Ethics of Promoting Advertisers

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

An assignment editor for a New York television station said that management is directing the news staff to give favorable “news” coverage to local advertisers.

The AdviceLine adviser said management’s mandate clearly is unethical, and the assignment editor recognizes that. But what to do about it?

The assignment editor was hoping to contact “some sort of ethics police.”

AdviceLine is not in the ethics policing business, but wanted to help the editor decide where to go next.

The assignment editor clarified his question by explaining that, while the station’s advertising sales department does not actually write “news” stories about advertisers, they pressure editorial staffers into creating stories about advertisers. The sales department has veto power over anything said on the air about an advertiser.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics supports the assignment editor’s concerns, the adviser observed. The code says journalists should “deny favored treatment to advertisers.”

As for his next steps, the assignment editor was encouraged to contact the SPJ professional chapter in New York, which might be willing to pressure the caller’s superiors to stop promoting advertisers, or at least raise questions about it.

The assignment editor also wondered if there was any legal recourse. The adviser gave him the contact number for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to check if they know of any legal recourse. The adviser also suggested checking Federal Communications Commission regulations.

“After this conversation about resources, we talked a little about his just leaving the job and about the ethical and practical issues related to whistle-blowing to competing TV stations,” said the AdviseLine adviser. The assignment editor “had begun to think about both of these things, even though he was hoping we could provide him with help in finding a less drastic way to address the matter.”

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