Ethics, schmethics! (But, seriously…)

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you trust what you read, hear or see in the mass media?


Even blogs?

A Gallup poll of 1,000 Americans a few months back says no:

Their findings: just 21 percent of the people surveyed ranked newspaper reporters with high or very high honesty and ethical standards. Next came lawyers, tying with 21 percent, followed by TV reporters at 20 percent, then advertisers at a miserable 14 percent.

Just so we’re clear, here. I work as a journalist and often write for The New York Times, which sends out a long and detailed ethics code it expects all freelance contributors to adhere to. Interestingly, though, every freelancer — whether an artist, writer or photographer — is completely vulnerable to the whims of their individual editor, some of whom have been abusive indeed: abruptly killing stories, (which cuts our fees dramatically), or sitting on unpaid invoices for months.

One of the paper’s more challenging demands, for example, is that no freelance writer can ever accept a paid trip to write a travel story, (even for another publication or outlet)  — which leaves its travel section open only to people with deep-enough pockets to jet off to exotic destinations and pay all their food and lodging as well.

One writer, Mike Albo, lost a nice weekly column in the Times after he took a paid trip to Jamaica; he turned it into a very funny, and very accurate one-man show, The Junket, which I saw and admired.

Welcome to the economic costs of ethics!

Another issue the Times is fussy about, and which seems fair to me, is not interviewing friends, relatives or groups in which you have a financial interest — i.e. your brother-in-law’s fab new company.

On this blog, I occasionally mention companies, products and experiences I’ve enjoyed — none of whom pay me to do so. If and when I’m able to get sponsored posts, I’ll be very clear who’s paying me to say what.

So when I read or listen to “news” of any sort, I expect to be told of any potential conflict of interest, even though that’s unlikely.

If someone takes a freebie, then raves about said item or experience, they need to come clean to their audience.

I once attended BlogHer, an annual conference that attracts 5,000 bloggers. I didn’t much care for it, although it’s obviously hugely popular.

The reason I would not go back was the exhibition hall, where women thronged the booths to collect as much free loot as they could carry. That’s not why I write or blog.

It’s also not what journalists do.


Have you followed the excruciating behavior — and criminal trial it led to —  by UK editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson?

Here’s Ken Auletta in The New Yorker:

A British jury has declared Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of the World and executive at News Corp., not guilty of criminal charges. She had been charged with participating in the paper’s phone-hacking practices, for covering up evidence, and for involvement in payoffs to silence the police or solicit their help in fetching fresh news stories. At the same time, they found Andrew Coulson, Brooks’s successor—who went on to serve as communications director for the Prime Minister—guilty on charges of conspiracy to intercept phone messages. Stuart Kuttner, the paper’s former managing editor, was also found not guilty; charges against some of the editors’ other colleagues have yet to be resolved. But a criminal case is not the final word on whether either editor, or News Corp., nor much of the British tabloid press, has betrayed the principles of journalism.

Ethical failures may not merit a jail term; they do merit a spotlight. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Sir Brian Leveson, a prominent judge, to call witnesses to inquire into the culture and ethics of the British press. A year later, Leveson issued a report than ran more than two thousand pages.

Other recent ethics scandals have depressed and dismayed many, like the discovery that Cambodian human rights advocate Somaly Mam had been less than truthful.


Now Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, is calling on Kristof to “give readers a full explanation” of his reporting on Somaly Mam, the celebrated Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist who, according to a recent Newsweek expose, fabricated parts of her story and those of some of the alleged victims she advocated for. The revelations have disillusioned many of Mam’s loyal supporters and left the press looking gullible. Just as importantly, they’ve highlighted the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for heroic narratives—and the willingness of many in the media to provide them.

Kristof was hardly alone in promoting Mam and her initiatives. Several respected outlets, including Newsweek, have played handmaiden to her celebrity. Consider just a partial list of media-bestowed accolades: Mam was named a CNN Hero and Glamour’s Woman of the Year. She was included in the Time 100, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women—the list goes on. When stories like hers crumble, however, few in the media pause to examine how they could have been so thoroughly duped. Fewer still acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating stories that were too good to check out.

And this, from Salon, about non-profits who are also not revealing their own ethical bonsai:

Partnerships between NGOs and big-brand companies are developing even faster than those with energy and pharmaceutical corporations. Environmentalists have led the way, collaborating with, and accepting money from, big-box retailers and brand manufacturers. The Environmental Defense Fund blazed a trail in 1990 by partnering with McDonald’s to phase out the restaurant chain’s Styrofoam packaging. Today such partnerships are ubiquitous. IKEA works with WWF as a “marketing partner,” providing funding through the Global Forest and Trade Network to “create a new market for environmentally responsible forest products.” Conservation International works with Starbucks on sourcing coffee beans and with Walmart on tracking the sources of the company’s jewelry products. Monsanto and The Walt Disney Company are two other “featured” corporate partners of Conservation International (as of June 2013).

Executives from these companies also sit on the boards of environmental NGOs. As of June 2013, the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s includes Robert J. Fisher, past Chairman of the Gap board of directors, and Alan F. Horn, current chairman of The Walt Disney Studios. Neville Isdell, former CEO of Coca-Cola, is chairman of the board of the U.S. branch of WWF (known in the U.S. as the World Wildlife Fund) (as of June 2013). Rob Walton, chair of Walmart, also chairs the executive committee of Conservation International’s board of directors, which, as of June 2013, includes Paul Polman of Unilever (current chief executive), Heidi Miller of JPMorgan Chase (retired former president), and Orin Smith of Starbucks (retired former CEO).

Social and human rights organizations have generally been less receptive to partnering with big-brand companies. But this is changing, too.

I tend to be a fairly trusting person — until I get burned — as I recently was by a fellow blogger who really should have known better than to try to screw me.

I’ve sent her several un-answered emails asking her to do the right thing.

Many of you already read her blog, filled with cute personal stories and a you-go-girl! flavor. She blogs about writing and how to become a better writer and is very popular; last time I looked, she had almost 30,000 followers.

I used to read her blog and enjoyed it.

Then she reached out to me, after months of my comments, and asked me to teach for one of her on-line conferences. I did, offering my time and talent to nine of her students — unpaid. In return, she said, I could  guest post and promote or link to my own classes.

I fulfilled my part of the deal.

She never did.

What ethical breaches have you recently faced?

Do you care if people behave ethically toward you or others?



29 thoughts on “Ethics, schmethics! (But, seriously…)

  1. Powerful piece Caitlin. In the days of Walter Cronkite, journalism held an ethical appearance. The in-your-face, get the sluttiest story possible promoted in recent decades due to 24-hour news has ruined the image of ethical journalists. And the NYT denying journalists money to travel is nothing more than greed on their part. Maybe if journalists were treated with more respect, their image would improve. Maybe the dog is wagging the tail. Wow!

  2. Wow, I’m sorry about what happened w/you at the end. The blogging community is built on reciprocal relationships and helping each other succeed, and this is surprising and sad. Great thoughts throughout about who we can trust in the media. I find the NYT’s funny. I trust it, because it’s the NYTimes, right? But then again, some of the blogs from them, esp. regarding health because that’s what I’m into, make me want to cringe. I have a running list of annoyingly deceptive headlines/posts that one day I’m going to write about. I guess overall, I’m trustful to a certain point but usually if I’m reading something and considering changing my mind? I’ll look up 2 or 3 other articles first to validate….Very sad about reporters and the whole travel cost issue–that I didn’t know about. Thanks for making us aware of this.

    1. There’s a lot behind the curtain, so to speak. And as the media landscape gets rougher and rougher for freelancers, the temptations to shave and bend the rules become greater.

      Thanks for the kind words. I planned to name her, but Jose warned me against it! I’m still a little shocked, although that shows my own naivete.

  3. themodernidiot

    They did a study when print media fell, and everyone raced to digital: a mere 14% of all “news” online was true and/or accurate. The NYT was still considered a trustworthy source, barely.

    Everything is now unchecked, aggregated, and unedited; so unless you do the work yourself, you aren’t reading or watching verified material.

    And now that most people get their news from Facebook…

    1. We (writing for the NYT) are expected to fact-check everything. I got caught once when a realtor gave me lousy local information (a distant part of California) for a story, and a reader complained. Sheesh. It gets tricky when pay rates are so low and we have to work much more quickly.

      1. themodernidiot

        Yes, the NYT walks a dangerous line by following a poor business model of quantity over quality. They’ve already had it bite them once, and pushing their writers to impossible limits will end in disaster.

        However, thanks to the integrity of those writers, I think the news has a chance of returning to the gold standard.

        I don’t follow this blog for the recipes.

  4. Yes, I do care if people behave ethically. I’ve gone through some rough times questioning the ethics and behaviours of others; it is no easier when the responsibility to do so falls to me (i.e. having an agreement in place for work/business, like the one you described). In some of these situations, I’ve seen people face some serious consequences as a result of their actions. It’s never been easy, but it’s been the only thing I could do.

    As far as the media goes, it seems to me that in most miscommunicated journalism the misleading information is generated more innocently than deliberately. For example, the rush to meet a deadline results in a failure to understand complex data and the editor lets the piece through. (Borrowing this from another blogger: statistics courses should be mandatory for everyone who wants to write or edit).

    Flipping through the Canadian Press Stylebook, half the content is guidelines for ethical treatment of subject matter, from photo shopping to reporting on suicide.

    As far as blogging goes, I tend to pull away from group blogs. I think that in traditional media the hierarchies of writer/editor/publisher demand some sort of accountability–that’s part of the job–and if the individuals within it fail, we can question them or replace them. Blogs don’t have the same structure, so unless they are personal platforms of individuals’ opinions, I’m not sure who is responsible for the content within.

    1. I think you’re being generous about the media! Some people are bone-lazy and others, to my disappointment, are discovered to be plagiarists. I agree, we all should take a class in statistics! 🙂

      Ethics are tricky. What some find “normal” behavior, others find abhorrent.

      Blogs are, as you say, whatever anyone chooses to post. Then you have to hope they’re smart and truthful, unless it’s so light and silly it doesn’t matter.

      1. You might be correct about the generosity… but that can apply to any field! I choose to surround myself with people who like to work, and are engaged and curious (same in my blog reading), so I tend to forget that this isn’t always ‘normal’.

        I suppose with ethics, the base line (minimum standard) might be the line between legal/illegal? Like everything, it’s all a process to be negotiated!

        Have a happy Friday, and I hope Karma takes care of that before-mentioned blogger who doesn’t take care of her commitments.

  5. it’s unfortunate that many media outlets now treat the journalists, who do all the work and create their content, with a ‘you are lucky to have the chance to work for us’ attitude.

    as for the ethics question, i tend to approach others with the expectation that they are ethical, as i am, and am sorely disappointed when i am proven wrong. how awful that your agreement was not honored by both sides.

  6. mylifeinfocusblog

    OMG Caitlin. I don’t believe one single person anymore. Especially the news media. I believe my own eyes instead. When I go shopping I see more and more people struggling to buy food. I see more people pushing carts in the streets so I know they are homeless. I overhear more conversations spouting discontent. Just ride the NY subway and look at the working people riding the trains with you. Does anyone really look happy? Other than the tourists?

    I would say that 99.99% of the people I come in contact with now are lying right to my face. And I know it. And they know that I know that they are lying but they do it anyway. From my mortgage broker who told me, in writing that I was pre-approved for my loan, but at the last split second, after months of time wasted, I wasn’t. From my doctor who told me I needed a procedure but as I sat in the operating room told me she changed her diagnosis and refused to do the operation. From my tenant who tells me ‘the check is in the mail’ to the friend who says she’ll watch my dog for two hours and then doesn’t show up with narry a phone call or text to explain why……….I can go on and on and on even further.

    I don’t believe a single thing in this world anymore. No one’s word, including Obama’s means anything to anyone any more.

    1. OUCH! You have had a very bad run, of late. That’s a shit-ton of disappointment and deception.

      The OR experience is very weird — but a doctor who does not perform an un-necessary surgery is not a bad person to me. The mortgage broker is an incompetent dick — the BBB? Your “friend”? Gah. I grew up in a country with, I think, a lower tolerance for lying. It wasn’t normal and I doubt it still is, so my default mode is to assume, personally or professionally, that people are being truthful. But an unreliable friend — gone! A late payer? Lawyer’s letter!

  7. You know, Caitlin, I think these days the grain of salt is in my mouth for everything I read, including my much-loved New York Times. It’s the internets, trust no one 🙂

    1. Bummer. I’d (biasedly) suggest the Times is still worth a read; people who work there have little wish to be humiliated or fired, so there’s an obsession with accuracy, still, that I kind of like. Its own political biases, a different story…

  8. Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    Here is a thought provoking post on the subject of ethics. In my own career, I have come across several kinds of persons with different approaches to the issue of following ethics. There are the Pragmatic ones who would do whatever it takes to ride up in the company hierarchy. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the Idealists who would chuck a lucrative career at the first sign of deviant corporate behaviour. Midway, we run into the Negotiators who would not give up on the system but would try and attempt to make it more compliant from the inside. Yet another category is that of The Conformists, who would simply go along with the flow.

    Leadership plays a vital role in setting up the standards down the organization.
    This post is based on the media, but has lessons which are relevant for all sectors of the economy.

    1. I went after a friend I respect warned me she hated it…but it was right here in NY and I got a cheap ticket and thought I should at least check it out. I enjoyed hearing bloggers reading on-stage and I enjoyed hearing Martha Stewart and Katie Couric interviewed there. But as for networking, for me, useless.

      1. I agree. I attracted some (very clandestine) criticism (as in I’ve heard none of it first-hand yet) when I said just what you did. I’m trying a writer’s conference this year.

  9. Maybe it’s naive/optimistic, but on the whole I do still trust the newspapers I read. I know that for every Andy Coulson there are lots of trustworthy, hard working journalists out there who care about doing a good job.

    I was interested to learn about the New York Times rules on travel stories. I suppose I can see why they want to avoid conflicts of interest, but it must really limit their pool of journalists and viewpoints, since (as you said) not everyone can afford to travel to far-flung locations. I’ve been lucky enough to win two international trips through writing competitions in the last year, but no-one has offered me a free holiday yet!

    I’m shocked at the blogger who didn’t publish your guest post, especially as it was someone you had built up a connection with online! Something similar happened to me recently, but not on such a personal level. I was asked to write a guest post for the tourism website of a town I have a strong connection to; I don’t usually write without payment, but as I liked their idea (and love the town), I agreed to do it. I spent quite a bit of time writing the piece and editing the photos – but they never published it. I’ll be more wary now about accepting offers like that in the future.

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