Bob Steele

Bob Steele asks and answers lots of questions on a wide range of ethics, values, reporting and leadership issues. In his role as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values he has taught hundreds of workshops and thousands of journalists and media leaders at Poynter seminars since 1989. He�s also led sessions for over 100 news organizations across the country including television stations, newspapers and broadcast and newspaper groups. He�s frequently on the phone or online advising journalists and media leaders on real-time ethical dilemmas and challenges. He�s also been on the receiving end of thousands of interviews by reporters for stories about journalism ethics issues. Steele continues in the Poynter Values Scholar role as he joins his alma mater, DePauw University, as the Eugene S. Pulliam Visiting Distinguished Professor of Journalism. He teaches journalism ethics classes to DePauw students and also serves as a scholar-in-residence at DePauw�s Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics. Over the years, Steele has written online columns and essays, journal articles, book chapters, and case studies and handbooks for professional organizations. He co-authored Doing Ethics in Journalism, originally published by The Society for Professional Journalists. He spent ten years as a broadcast journalist (reporter, executive producer and news director) then earned a Ph.D. at the Univ. of Iowa writing his dissertation on journalism ethics. He received a B.A. in economics from DePauw University and an M.S. from Syracuse University. Steele and his wife, Carol, now live in Greencastle, Indiana, where Carol also works at DePauw as an Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. Their three daughters and sons-in-law live in Denver, Phoenix and Portland, Maine. Their grandson, Henry Ellis Nelson, is growing up in Denver but will surely become a Chicago Cubs fan and play tennis with his grandfather.


AP Made Right Call in Publishing Photo, Story of Fallen Marine

There is considerable controversy about the decision by the Associated Press to distribute a photograph of a Marine killed in combat in Afghanistan. I’ve written extensively about war coverage over the years, and I spoke with MSNBC on Friday about the news organization’s decision in this case.

Based on what I know, the Associated Press went through a purposeful, thoughtful process in deciding to distribute this photo, and I believe that the AP’s decision was journalistically sound and ethically justifiable.

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Importantly, the Associated Press photo is accompanied by a substantive, sensitive AP story that recounts the battle in which Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard was wounded. That story also tells us a good deal about Bernard, including comments from his father and fellow Marines in his squad. Together, the story and the photograph paint a more complete picture of this fallen Marine.

The AP’s decision was undoubtedly made more difficult by an important step it took in determining if, how and when to distribute the photo. The AP appropriately sought input from the Bernard family as essential stakeholders. Family members viewed the images taken by AP photographer Julie Jacobson. According to an AP statement, “Bernard’s father after seeing the image of his mortally wounded son said he opposed its publication, saying it was disrespectful to his son’s memory.”

Certainly the AP must give very serious consideration to Mr. Bernard’s thoughts and his wishes. Yet, no matter how important that request from the father, the final decision sits with the AP. It means the journalists had to have a compelling journalistic purpose and an overriding ethical justification to go against the family’s wishes.

I’m not surprised that the AP’s decision to distribute the photo and the decision by some news organizations to publish it has stirred considerable controversy. Almost every time journalists show images of the horror of war, there is a backlash. There also is considerable criticism of journalism for not showing the horror of war more often.

Journalism’s obligation is to inform the public about significant issues in our society. That includes telling stories — with images, words and sound — that meaningfully describe both the horror and the heroism of the battlefield.

In February of 2007, I wrote about a New York Times story that told of the death of Army Staff Sgt. Hector Leija in Iraq. I pointed out that war coverage is always a balance between reporting reality — the truth as best journalists can capture it — and minimizing harm to the vulnerable, including the family members of those who fall in battle.

I commended that New York Times “Man Down” story. I feel the same about the AP photo and story on “The Death of One Marine in Afghanistan.”
 
The images and words of war reporting may cause pain. But we owe it Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard and to all those who fight our wars to try to comprehend what happens in battle.
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Protect Roethslisberger Accuser’s Identity Despite Being Named Elsewhere

This is a challenging case with competing ethical principles. It’s particularly complex given the lack of a criminal complaint prior to the filing of the civil suit. Fairness is clearly a concern when you name the accused but withhold the name of the accuser.

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That said, this is NOT an anonymous civil suit. Roethlisberger knows who the accuser is, so he can defend himself against someone specific and against specific allegations.

If a news organization has a specific policy that calls for withholding the names of individuals who say they are victims of sexual assault, I believe it’s proper to honor that standard barring an overriding ethical obligation. I don’t see such an overriding principle at this point in this case.

I’m not aware of any factor in this case that would indicate the accuser is lying. It’s proper to assume that her complaint is legitimate at this point. It’s also proper to assume Roethlisberger’s counterclaims of innocence are legitimate. It’s essential to give Roethlisberger a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations in the civil suit.

Does it matter that some news organizations are naming the accuser and that her name is now widely disseminated on the Internet? It is a factor in this case, but I don’t believe it is an overriding factor that would trump the ethical principle to protect the names of individuals who claim to be victims of sexual assault.

At the same time, it’s appropriate for journalists to assertively ask the accuser if she is willing to be identified. Of course, it’s also important to ask her hard questions about the nature of her complaint and any details of the encounter she alleges with Roethlisberger. Just as it’s important for journalists to ask Roethlisberger hard questions about this case.
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NPR Reports on Obama’s First 100 Days Through Citizens’ Stories

We often use benchmarks as measures of progress. How is our favorite baseball team doing at the All-Star break? How high is the corn on the Fourth of July? How many words does our one-year-old grandson say?

And, of course, there’s the time-honored measure of how well a new president is doing after 100 days in office. In case you hadn’t heard, that benchmark is today for President Barack Obama.

Journalists use the 100 days scorecard while also poking themselves in the eye for doing so. National Public Radio’s senior Washington editor Ron Elving says, “the news media obsession with Obama has to do with the fate of the nation in perilous times; but it is also about the survival of the news business itself in a season of mortal peril.”

One of the more interesting and insightful approaches to Obama’s first 100 days comes from NPR. It’s called “100 Days: On the Road in Troubled Times.”

Correspondent David Greene has been criss-crossing the country since Obama took office, talking with citizens about the economic crisis. He’s produced stories from a few big cities and many a small town. Conversations are at the heart of Greene’s reporting. He has the ability to chat it up with folks who, in turn, offer their genuine thoughts on how it’s going for them in the midst of a recession with a new national leader.

The interviews are poignant and often powerful. Folks talk about jobs lost, careers derailed and retirement plans dashed. They talk about the impact on their families and on their health. Some are angry. Some are deeply concerned. Many express hope in the face of serious challenge.

When we listen to these stories, we learn something about our country and our neighbors. And, since this journalism is both evocative and provocative, ideally, we learn something about ourselves through the stories of others.

Greene blends voices with background sound -– trains, trucks and crowds; dishes clanking in restaurants; music blasting -– to take listeners to the cafes and classrooms, factories and festivals, and even to a new minor league ballpark where Americans work and play.

What’s special about this reporting? That’s a question I asked two dozen of my students at DePauw University. These 18-21-year-olds might not listen to very much public radio, but they came away impressed with what they heard. They felt the stories were informative and even compelling. They especially liked the natural, conversational flow of interviews.

The students said the stories were realistic, capturing the authentic views of citizens. One of their favorite stories was about a Bradenton, Florida mailman whose daily route has been changed by the impact of the recession.

Stories of worry and woe helped the students grasp the impact of the recession. Yet, they reacted positively to what they felt was a hopeful tone woven into the “On The Road” stories, people seeing possibilities even in the face of troubled times.

My students also liked that Greene’s stories were interactive on the NPR Web site, so users could suggest where Greene should go next with his reporting, while Twitter, Flickr and Google Maps were used well.

David Greene and NPR have taken a time-honored approach to radio storytelling, added some Internet-specific value and framed it within an issue of national significance. “100 Days: On The Road In Troubled Times” is not so much about President Obama and his first 100 days. It’s really about the citizens across the land, what they’re thinking and where they are headed.
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SPJ Celebrates 100 Years

We often think of journalism in the context of big, metropolitan newspapers and far-reaching television networks. Significantly, a milestone in our country’s journalistic history took place at a college newspaper in small-town mid-America. It’s worth revisiting that moment –- and its meaning -– amdist the dramatic upheaval that is changing our country’s journalism and to a great extent its values and its value.

In April of 1909, 10 student journalists at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana founded Sigma Delta Chi. SDX was an honorary fraternity that we know today as the Society of Professional Journalists, or SPJ. The founders’ purpose was inspirational and aspirational –- to improve and protect journalism. The movement spread to other college campuses and to newsrooms. SPJ grew to thousands of members across the country over the decades. The focus was on training, ethical standards and First Amendment issues.

As we mark the centennial of SPJ, there is merit in recognizing the important role this organization has played and the significance of its mission in the current era of profound change in the profession. If ever there was a time to reaffirm the unique, essential role of journalism in democracy, it is now. It’s also important to recommit to clear ethical principles and high standards to guide those who practice journalism.

Here’s what SPJ stands for as reflected in the mission statement: “The Society of Professional Journalists is dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty. To ensure that the concept of self-government outlined by the U.S. Constitution remains a reality into future centuries, the American people must be well informed in order to make decisions regarding their lives, and their local and national communities.”

SPJ has been in the forefront in championing Freedom of Information, not for the benefit of journalists but for the good of democracy. The Society has fought hard in courtrooms and legislative bodies to support journalists and news organizations who seek and report information that informs citizens about important issues and events.

The Society of Professional Journalists also serves as a pacesetter in setting high standards for journalists to practice ethical and responsible journalism. Sigma Delta Chi’s first code of ethics was adopted in 1926. It helped professionalize the craft. More than a half-century later, I had the honor of being part of the team that wrote “Doing Ethics in Journalism,” the SPJ sponsored handbook. The ethical principles we articulated in that book became the fabric of the updated Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics in the mid-1990s. The ethical decision-making process we advocated in the “Doing Ethics in Journalism” book has been used in newsrooms and classrooms across the country.

I believe that the principles SPJ championed and the ethical decision-making process we’ve taught are just as applicable for the bloggers and tweeters and multimedia all-platform journalists as they have been for the editors, reporters and other newsroom journalists of generations past. In fact, it may be even more important for journalists in the digital era to use a sound moral compass and to embrace clear ethical principles.

The gatekeeper model for American journalism that relied on multi-level checks and balances in a newsroom is very different from the emerging system. Journalism is much less institutional. Individuals have greater ability to gather, produce and present news independent from organizations.

Importantly, citizens play an increased role in the process as both participants and consumers.

Traditional ethical values are under pressure for a range of reasons. How is accuracy defined in a digital delivery system where content is constantly updated? What does fairness mean with many more voices entering the arena, some of whom challenge such traditional values as respect and civility? What are the consequences when many of the players in the journalism arena say that transparency is enough to outweigh conflicts of interest that undermine independent reporting? 

The Society of Professional Journalists does not and should not provide simplistic answers. For that matter, the goal should not be to provide any answers for those who practice journalism.

Rather, SPJ should continue to be in the forefront in giving those who want to practice journalism the skills and smarts to serve the public and the public interest. SPJ should continue to champion ethical principles that serve as guideposts for journalists who report the news and as standards for citizens who hold accountable those same journalists. SPJ should continue to advocate a substantive decision-making process that helps journalists make good ethical decisions no matter their method for gathering and presenting news stories.

And, to be sure, I have a responsibility in all of this since my journalism career is woven into the history of the Society of Professional Journalists. I was a member of SPJ as an undergraduate at DePauw in the 1960s, an economics major who spent a lot of time learning journalism at the campus radio station, WGRE, and at the student newspaper, The DePauw. I was deeply involved in the “Doing Ethics” book efforts of SPJ in the 1990s. Now, on this 100th Anniversary of SPJ’s founding at DePauw, I’m back on this same campus for six years as a visiting professor of journalism.

I have a responsibility to help develop and guide journalists of the next generation. I also have a wonderful opportunity to help all the DePauw students I teach to appreciate the essential role journalism plays in our democracy.

Bob Steele is a 1969 graduate of DePauw University and now the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw. He also serves as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, FL, where he’s been on the faculty since 1989.
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LA Times Pitched NBC on ‘Southland’ Front Page Ad Concept

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In its own explanation of a front-page ad that simulated a news story, Los Angeles Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein said “he decided to run the NBC ad despite newsroom objections because he was trying to ensure that The Times could continue to operate.”

A number of journalists at the Los Angeles Times are mighty mad, and well they should be. Dozens of Times’ staffers reportedly signed a petition Thursday expressing their dismay about the advertisement for “Southland” that ran on the front page that day.

The staffers say the ad –- which is a fake news story about the new cop drama –- is a bad, “quick cash” idea. “Our willingness to sell our most precious real estate to an advertiser is embarrassing and demoralizing,” the petition reads.

They’re right. Even though this ad is labeled as an “Advertisement,” and even though the ad has a different typeface than the Times‘ front-page news content, it’s a bad idea with serious ethical implications.

I doubt most readers will confuse the ad with a real news story, as long as they see the NBC logo and the “Advertisement” label at the top of the story. Of course, not everyone will take notice. Some will be fooled. They will be deceived, and that’s an ethical failure.

But there’s another major problem in this case. The transparency of labeling the ad falls far short of the accountability expected of a newspaper that should protect the integrity of its journalistic work.

The reason the advertiser wants the ad to look like a news story is quite clear, and The Times‘ publisher and advertising execs know it full well.

In fact, the paper reports, “NBC wasn’t planning to buy print ads for ‘Southland’ until The Times pitched this concept, said Adam Stotsky, NBC Entertainment Marketing president.” TVWeek confirms this and offers additional details:

” ‘They developed the idea and came to us with it,’ Mr. Stotsky said, crediting L.A. Times Vice President of Entertainment Advertising Lynne Segall for spearheading the promotion.

” ‘It’s a reflection of the overall media landscape,’ Mr. Stotsky said. ‘We have to innovate or we perish.

“He said the Times ad helps ‘contextualize our message.’ “

Making the ad look like news in story style and writing trades on the credibility of news content, with the hope that readers will be more inclined to read the ad and give it greater credence.

Sure, I know the L.A. Times is struggling financially. I’m aware of the arguments that new forms of revenue are essential to protect jobs.

But this is an example of a news organization cutting ethical corners. The Times’ execs are chopping away at the journalistic foundation. They are selling pieces of the paper’s journalistic soul. And this may be only the beginning. The Times reports:

“Staff members also objected to an advertising supplement scheduled to run with Sunday’s Calendar section. The four-page section promotes the film ‘The Soloist,’ which is based on a series of articles by Times columnist Steve Lopez. Although labeled as an ad supplement, the section’s typography and layout mimic those of a regular Times news section.

“Hartenstein said he planned to meet with (editor Russ) Stanton (who objected to the ad) next week to discuss ad standards before the paper commits to another front-page ad similar to the ‘ride-along’ one.”

Times’ staffers express legitimate opposition in their petition: “This action violates a 128-year pact with our readers that the front page is reserved for the most meaningful stories of the day. Placing a fake news article on A-1 makes a mockery of our integrity and our journalistic standards.”

Well put. Read more

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New Photos from Dover Increase Awareness of War’s Cost

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Amidst the economic tumult that is sweeping our country, it’s possible to forget our country is still fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s possible to push from our consciousness the reality that Americans are still dying on those battlefields.

That’s why it’s important to be reminded of the commitment and the courage of those who wear  uniforms, and to be cognizant of the war’s cost. Our awareness is heightened now that photographers are allowed to record the moment when the fallen return.

I wrote about this issue six weeks ago, supporting the decision by the Pentagon to lift the ban on photographs of the flag-draped coffins.

Now, like millions of Americans, I view the photos as the remains of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers are returned to his family. Symbolically, this moment tells the stories of over 4,000 of Myers’ military comrades who have died in battle. This moment also sadly foreshadows what will come in the inevitable consequences of war.

Whether it’s with images or words, journalists have an obligation to be sensitive and skilled in telling these stories. I was impressed with the account offered by CNN Senior Pentagon Producer Mike Mount that accompanied a photo for the CNN.com story.

“His name was Phillip A. Myers. A staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, he was killed in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan on Saturday.

“The return of his body to the United States aboard a charter aircraft Sunday marked a solemn moment that has been repeated more than 5,000 times at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware since the start of the war in Afghanistan in late 2001.

“Much of this night was like so many of the others: The well-practiced and crisp movement of the carry team silently transferring the body from the plane to the truck that would transport it to the base mortuary and the presence of Myers’ family, quietly watching every step and order, ensured dignity and respect for the fallen in an atmosphere that does not lend itself to peace and quiet…”

CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier thoughtfully expressed concern for the impact on the families of the fallen and the responsibility journalists must accept with greater access to the return of war casualties.

There are plenty of critics who are just waiting for journalists to misstep in their coverage at Dover Air Force Base. And, even when they do their job well, journalists know the challenges are significant. Read more

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When Obama Appears on Leno, It’ll be Interesting but Not Journalism

I don’t have a problem with Jay Leno interviewing President Obama. In fact, I’m fine with it. But let’s not call it journalism.

The Leno-Obama moment
is a conversation between a television talk show host and a government leader. It’s worth watching. It’s worth hearing what the President has to say in this type of setting. It’s one more way to get to know what’s inside Obama’s head and his heart.

I hope, though, that President Obama does not diminish the importance of being regularly accessible to journalists. Jay Leno can ask some fascinating –- even probing -– questions of Obama. We saw that happen when David Letterman interviewed former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Journalists bring different obligations and different knowledge to their reporting. They will ask different questions. Journalists serve a “watchdog” function in our democratic society.

I hope in these turbulent times citizens recognize the unique and essential role that journalism plays in this country. Imperfect though it is, journalism is built on a set of professional and ethical principles that can produce substantive information-gathering and reporting that serves the public interest.

I don’t believe there’s much value in debating who is a journalist.

I do believe it’s worth distinguishing the characteristics of journalism and the unique role it plays in our society.

Jay Leno entertains. Journalism informs.
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Dr. Sanjay Gupta Covers Obama’s Health Care Policies with Competing Loyalties

Dr. Sanjay Gupta wears many hats, or in his case, multiple white coats. He’s a practicing neurosurgeon, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, a TIME magazine columnist and more.

His multifaceted roles present ethical problems. The pressure points are on the principle of journalistic independence.

For the last couple of months it appeared that Sanjay Gupta was likely to become this country’s surgeon general. He met with Barack Obama about that job and discussed it extensively with administration officials.

On March 5 he withdrew his name from consideration, saying he wants to spend more time with his family and on his medical practice. He also will continue as a journalist for CNN.

My first reaction to the news of Gupta opting out focused on a tepid effort by his CNN colleagues to genuinely report the story of his withdrawal. My heightened concern focuses on the erosion of Gupta’s journalistic independence given his two-plus months of discussions with the Obama administration about becoming surgeon general.

While the surgeon general’s position is not the most important in the cabinet, it is reasonably high profile and its relevance is considerable in the current debate over health care issues and government policy.

Gupta’s withdrawal from consideration deserved scrutiny it did not receive on CNN Thursday night. Larry King had a buddy-buddy chat with Gupta that elicited little insight. But King’s show is more entertainment than journalism.

However, on “Anderson Cooper 360,” which is a news program, Cooper said how happy he was Gupta was going to stay at CNN and lobbed a few simple questions his way. There was no serious attempt to probe why Gupta had stayed in contention for over two months only to withdraw now. No effort to report on what his pulling out might mean to an Obama administration that has lost a number of appointees. No references to concerns about Gupta voiced by some politicians.

Cooper did not interview Gupta as he might have Bill Richardson or other potential nominees who withdrew from consideration.

It was ironic that CNN used a breaking news label for the interview, imparting the event with that sense of importance, then treated Gupta’s interviews like soft news.

Cooper certainly didn’t go where New York Times columnist Paul Krugman went in questioning Gupta’s possible nomination as surgeon general.

Nor did Cooper touch on the points made in The New Republic article headlined “Sanjay Gupta Treads The Ethical Line.” That TNR story said Gupta “is no stranger to the ethically sticky situation physicians often find themselves in with drug companies.”

There was nothing in the Thursday night CNN coverage comparable to the Los Angeles Times story on Gupta’s withdrawal that detailed crititcs’ concerns about his connections to pharmaceutical companies.

Anderson Cooper and CNN gave Sanjay Gupta a pass.

It sure appears to me that CNN and Gupta are on a collision course filled with competing values and competing loyalties, one that could affect future coverage. In his wrap-up of the interview, Cooper teased Gupta’s upcoming coverage of the administration. The transcript says:

We should mention that Dr. Gupta’s brush with life inside the Beltway drew him deeply into the health care debate. He’s been devoting a lot of time to different proposals out there to fix it.

We’re going to have reports all next week, a rare inside look at how the reform process is working; Sanjay Gupta inside the White House healing health care, all next week on “360.”

For a couple of months we’ve had Sanjay Gupta in the running to be one of Obama’s trusted allies. As surgeon general he would have had a key voice in the President’s health care policy. While Gupta was, in essence, interviewing for the surgeon general’s position, he was likely interviewing the President as well, not as a reporter but as a potential team player. He was bound to learn some insider information.

That’s where the ethical challenges surface. To whom does Dr. Gupta owe loyalty? Can he serve the public with comprehensive reporting uninfluenced by his White House connections? Can he fairly report on an administration he almost joined? Can he fairly report on critics of Obama’s health care plans?

Do CNN executives share these concerns about Gupta continuing to report on the Obama White House and the administration’s health policy?

I asked CNN for comment, and heard back from Jennifer Dargan, PR director. She said in an e-mail, “Sanjay is a first-rate, independent journalist, with nearly 10 years of solid reporting experience. He will continue to cover health care issues and policy objectively, as he’s always done.” Read more

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As Ban Lifts, Photos of Soldiers’ Coffins Increase Understanding Through Visual Storytelling

War is about heroism and about horror. War reflects battles won and lives lost. As citizens who send our military men and women into combat, we must comprehend the commitment, the courage and the cost. We must grasp what it means when our fighters fall. We must try to understand the pain that people endure when losing loved ones who wore uniforms — our uniforms — in warfare.

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We will be better able to comprehend all of this now that the Pentagon has lifted its ban on photographs of the flag-draped coffins of war victims arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

We will have a more authentic visual representation of one more piece of the complex puzzle of our involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will have one more important vantage point from which we can mourn the passing of brave men and women. We will have one more set of visual images to process the human toll of war. We will have one more way to cry with the loved ones. We will have one more way to assess what it means to fight wars. We will have one more way to evaluate our country’s foreign policy.

The greater access for journalists is not about supporting or opposing war. The camera lens, if used professionally and responsibly, captures real moments and relays visual information.

Journalists have an obligation to take people where they need to go, even if they don’t always want to go there. Still photographs and video images do just that.

Journalists have a duty to help the public wrestle with tough societal issues and thorny national policy questions. Photographic images of important events and places help accomplish that goal. 

Journalists have an obligation to report stories that help citizens in a democracy to be better informed so they can meaningfully participate in the civic process.

Journalists have a duty to tell stories with words and visual images that connect communities that are cheering for soldiers returning safely to the home front and citizens who are crying for loved ones lost on the field of battle.

The lifted ban on media coverage at Dover Air Force Base comes with an appropriate caveat; the families of the victims will have a final say about whether to allow coverage.

The journalists who are given access take on great responsibility. They must honor the trust given them. They must show great respect and dignity to the fallen warriors. They must measure up in their professional duties and in their ethical choices out of respect for the families who have lost so much.

I write these words not as a dispassionate observer, but as someone who can reflect on the meaning of war. I served as an Army officer in Vietnam. I was fortunate to come home safe. But I know that three other servicemen named Robert Steele died in Vietnam.

I hope that all military men and women who give their lives in battle, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in any conflict that may come, will be honored for their courage and their commitment. I hope that all of us as citizens can meaningfully weigh the choices of sending our troops to war.

I believe that more complete news coverage of the pieces of the war puzzle, including the arrival of the coffins at Dover Air Force Base, serves that legitimate purpose.  
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The Perils of Monetizing Even When Times are Tough

Spacer SpacerI accept that the word monetize is now carved into the floors and walls of American newsrooms, woven into the journalism culture, and implanted in the psyche of every editor. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I know that those who run news organizations are in a fight for survival. Let’s hope they win. Let’s also hope that they don’t abandon core journalism values in the process.

Monetizing is not, in itself, an evil concept. The problem is with certain tactics that can erode ethical standards and corrode the credibility of news content.

Case in point: the growth of in-text advertising. Certain words in a story are sold to an advertiser. When readers mouse over those designated words they trigger a pop-up ad that links to a product or service. The meaning of the word in the story may or may not be directly related to the product or service advertised. For instance, you might have a story about an airline crash that uses the word bank in this way:

“The pilot tried to bank the airliner away from the downtown area…”

The in-text link could take you to an advertisement for a local bank offering mortgages.

Advertisers might not want their ads associated with plane crashes or other less tragic news. Or maybe they are just fine with it as long as the news bring eyeballs to their ads.

I commented about this issue for a Wall Street Journal story a couple years back.

The story was headlined “Is It News…or Is It an Ad?” The subhead was “With ‘in-text’ advertising, it isn’t always easy to tell.”
 
At the time, I said of in-text advertising, “It’s ethically problematic at the least and potentially quite corrosive of journalistic quality and credibility.”
 
I still have the same concerns about monetizing tactics no matter how much I recognize the financial woes in our profession and business. I had a call recently about this from Steve Smith, who was writing a story for min online.

Here’s his lead:

In the never ending struggle to make digital media pay out, no pixel should be left un-monetized, some publishers insist. And so the ad clutter mounts at many sites: expandable banners, AdSense links, affiliate links and auto-starting video spots. Many sites look more like NASCAR racers now than content. It is hard to tell whether the increasingly popular “in-text” ad unit adds to or reduces this clutter, let alone whether it breaks down some once-sacred wall between editorial and advertising.

I offered Smith a range of thoughts on this matter, and he accurately captured my key point. In-text advertising, I said, “raises questions about the credibility of the news content. When you embed ads within the news content, particularly in ways that are almost subterfuge, you risk not only alienating readers, not only distracting readers, but raising questions with readers about the integrity of the news reporting.”

There are plenty of folks who disagree with me. You’ll find their views represented in Smith’s piece and in the earlier WSJ article. Fair enough that the counter-points are expressed. Let’s make sure that we rigorously discuss and debate these evolutionary advertising methods attached to and embedded within news content.

Our ethical values are too valuable to ignore. Read more

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