2 min read

ASME arrives late to ethics debate

In the past year, B2B journalism has suffered one of the most embarrassing scandals in its history, as several companies -- including VNU and Ziff Davis -- began to sell ads within editorial. Words in stories were marked as hypertext links. But the links didn't lead to other news or information chosen by editors, the links were inserted by a company called IntelliTXT and they led to ads. The links were misleading, offensive and clearly violated ethics guidelines.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember the debate that ensued. But if you're new to this issue, let me say this: most of the associations that claim to represent the interests of B2B publishing failed -- miserably -- during the crisis.
On May 3, I published something on this blog asking the American Society of Business Publication Editors, American Business Media and the American Society of Magazine Editors to issue a ruling on the ads-in-edit controversy. Although VNU had backed away after I complained, and although it was clear to me and to hundreds of others that these ads were unethical, an executive at Ziff Davis had told Folio magazine that the ads did not violate the organizations' ethics guidelines.
So I asked the three groups to clarify.

ASBPE -- god bless it -- responded within hours, issuing a statement that "ad links within editorial text should NOT be sold under any condition."
But ABM and ASME never responded.
They never issued statements. They never answered my emails or phone calls on the subject. They just ignored the whole thing. They have continued to ignore the scandal ... for six months.

So you'll have to forgive me for being unimpressed by the news that ASME intends to update its ethics guidelines.
I mean seriously, ASME has had a half of a year to decide if its existing ethics policy actually means what it appears to mean. ASME has had a half of a year to decide if it's unethical to sell the actual words that journalists write. So I have no faith that ASME's new policy will actually address the tough issues, and I have no faith that ASME will actually stand behind whatever policy it does issue.

Glamour editor Cindi Leive is president of ASME. In announcing the plans to update the group's ethics policy, she said that "The church-state wall isn’t as clear or defined as it is in print.”
I disagree. As I have said dozens of times in this blog and in meetings with journalists and journalism students -- the rules of ethics haven't changed online, and you shouldn't let them. The church-state wall is clear. Edit is still edit. An ad is still an ad. Transparency is still the key to ethical behavior. And all of our ethics rules still boil down to one simple concept: Don't mislead the reader.

What has changed is that the journalists of B2B have fewer places to turn when the pressure to behave unethically builds. We can still trust ASBPE to stand behind us. But ABM and ASME have demonstrated that we cannot depend upon them.
(UPDATE: ABM has made it's position clear, and I'm thrilled.)

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