Ethics codes: A compact of trust

In this era of public mistrust of the media, online publications ought to disclose their standards and values

This column appeared in the October 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review.

By J.D. Lasica

In this age of public distrust of the media, one would think that enterprising executives would make every effort to draw distinctions between their brand of journalism and the questionable style of reporting practiced in some quarters of cyberspace.

Certainly, readers rightly judge a publication’s credibility based on its track record. But buttressing that record with a declaration of principles would send a powerful message, especially at a time when a cynical public often lumps Matt Drudge, MSNBC and the Dallas Morning News into a single ominous force called “the media.”

How to regain the public’s trust? Here’s one way: Tell readers about your standards and values. If you have an ethics policy, post it online. Do you have a code of conduct for employees, or a set of guiding journalistic principles? A policy to prevent the intrusion of advertising influence in editorial content? A disclosure statement about your publication’s corporate parentage? Let’s see it. (And for gosh sake, don’t let the lawyers muck it up.)

A handful of publications online — but only a handful — have laid their principles on the line. Among the best:

• The San Antonio Express-News in April adopted a praiseworthy ethics code, written in plain language, that covers such topics as conflicts of interest, plagiarism, freebies, anonymous sources, documentary photojournalism and (more controversially) political activism and membership on community boards. All employees are required to sign off on the code, which is posted on the paper’s Web site at www.expressnews.com.

• The online financial publication TheStreet.com discloses its investors and business partners and posts a stringent conflict-of-interest policy prohibiting employees from owning stocks.

• International Data Group, the corporate parent of Computerworld, Macworld, PC World and other print and Web magazines, has adopted an online ethics policy that sets down standards for separating editorial content from advertising based on new-media guidelines adopted by the American Society of Magazine Editors.

• CNET: The Computer Network discloses its investors and business partners and has promised to post its in-house Code of Conduct. The model ethics code covers such territory as employee freebies and stock transactions; disclosure of the company’s affiliations in news stories; even-handed use of hyperlinks; and how to forthrightly correct errors online.

Judyth Rigler, chair of the Express-News’ Ethics Committee, says the paper decided to make its code public because the editors wanted to make a statement. “There’s just a different climate for news today,” she says. “It’s coming at us from all directions. We wanted to tell the community, in an honest and candid way, ‘Here are the rules we’re following. Here is what we do and don’t do.’ ”

Clair Whitmer, executive editor of cnet.com, who helped draft its ethics policy, says the guidelines are rooted in traditional journalism but also embrace the realities of publishing in cyberspace. “Online journalism presents a completely different set of factors than print journalism,” she says. “When most publications make a mistake on their Web site, they cover their tracks and pretend it was never wrong. We felt that was disingenuous, so for any mistake of substance, we post a correction on our front page and keep it archived for several months.”

Another ethical minefield involves separation of editorial and advertising. Says Whitmer: “Throughout the industry there’s a real emphasis on achieving profitability: We’re seeing cross-promotional deals being struck and story pages with ‘sponsored links’ that are paid for by advertisers. Our policy is that any advertising link has to be clearly labeled.”

Phil Lemmons, editor-in-chief of PC World Online, says many of the ethical issues faced by online publishers are not cut and dried. “What about ads juxtaposed next to editorial content? Does that mean the editorial product is compromised, or are they simply making it easier for the users to click through?”

Lemmons is especially troubled by the danger of marketing considerations overwhelming editorial integrity. “When a reader goes to Yahoo or [Netscape’s] Netcenter, is the content there because it’s the best source of information, or because of commercial deals that were struck? The public isn’t aware that, in many of these cases, the editor has lost control of the site’s content, and whoever struck the business deal has walked off with editorial control.”

Chris Barr, CNET’s top editor, says that disclosure is often the answer. As co-chairman of the Internet Content Coalition, a group of major online media companies, he’s helping to craft guidelines that cover targeted ads, sponsored pages, advertorials, advertising links and other issues that directly impact a Web publication’s credibility — issues that didn’t exist a few years ago.

“It’s a very rapidly changing field,” he says, “but one constant is the need for greater user education.”

Part of that education should involve publishing your rules of conduct. Call it an open compact with one’s readers. Who, after all, does an ethics policy serve?

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT