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INSTITUTE FOR RURAL JOURNALISM & COMMUNITY ISSUES


 

The ethics of business news


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 story.
• An advertiser is issued a citation for selling tobacco to underage youths. The newspaper is asked to look the other way.

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 info@pumarlo.com.



 

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879


Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu


Last Updated: Aug. 16, 2006