ASBPE has not yet issued an official ruling on the controversy that began two days ago when I wrote about my concerns over CIO magazine’s use of in-text links. That’s understandable. Unlike the
ad-in-links controversy that I’ve written about repeatedly, the CIO issue is more complex.
If you’re not familiar with the issue, please take a look at the earlier post (and make sure you read the comments, which contain a number of interesting insights.)
But ASBPE has done the next best thing.
Steve Roll, president of the organization, has written a thoughtful piece in which he sums up the problem for journalism ethicists quite nicely, saying that "publishing on Internet—with all of its emerging functionalities—is likely to keep providing us with a steady supply of ethical conundrums. Failing to condemn unethical practices would destroy our profession. Being too quick to condemn new practices would likely have a chilling effect on innovation."
Meanwhile, Martha Spizziri, vice president of ASBPE, has weighed in as well.
Stuff To Think About
While ASBPE crafts its official response, I’d urge everyone in b-to-b journalism to think long and hard about the issues raised by the CIO links.
To aid in that process, here’s what I see as the two crucial questions, based on my understanding of ASBPE’s ethics guidelines, my conversations with CIO staffers, the comments posted to this blog, and the emails I’ve received.
1. What constitutes editorial approval?
I first heard about the CIO links when I was contacted by CIO editors who were upset that they had not been consulted. They didn’t approve of the links. They didn’t insert them. And they didn’t know they would be there. What the editors told me was that the links simply appeared in their stories.
ASBPE’s guidelines say that "Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors." To me, the use of the plural is crucial. It seems to me that links—whether they are an ad or something else—should only be inserted by the individuals responsible for each story. In other words, each editor at a publication must decide when, and when not, to add a link.
However, there is another school of thought. Abbie Lundberg, who runs the editorial department at CIO, posted a comment to my earlier post saying "As Editor in Chief at CIO, I approve the use of these links. " Abbie also notes that another senior staffer who has since left the company also approved of the links.
In other words, Abbie is saying that because the senior editorial staff approved the deal to place the links on the site, then discretion has been exercised and the links have received the "approval of editors."
Certainly many people would agree with Abbie on this. The senior editorial staff is ultimately responsible for editorial decisions.
I, however, disagree.
I think the ASBPE guidelines do and should require that individual editors be able to exercise choice in inserting a link into a story. If an editor thinks the link has value, the link goes in. If he doesn’t think so, the link stays out. Or, to put the question another way—would ASBPE say that the ads-in-text used by Vibrant Media don’t violate the ethics guidelines as long as the senior editorial staffer signs off on the deal? Of course not.
2. Must a link have a commercial/advertising component for it to violate ethics guidelines?
This is perhaps the most complex part of the equation.
In a comment to my earlier post, Rex Hammock notes that "nearly every financial news site on the web has such automatic links to information about publicly traded companies. Those are in-line links that an editor does not explicitly approve every instance of their inclusion—they are baked into the CMS."
To see an example of what Rex is talking about, take a look at this story on the CNNMoney site and scroll down to the third paragraph. What you’ll find is that inserted after the word "IBM" are links to IBM’s stock price (and other material) and a Fortune magazine profile of the company.
It’s unlikely that anyone would argue that these links do not have value to the reader. It’s equally unlikely that anyone would argue that the links are any more or less commercial than anything else on the CNNMoney site.
In other words, such links are, by any reasonable measure, editorial links and not advertising links. And Rex is saying, correctly, that such links are widely accepted among professional journalists.
Furthermore, as a general rule in 2008, such links are "baked into" the content-management systems of many of the financial-news giants. The journalists who produce stories at most of those sites don’t insert the links. The links simply appear.
However, back when I worked at CNNfn, the predecessor of CNNMoney, editors did have to "explicitly approve every instance" of such links. If I remember correctly, all that was required was that you highlight the company name and click a button in the CMS. But if we didn’t do that, the links didn’t appear.
Now in truth, that requirement for approval was a function of the CMS. None of us thought to insert editorial choice into the process. It just sort of happened that way. I have no idea if such "approval" is still part of the CMS at CNN. But I believe that it should be part of the process for B2B publishers. Because, as the ASBPE guidelines say, "Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors."
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps I’m being too rigid. But I believe with all my heart that b-to-b journalism functions best when it allows individual editors to determine what does and does not go into a story.
I hope that ASBPE agrees with me.