The ethics of business
By Jim Pumarlo
Readers want assurances that stories are accurate, fair
and not tainted by ethical lapses. A single error in judgment
- Jayson Blair’s fabrications at the New York Times,
for example – damages the believability of that newspaper
and all the press in general.
Yet, for many readers, the national headlines of Blair’s
indiscretions generate a brief uproar that fades quickly.
That’s not the case when the lapse occurs in your
own back yard under your own watch. Community newspapers
arguably are held to the highest standards. You live and
work on a daily basis with the subjects of your stories.
If you stumble, your newspaper may pay a severe price.
One of the most sensitive areas is business coverage, and
at the top of that list are advertisers who have direct
access to publishers.
How many customers have asked: “Could we get some
news coverage on this? We’re taking out an ad.”
On another front, how many have heard the cynical comment:
“You won’t read that in the newspaper. After
all, it’s about one of the paper’s biggest advertisers.”
Advertiser ultimatums and the resulting predicaments cannot
be brushed aside, especially at small-town newspapers where
every advertising dollar is important. Editors are right
to weigh requests. But news decisions should be made within
the context of underlying policies, and guidelines should
be in writing. Owners and publishers also must think of
repercussions to the credibility of their products if news
decisions are altered on the basis of whom instead of what
is the subject.
The potential confrontations are varied:
• An advertiser forwards a letter from a customer
who gives rave reviews regarding the store’s service.
A few weeks later, the advertiser catches wind of a disgruntled
customer who threatens to write a letter to the newspaper.
The owner calls the editor in an effort to stop publication.
• An advertiser requests a news story on the opening
of its store – standard newspaper policy. Three months
later the store has its grand opening – a promotional
event – and the owner presses the newspaper for another
• An advertiser is issued a citation for selling tobacco
to underage youths. The newspaper is asked to look the other
The cause-effect relationship with some advertisers is
quite direct. Print a “negative” story about
their business, and they threaten to withdraw their advertising.
Other requests can be more subtle but just as troublesome
for editors. Consider an advertiser who seeks publicity
– “just this one time” - on something
that normally would not be reported.
The biggest fallacy is that overlooking a sensitive item
– or making an exception and publishing something
– can be dismissed as a harmless oversight. More often
than not, decisions to look the other way will come back
to haunt editors, especially in small towns where word circulates.
The information eventually surfaces. Newspaper reputations
are tarnished, and the affected individuals are embarrassed.
Confrontations with advertisers are among the most sensitive
and challenging circumstances that face newspapers. They
also demand that newspapers stick to their ethics. Exceptions
should be rare and, then, only with strong justification.
The steps for dealing with business coverage are similar
to so many other areas of coverage in your newspapers. No.
1, develop the policy. No. 2, implement the policy. No.
3, explain the policy. Newspapers build stronger relationships
with their readers if you explain the hows and whys of coverage.
Not all policies will have unanimous approval within the
office. At the same time, those individuals who explain
and implement policies must be of a united front when interacting
with readers. The message must be shared and endorsed by
everyone, beginning with top management.
News and advertising departments must operate closely –
but independently. Advertisers should expect professional
and courteous services and a good return on their investments.
But there should be no link between how much advertisers
spend – or how influential particular individuals
may be in a community – and how much news coverage
their corresponding businesses or their missteps receive.
Just as advertisers are entitled to courteous service by
their advertising representatives, they should expect and
receive from editors a courteous and clear explanation of
a newspaper’s separation between news and advertising,
Jim Pumarlo regularly writes and speaks on Community
Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Bad
News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive
Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper” and can be contacted
at www.pumarlo.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.