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Home > Publications > Quill > The Great Balancing Act


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Tuesday, June 1, 2010
The Great Balancing Act

It's a tough time for freelancers and staffers alike. Does that mean we should sacrifice professional ethics for a paycheck? Perhaps it's not as black-and-white as you think.

By Matt Stroud

When Linda was named managing editor at a daily Missouri newspaper last summer, she said she welcomed the challenge of boosting the paper’s circulation numbers. But within months of relocating from Indiana for the job, Linda — not her real name — said the newspaper’s publisher and his advertising staff would pressure her to kill stories that reflected negatively on local businesses.

Things got worse from there: She said the paper’s management generally encouraged editors and writers to pander to advertisers. The paper’s editor-in-chief quit shortly after she signed on. Then the publisher quit.

An advertising sales representative assumed both the role of publisher and editor-in-chief, and Linda said that change added further tension to the newsroom.

Within two months of her starting day, the work environment moved from tense to nearly criminal. She lasted four months before quitting. Shortly after her last day, she filed sexual harassment claims against the newspaper’s publisher. She remains unemployed.

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Get suggestions from negotiation experts for talking to your employer about ethics. Click here

Some 1,500 miles north, Sarah, a reporter for a New England-based public television station, claimed that ethical — though not nearly criminal — problems caused her to quit her full-time job in the late ’80s.

Sarah — not her real name — said that when the station entered into a partnership with a local minority business group, producers pushed her to profile a new minority business each week without disclosing that her station was financially entwined with an umbrella organization that represented those businesses. Sarah refused the assignments and soon quit her full-time job under pressure. She said she didn’t have trouble finding a new gig at the time, but that if the market in New England were as unforgiving then as it is now, she might not have made the same decision.

I was in a similar situation as well. I quit my job as Web editor of Village Voice Media’s San Francisco alt-weekly a few years ago, just as the legal battle between SFWeekly and its cross-town competitor, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, began to take shape.

"With shrinking newsrooms and falling freelance rates for enterprising journalists, do publishers have the upper hand in journalism today? And if so, how can journalists define the line between an “ethical” employer and an “unethical” employer, and ensure they’re working for the former rather than the latter?"

My bosses wanted me to participate in the lawsuit’s public face to an extent I thought was inappropriate. So I quit my job. But not before posting a story on SFWeekly’s site about why I quit. Though that post was almost immediately removed from the site, it was later republished on other sites around the Web.

I don’t consider myself a purist by any stretch of the imagination, but the preceding situations highlight important issues journalists face — and need to think about — today more than ever. With shrinking newsrooms and falling freelance rates for enterprising journalists, do publishers have the upper hand in journalism today? And if so, how can journalists define the line between an “ethical” employer and an “unethical” employer, and ensure they’re working for the former rather than the latter?

THE BEGINNING

Though Quill and the Society of Professional Journalists are always interested in how ethics influence the state of journalism, this particular discussion began with the Church of Scientology. Based in Clearwater, Fla., the church has worked in the past to suppress journalism through lawsuits, but its recent crusade wasn’t based in the courts.

Last summer, the church was the subject of an extensive investigative report by the St. Petersburg Times. The five-part series spanned seven months and included numerous video interviews with former church members accusing the church’s leader, David Miscavige, of using harsh physical and psychological tactics to coerce congregants into submission. The Times claimed that it gave church officials more than a month’s notice before the series debuted on June 21, 2009, and requested an interview with Miscavige during that time. Miscavige was unavailable, church officials told the Times.

However, the day before the first installment of the series ran, a letter from Miscavige was published in the Times, noting that he had time on July 6 to talk publicly.

“While you have already received unequivocal statements from more than a score of witnesses, along with documentary evidence, providing uncontrovertible [sic] proof that your sources are lying,” the letter read, “I remain ready to sit down for the requested interview on the date previously confirmed. If you decide not to avail yourself of this opportunity, I insist you do not misrepresent the fact that the decision was yours, not mine.”

By November, the church solicited for investigative reporters on the popular website JournalismJobs.com. Because the church had attacked its detractors in the past, one could assume this solicitation was in response to the Times’ series.

Blogs and websites buzzed: Is it ethical to work as a journalist for a group notorious for suppressing journalism?

Then in late February, Howard Kurtz revealed in his Washington Post media column that the church had not only hired journalists but had hired two freelancers with significant credentials: Russell Carollo, a 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner, and Christopher Szechenyi, an Emmy-winning former television producer who had worked for “60 Minutes.”

I initially blogged about this at TrueSlant.com, and Steve Weinberg, a former executive editor of Investigative Reporters and Editors, responded in the blog’s comment section: “More than any other existing organization that comes to mind,” he wrote, “the Scientologists have been so hostile to outside journalists that I cannot see crossing the line to accept employment there.”

It was eventually revealed that Carollo and Szechenyi had written a sort of media critique about the Times’ reports. They said their contract with the church stipulated that they had complete journalistic freedom, and that the church could not change what the reporters wrote. But the church had discretion about when and whether the report would be released. (Editor’s note: At the time Quill went to press, it had not been released.)

Weinberg, who previously said he couldn’t see any journalists crossing a line to work for the church, ended up editing the critique Carollo and Szechenyi authored for the Church of Scientology.

“I think the ethical walls are coming down right now. Journalism is on the ropes in a lot of ways, and there are bloggers out there who will shill for any organization. So if someone says ‘I just refuse to do this project on moral and ethical grounds,’ there will be a lot of qualified people out there who will say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about; I don’t even see an ethical dilemma.’” - Chris Rodell

But Weinberg’s decision to do so seemed less unbelievable and hypocritical when I started asking around.

Weinberg himself said he hadn’t been hired by the church, but by the reporters themselves, who needed someone with substantial investigative editorial experience to look over their work.

Chris Rodell, one of my professors at Point Park University, who has written as a freelancer for publications like Playboy, Men’s Health, Esquire and Details, told me “ethics become elastic when you’re a freelancer.” He said, “Everybody strives to be ethical, and I don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt anyone or damage my own credibility, but if you don’t have a paycheck coming in in a long time, you do become more or less ethical depending on the organization offering the money.”

Rodell said he didn’t think he would have accepted an assignment from the church if presented with the option, but he did say that he’d have to think about it if put in Weinberg’s situation, and that the impetus for experienced freelance journalists to take such assignments is growing stronger.

“I think the ethical walls are coming down right now,” Rodell told me. “Journalism is on the ropes in a lot of ways, and there are bloggers out there who will shill for any organization. So if someone says ‘I just refuse to do this project on moral and ethical grounds,’ there will be a lot of qualified people out there who will say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about; I don’t even see an ethical dilemma.’”

BUT WHAT ABOUT FULL-TIME STAFFERS?

There are cases that seem to make headlines everywhere — like that of Ralph Cipriano in Philadelphia.

Cipriano sued The Philadelphia Inquirer for libel in 1996 after his editor told The Washington Post that Cipriano had fabricated details in a story the Inquirer had spiked. Cipriano quit his job and became — as far as I know — the only journalist to ever sue his employer for libel and win.

But not everyone can fall into that category of rebellion. When I talked to Linda, the woman who quit her managing editor job in Missouri, about her experience, she said her main complaint from the get-go was simple: The line separating editorial content from advertising started to blur as the paper’s revenues declined.

This is a classic debate in journalism circles. Andy Schotz and Fred Brown, respectively chairman and vice chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, pointed out perhaps the most recognized relatively recent example of this: the Los Angeles Times’ profit-sharing arrangement with the Staples Center in 1999. This involved an agreement to publish a one-time, 168-page magazine about the new sports arena. Apparently unbeknownst to the editorial staff, the L.A. Times’ ad staff teamed up with the Staples ad staff for the project and planned to split profits. This allowed both entities to benefit from a supposedly pure editorial product, and effectively blurred the line separating editorial content from advertising.

Opinion editors and editorialists nationwide condemned the arrangement between Staples Center and the L.A. Times in 1999, but those editorials may not have completely sunk in. Schotz calls the L.A. Times “a multiple offender,” pointing out that last year, for example, the paper ran a fake news story promoting the NBC series “Southland” on its front page, and that in March it ran a full-page, front-cover advertisement for the latest “Alice in Wonderland” movie under the paper’s banner.

Linda said those editorials did not sink into her Missourian publisher’s practices, either.

Linda said she worked for a syndicated news operation with an out-of-town manager who stressed that “this newspaper [is] not in the business to win awards; we are in the business to make money.”

She said the paper’s focus “turned to satisfying the needs of the advertisers,” which, she said, were also community leaders.

“Chamber of Commerce and economic development committees wanted front-page reports,” she said. “And so domestic violence [stories] and poverty rates were considered taboo because it might hinder new businesses from moving to the town.”

Sarah, who quit her job as a business reporter with a public broadcasting outlet in New England, said her main gripe pertained to management getting in the way of news.

“I was reporting about businesses and business news,” she said, “but management didn’t seem to see that as being any different from advertising. But I knew it was. I was getting tips and breaking stories when I could. I was a journalist. It’s not like I was selling mouthwash.”

“Most of the time, I’m seeking the influence. I go to work for the people I go to work for because I admire them and agree with them sufficiently enough to go to work for them. I’m constantly seeking ideas from my employers.” - Jack Shafer

My complaint, too, had to do with separating the company’s legal affairs from the day’s news. SFWeekly was involved in a lawsuit, and I had no interest in acting as any sort of representative for the company as it tried to spin that lawsuit favorably in a public forum.

Of course, there are journalists who say that it’s a publisher’s right to push writers in an editorial direction.

Jack Shafer is a former editor of SFWeekly who now edits and writes Slate.com’s Press Box column. When I asked him if he had ever worked under an employer who tried to push him in a political direction, he said, “I’ve never had an employer who didn’t.”

Publishers hire particular people for particular reasons, he said.

“Most of the time, I’m seeking the influence,” he said. “I go to work for the people I go to work for because I admire them and agree with them sufficiently enough to go to work for them.

“I’m constantly seeking ideas from my employers,” he said.

But for less-influential journalists — or journalists with slightly less trust for their supervisors — Deni Elliott, professor and Eleanor Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida, said there are two main kinds of trouble to watch out for as journalists.

“The most pervasive misuse of staff,” she wrote in an e-mail, “is when reporters or photographers are expected to include advertisers in their news reporting or photography.”

She explained that the editor’s perspective is generally that “if the advertiser’s banner can be included in a sports shot, for example, then why not do it.”

The answer, she said, is that if the reporter or photographer is looking for ways to include the advertiser, then that journalist is probably not focusing on a newsworthy event or issue.

“I’ve never advised someone to quit his/her job because I think that that is a highly personal decision,” she said, “but I have helped folks think through the consequences of quitting or staying.”

She said the following should make journalists think about quitting:

1. You have reportable information relating to the boss but are not allowed to report it.

2. You have reportable information relating to the corporation that owns your news organization but are not allowed to report it.

3. You know of actions by peers or supervisors that are tolerated even if they may not be legal.

4. If the story about your owner, boss or peers broke, you’d be embarrassed to have your mother read about it.

But what if you really, really don’t want to quit?

“I had a wife and I had kids when I left the Inquirer, but leaving the Inquirer was something I had to do. Bottom line is that you gotta be able to look yourself in the mirror.” - Ralph Cipriano

Times are tough in journalism. And for those who fill the relatively few coveted editorial staff roles in the industry, the prospect of quitting over an ethical disagreement with a publisher might seem a lot like jumping off a very tall building with a very small parachute.

But William Ury said that’s potentially avoidable with a little negotiation.

Ury co-founded Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation and is currently a senior fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project. He is the author of “The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes.”

“The first thing in negotiation is knowing what your interests are,” he said. “In this situation, it’s preserving your own sense of ethics.

“Second question to ask yourself is what is your best alternative agreement with the other side?”

Ury said that alternative may be to quit, but that quitting amounts to a non-negotiation — that’s the last resort. He said he would first suggest offering a boss or publisher a “positive no.”

“A ‘negative no’ is just a ‘no’ — an ‘I quit,’” he said. “A ‘positive no’ takes the form of a ‘yes,’ followed by a ‘no,’ followed by a ‘yes.’”

Looks a bit confusing at first glance. But here’s how it works:

The first yes, he explained, is saying “yes” to a set of ethical values. For example, this is where you would explain to your boss why writing advertorial content might not be the best practice for a journalist.

“You explain that these ethics mean a lot to you, and that they’re your core values,” he said.

Then, he said, the “no” is explained as a logical next step from the core values you’ve just stated.

And then the second “yes” is the alternative or the alternatives — “a concrete proposal that addresses your core concerns and ideally addresses your boss’ interests,” Ury said. “And that might be ‘Well, I’m happy to write a piece, but it is going to be balanced.’ Or, ‘Perhaps you can have someone else write the advertorial story.’ The main point is that you’re offering an alternative that allows you to stay ethically in line with your values.”

He said the main ideas are to stay respectful, positive and constructive.

“It’s a human interaction,” he said. “So you want to be cordial.”

And if that doesn’t work?

“Well, who knows?” he said. “Maybe then your best bet is to quit.”

Cipriano, who sued his former employer, agrees, and said publishers may have the upper hand in journalism today, but defining the line between an “ethical” employer and an “unethical” one is simple:

“I had a wife and I had kids when I left the Inquirer, but leaving the Inquirer was something I had to do,” he said. “Bottom line is that you gotta be able to look yourself in the mirror.”

Matt Stroud is a staff writer for Trib Total Media in Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate assistant for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University. Reach him at matt.stroud@yahoo.com.

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