Ethics Guidelines in the Digital World

Noelle Skodzinski, the editor of Publishing Executive magazine, attended our National Editorial Conference and wrote an excellent editorial about our session on web ethics. It's called " 'Pay to Play' OK in the Digital World?"

In it, she points out that many media companies produce webinars or webcasts that are sold to a single sponsor. Sometimes that sponsor even is in charge of the content. She notes:
Some editors (including those with high editorial standards), say, "As long as the content is useful for my audience, I'm OK with this." After all, the sponsorship enables the content to be provided to the audience free of charge.
As long as it is transparent to the audience that the webinar is paid for by the sponsor(s), putting that sponsor on the panel seems to be an accepted practice among many reputable companies. If the content is useful, what’s the difference? In other words, if the content is useful, then ‘pay to play’ is OK, right? A lot of editors could (and do) create some really usefulprint content based around their print advertisers, too. Does that make it OK?
As Skodzinski points out, the ASBPE code of ethics doesn't address this specific issue with regard to webinars or webcasts. Section IV, Part B, item 3 of the ASBPE ethics code does say this about advertiser-sponsored sections or supplements in print:
3. The Editorial Role. The editorial staff should not assign, write, edit, design, or lay out special advertising sections or supplements. However, editors should review, revise, and approve for publication any advertising section or supplement to ensure that editorial standards are followed.
Transferring those same standards to the web, as Skodzinki suggests doing, would seem to mean that editors would not appear in or help produce webcasts sponsored by a single advertiser.

It could be argued that this directive, from Part A of that same section, should govern webcasts:
A. Single-Sponsored Issues

1. Labeling and Appearance. In the case of an advertiser sponsoring an entire issue, full disclosure must be made of the relationship in a prominent part of a publication’s pages, e.g. the cover, table of contents, or in a special introduction by the editor or publisher. Special care and explanation must be given to readers to avoid the appearance of editorial content being affected by the sponsorship.

2. Use of the Logo. In a single-sponsored issue, the publication’s logo may be used, but the editorial content must be held to the same standards that apply for a non-single-sponsored issue.
But in Section VII, the code has this to say about web site content:
The editorial department should control all editorial content on a publication’s digital publication, including Web site, blogs, e-newsletters, digital magazines, and others. Standards such as accuracy, attribution, fairness, and balance applying to a publication’s printed editorial material also apply to a publication’s Internet or digital presence.
And later on in the same section:
Special advertising sections online should also be clearly identified.
It seems clear to me that any given piece of web content -- including an audio podcast, webinar, or video -- should either follow the rules for web content cited immediately above, or else follow the rules set forth for an advertiser-sponsored section in a print publication. The guidelines for a single-sponsored issue would not apply, because the advertiser is not sponsoring the entire web site, but an individual piece of content on the site -- in essence, it's the same thing as if an advertiser were to sponsor an individual story in the print magazine in which it is also quoted.

Skodzinki has also posted on her blog about this issue. And in reading it, to my embarrassment, I realize that we have failed to comply with our own code of ethics in this blog. Specifically:

G. Blogs and Other Online Features or Publications

These should be ... have easily understood user guidelines, includingn general rules, etiquette, privacy issues, and related policies. Statements concerning expected decorum and the control of an editorial moderator or supervisor over the blogs or other online discussion forums should be explained.
We have not posted a specific policy here. The ASBPE bloggers are working with the national officers and members of the ethics committee to come up with a formal policy. But in the meantime, here are the general guidelines I've been operating under:

1. All views expressed are the individual author's and may not reflect those of ASBPE.

2. All comments submitted to the blog by users are moderated by the blog editor (for the ASBPE Boston blog, that's me). Commenters are allowed to post anonymously, without signing up for a Blogger ID, but the blog's authors reserve the right not to publish those or any other comments that don't meet certain criteria. For instance, comments containing personal attacks will not be posted. In addition, spam or advertisements will not be posted, nor will comments whose main purpose seems to be to plug a particular product or service (at the discretion of the blog's editor).

3. As for privacy, ASBPE will not collect your contact information from this blog. Privacy for those who subscribe to this blog via email is governed by the policies of FeedBlitz, the third party that provides that functionality.

Please post any comments or questions here, or direct them to me at mspizziri at rcn dot com.

Update, 9/25/07: I forgot to add that Publishing Executive has sent an e-mail survey to its readers on some of the issues brought up in Noelle Skodzinki's editorial, and the results will be published in the next issue and posted on, too.

Labels: , , , ,

Post a Comment

<< Home