Whenever I got into trouble as a kid, my old man would remind me to take the high road. In the end, he said, I’d be better for doing the right thing. And he was right, but most of the stuff was pretty clear cut (well looking back it was). I mean, I haven’t taken his car for a joy ride in years.
I was reminded of this when I read Joe Strupp’s article entitled, “Philly False Airline Ads Draw High Responses, Ethics Concerns” in today’s Editor and Publisher online. I’ll spare you the details of the ad that was ethically in question, but you can learn more about it here.
More after the jump.
The ethical aspects of the situation aside, let’s remember what we’re dealing with — print publications that rarely get the chance to surprise their audiences save for big or life-changing stories. Print news is struggling, and not because the content is bad so much as people are used to (read: bored-to-death with) the medium. After a few hundred years of the format, we need change.
So was it bad for the papers to run a “fake” ad, even though it was in hopes of revealing ad-effectivity? Some journalists seem to think so.
“It is clearly deception,” said Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute. “Newspapers should not be in the business of deception. I canâ€™t imagine the Inquirer and Daily News would run fake ads from other companies.”
Bear in mind, ethics are not bendable for the Poynter folks. I have first-hand experience with them on the subject and they’re hard-nosed…and for good reason. They have a medium to protect.
But what about when NPR, and others, run fake stories on April 1 each year? Seemingly, it’s acceptable to deceive your audience once a per annum, even though there’s no telling whether the audience will figure out the rouse — try though the news-maker might to reveal the truth later.
In the Derrie-Air case, the ad was pretty harmless (although some may have been offended).
Motives aside, the ethical balance of a publication can’t be judged by one ad alone. A look back at any newspaper’s headlines during big events usually reveals a touch of salaciousness now and again. Nonetheless, the ethicists couldn’t resist laying claim to the weekend’s inequity.
“Kelly McBride, Poynter ethics group leader, said: ‘anytime you deceive your audience, you run the risk of compromising their ability to trust you.'”
Ethics and journalism share a brotherly relationship, but like all siblings they tend to squabble over how things should be done. Derrie-Air is a perfect example of a conversation that should end before it goes any further. I can’t blame the papers for the move. It gave them feedback they can use, and might even save a job or two (since ad sales are based on eyeballs, duh). And for that reason alone, I’m less than concerned about the ethical implications of this isolated incident. If they do it again, that’s another thing all together.
And while there’s been no talk of the ads being placed in the interest of, well, being interesting, a larger concern is how they (the publishers responsible) are going to acquire the info they need next time. McBride has a point — it will be harder for the papers’ audiences to trust them. But maybe that’s what readers want from time to time — a mystery to solve. I don’t think a credible newspaper should risk losing readers because of it (through repeat offenses, of course), but in today’s market staying afloat most certainly means changing the game a bit.
At least the pubs tried something. And here we are talking about them, whereas last week they were on no one’s radar but their few remaining readers.