Unethical Media Managers

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Management for a large Mid-Atlantic television station is telling the news staff to give favorable “news” coverage to local advertisers.

The assignment editor knows this is unethical, but what can he do about it? He called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

An AdviceLine advisor confirmed the editor’s judgement that management’s action’s are unethical.

“He was hoping we knew how he could contact some sort of ethics police,” said the advisor. “I told him we were not in the policing business, but that I would be willing to talk it out with him and we went from there.”

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

“I first told him where to find the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics on the web,” said the advisor. The code says “deny favored treatment to advertisers.”

“As to his next steps, I suggested that he contact the local SPJ chapter, which in New York City is likely to be both active and populated by some journalistic heavy-hitters” who might be willing to pressure the editor’s bosses into stopping their unethical ways, “or at least ask questions about it.”

The editor asked if there is any legal resource. The advisor gave him contact information for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C. The phone number is 202-795-9300 and media@rcfp.org. The advisor also suggested searching the Federal Communications Commission website for regulations that might be helpful.

“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, such as to competing TV stations. He 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.”

What kind of advice would you give the editor? Do you agree with the advice he was given?

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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