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 …

Read more