When to Quit, When to Fight

By David Craig

How do you respond when your boss asks you to do something you think is unethical?

A web editor for several business-to-business publications told me she was facing that question after a brief item she wrote drew a complaint from sales staff because an advertiser was not mentioned. She said her editor was pressuring her to add information about the advertiser even though it didn’t fit with the original story.

She was looking for confirmation that this was an ethical problem and trying to decide how to respond.

We talked about the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, and I agreed that there was an ethical problem based on the principle of acting independently. That was the easy part.

The hard part: what to do about it. She was considering quitting her job – a decision no one should take lightly.

I asked her whether this kind of request was part of a pattern or an isolated incident. That’s an important question when the personal stakes are this high. And if nothing like this had happened before, that suggests it might be better to stay and try to do things right than lose the opportunity. I also asked her whether she thought the incident itself was serious enough to justify quitting immediately.

She said nothing like this had happened before. But she was troubled by the support for the advertiser’s view.

She read me an email she had drafted saying she thought the decision was unethical. I suggested she explain why based on the SPJ code so it was clear this was not just her individual judgment but reflected the standards of the profession. As a result, she decided to raise the point about acting independently and (her idea) to include a link to the SPJ code.

I found out later that the editor did not agree and ran the story anyway with the added information from the advertiser. As of the time of this post, the caller was still working there but was trying to line up enough freelance work to leave.

About David Craig

Professor and associate dean, Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma. I teach and write about journalism ethics.

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