Are Your Editorial Practices Ethical? 7 Issues to Watch

Monitoring editorial ethics activity can assume Wild West proportions at times, and this was especially true last year. Several incidents made an impression strong enough to suggest needed revision in the American Society of Business Publications (ASBPE) ethics code.

So it’s not surprising that 2013’s code review became a six-month flurry of intense discussion that saw the addition of several new sections and revised wording of existing advisories. Of the dozens of changes actually made, seven clearly stood out as involving issues having impact on business-to-business editors this year:

1. Increased marketing involvement.
2. Attempts to undermine front cover integrity.
3. Added push for ad formats closely simulating regular editorial content.
4. Slipshod fact-checking policies.
5. Sales pitches guaranteeing editorial involvement in sponsored content creation.
6. Need for development of tailored ethics policies.
7. Review of existing practice covering requests to “un-publish” archived content.

Here is a brief background on why code revisions were necessary and what actions have been taken as a result.

Are Your Editorial Practices Ethical

1. Church/State Positions Have Relaxed

When I assumed the ethics chair post three years ago, I immediately noticed a stern ethics code revision advising that editors refrain from any involvement in marketing activity. At the B2B publishing company where I spent 21 years prior to launching a consulting firm, management policy encouraged editors to occasionally wear marketing hats. Contrary to popular views that some still hold today, such involvement did not undermine integrity. And marketing strategy clearly improved thanks to editorial input.

Today, in some cases often by mandate, some editors have assumed “content director” roles that include supervision of sponsored content. And in many other cases, editors not in such positions still provide marketing strategy input. Even so, my committee felt it was still necessary to draw a line in terms of how big a hat an editor could wear. To that end, here is a newly added excerpt from the ethics code section addressing the editor’s role in sponsored content or supplements:

“A senior-level editor may work with sales personnel to ensure that no conflict exists between the advertiser-sponsored content and editorial content. Thus, the editor may suggest topics for the sponsor, but the publisher or the sales staff should be the ones to communicate these suggestions to the sponsor. (In other words, the editor should not directly communicate with the advertiser.)

“A publication’s editorial staff should not write, edit, design or lay out special advertising sections or supplements. This role should be handled by a freelancer hired by the sales staff or publisher or a separate non-editorial department.”

2. Preserve Front Cover Integrity

For some reason, ASBPE’s previous ethics code had not taken a position on front cover integrity. Meanwhile, there were several cases where the committee was asked to comment—by publication editors or the industry press—on efforts to deviate from acceptable practice for purposes of commercial gain.

In one annoying case, we were told that an inexperienced publisher new to the job made an immediate attempt to treat front covers as sponsored positions. For me, the last straw in a series of snafus was a publisher whose ad pitch guaranteed blurbs using standard editorial format to promote sponsored sections inside the issue. Our response was this advisory:

“Regarding a publication’s front cover, in print or its online home page: Because cover or home-page advertising may raise concerns about the publication’s credibility, such advertising must be approached carefully.

“‘False covers’ designed to resemble genuine editorial format should not be used, nor should teaser blurbs that refer to advertiser-sponsored sections or supplements.

“A full-page cover ad that includes a magazine’s logo, whether a false cover or not, represents a conflict of interest, suggesting that the publication supports or endorses a product or service. Such commitment to an advertiser of what traditionally is regarded as editorial space may create the impression that editorial content inside the publication has been sold.”

3. Cloned Formats Discouraged (Native Advertising at the Forefront)

As you know, the stellar case being made for look-alike formats involves native advertising. This is the most direct try to date pushing publishers to allow ads using standard editorial graphics. The practice sufficiently vexed the Federal Trade Commission to the point where it scheduled a special workshop to address possible deceptive practices.

(Editor’s note: A special focus on a variety of native advertising concerns appeared in a recent issue of Ethics News Updates, ASBPE’s recently launched all-ethics newsletter. You can request a copy by e-mailing

ASBPE’s ethics committee continuously fields requests about sponsored content labeling. Unfortunately, efforts persist to evade what is considered standard practice via euphemistic wording. Our code defines acceptability in separate advisories dealing with print and digital sponsored content messages. Here is an excerpt from the advisory covering on-line ads:

“Image-based advertising, whether still or video, should be sufficiently set off from editorial text to allow the reader to distinguish between the two. Web sites should not accept image-based advertising that closely resembles editorial content in look and feel, unless the advertising is labeled with ‘Advertising’ or an equivalent phrase.

“This extends to micro-sites, special site sections, or other Web pages whose content is controlled by advertisers. These sections should have a unique look and feel and be labeled as advertising. Purely textual advertising, such as customer-provided content known as native advertising, should not be presented as editorial. The fonts and layout used should be distinct enough to set it apart. The content should be labeled as advertising.”

4. Don’t Overlook Fact-Checking

The advent of online content has been accompanied by a wave of fact-checking snafus. A key reason: When trying to fill news sections—either print or digital—harried editors sometimes rely on hasty rewrites of readily available online news sources. This practice alone is a solid reason for reinforcing fact-checking procedures. Here’s how our code’s Standards for Editorial Operations section deals with the situation:

“Print and online editors must be diligent checkers of all material, either staff-written or extracted from other sources. Never assume that information drawn from other media is accurate, including reader comments to blogs and information on digital social media platforms.

“Especially when reporting legal matters, it is advisable to review actual court documents rather than using information from sources or from press releases.

“Publications should maintain a system, independent of the original reporter and editors, for checking facts in all printed editorial material.”

5. Nix Guaranteed Editorial Support

It was a wake-up call for me when I read about one publisher whose written marketing policy guaranteed advertisers that staff editors would be available to help write sponsored content. Later on, I was dismayed to learn this was not an isolated instance. Unfortunately, there are several variations of guaranteed support. Perhaps most onerous is guaranteeing an advertiser that a full-time editor’s byline will appear on an obvious puff piece provided by the customer. Our code’s response to this stuff was a list of caveats appearing in an “Advertising Negotiations” advisory:

“Editors should not participate in any advertising discussion with a potential advertiser, including in such matters as contracts, ad schedules or payment negotiations. And at no time during negotiations should a publisher or other marketing representative guarantee editorial coverage or assistance by an editor in preparing advertising-related copy. In the case of an advertiser-sponsored-section or supplement for which content originated with the advertiser, editors should not be involved.”

6. Create Tailored Policies

While it’s common practice for editors to rely solely on ASBPE’s code for ethical guidance, the committee recommends developing a tailored policy or individual advisories covering special cases. For example, one association has an ethics advisory dealing solely with editorial-advertiser relationships. And a content VP, formerly an ethics committee member, created a policy focusing on webinar practice.

Once a policy is in place, the next step is to post it on your Web site. I have seen only one case of B2B Web policy posting. Nor do examples abound of tailored ethics codes. Our code addresses possibilities in its Ethics Guide Transparency section:

“ASBPE urges business, trade, association, and professional publications to adopt some ethics code, whether ASBPE ‘s or not. ASBPE also urges publishers and editors to make their ethical standards transparent, both for internal staff and externally for readers, advertisers and others in their markets. Your publication’s ethical standards or guidelines ought to be published on your Web site.”

7. How Do You Handle “Un-publish” Requests?

Last but not least, it’s worth introducing a policy regarding requests to un-publish archived content. An example of the purpose is provided via a question being addressed during the Online News Association’s current code revision: “Are your archives there forever after publication, or will you remove items if, years after publication, they’re causing unintended problems for people who allowed you to interview them?”

Our code’s response to this matter was somewhat of an afterthought at the end of a Corrections section: “Consider having a policy for ‘requests to un-publish.’ Recently I was advised by an authoritative source that requests to un-publish directed to newspapers were on the increase. Hence, a policy addressing that eventuality would make sense.

And actually, I did hear from one B2B editor who was caught short on a father’s inquiry to delete an article written years ago that cast an unfavorable light on his son by describing involvement in a minor offense. Allegedly, the son had mended his ways, but when he applied for jobs, the incident kept coming up during online security checks conducted by employers.

Obviously there are many more than seven editorial ethics issues worth reviewing. One way to see what shape you’re in is to try our self-scoring ethics profile evaluation. After taking this exam, some editors have created a similar exercise more tailored to their circumstances.

Howard Rauch is chairman of the ASBPE Ethics Committee.



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