Monday, October 17, 2005

More on ethics guidelines

Later today, the American Society of Magazine Editors will release an update of its ethics guidelines. I'm looking forward to it, because I expect ASME will state its opposition to calls from some advertisers for looser rules on product placement.
The American Society of Business Publication Editors is also revamping its guidelines. That group was kind enough to ask for my input. And just this morning I got around to sending my suggestions.
I'm a big fan of ethics guidelines...because I've seen far too much unethical activity in B2B publishing. I've seen shocking behavior by publishers and I've seen shocking behavior by trade associations. And I think ethics guidelines are a powerful tool in the fight against the dark side.
Not everyone agrees. Rex is more cynical about the usefulness of guidelines. And he urges that trade associations "call for transparency and accountability in revealing all relationships between marketers and media, rather than playing Church Lady and issuing "commandments" to define specific sins."
I've written before about some of the issues that I'm hoping ASBPE will address, and I too have suggested that the answer to our problems may be transparency.
And in keeping with that call for transparency, here are a few of the less traditional suggestions that I made to ASBPE:
1) In-house ads -- B2B publishers tend to cut corners for themselves that they might not cut for others. In particular, B2B media companies treat their own ads -- for trade shows, new products, etc. -- as news, not as advertisements.
I'd urge ASBPE to clearly state that in-house marketing material is an advertisement, and must be clearly delineated as such per the ad vs. edit guidelines.
2) Anonymous sources -- Even more so than the mainstream press, B2B writers tend to overuse anonymous sources. I would urge ASBPE to adopt the following:
The use of anonymous sources should be rare and must be justified.
Reporters should clear each and every use of an anonymous source with a senior editor. A reporter should have a compelling reason for granting anonymity -- the source would be at risk of job loss if his/her name was published, there is no other way to obtain the information, etc.
When anonymity is given, a reporter will make every effort possible to provide as much information about the anonymous source as is possible. In other words, referring to someone as "an anonymous source inside the investment bank" is better than "an anonymous source." And "according to two executives in the marketing department who wished to remain anonymous" is superior to "according to sources in the marketing department who wished to remain anonymous." It is unethical to misstate the number of sources in a story. "An anonymous source inside the company" can never be referred to as "sources."
3) Transparency -- Reporters should make every effort to make the process of journalism transparent to readers. All attempts should be made not to mislead readers. When possible, reporters should provide links to source material. When not possible, reporters should clearly explain the source of the material. For example, the phrase "'the company is doing great,' Jones said" implies that the reporter has spoken with Jones. That's fine, if it's true. Otherwise, use a phrase such as "'the company is doing great,' Jones said in a press release" or "'the company is doing great,' Jones said in a written statement."

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