee. Let's call it membership dues.
For more on ethics, look at this earlier post and the comments section.
For Folio magazine's look at ASBPE's decision to revamp its guidelines, click here.

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