Category Archives: ethics

Media Ethics and Steve Jobs

If you are interested at all in the subject of media ethics — from the standpoint of journalism and PR — here are two stories that are worth reading. Both involve Steve Jobs, privacy and financial disclosure and transparency.

Health Isn’t A Personal Issue When You’re A Legend” — Joe Nocera, NYT.

The Media’s Rotten Reporting on Apple” — Daniel Lyons,

Here’s from the article by Lyons:

The larger takeaway is what this episode says about how the media covers Apple. It’s one thing for PR flacks to tell lies. That is, after all, what they get paid to do. But it’s another thing for the media to join in on the action.


Steve Jobs and timely, honest disclosure

dscn0178I didn’t run during the week I was in Dublin. I planned to hit the pavement at least once, most likely New Year’s Day. I was staying at the Shelbourne directly across from St. Stephen’s Green. Once around equalled about 1.25 miles. So do that four or five times. Ah, nah. Maybe it was the Guinness. Or the double Jameson before bedtime. Or the fact that they drive on the wrong side of the road. Oh, well. I’m back. And I had a great run this morning.

And I was thinking about one of the themes that I’ve written about many times here: timely, honest disclosure. I’m convinced that this is a key to restoring confidence and trust in business and government. And I’m equally convinced that it will require a renewed ethic of responsibility on the part of leaders throughout the public and private sectors to make it happen.

So I was intrigued yesterday by the disclosure from Steve Jobs that his very noticeable weight loss was due to a “hormone imbalance.” This, of course, is not a new story. Jobs several years ago was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He now says he is cancer free. Still, the health concerns involving the CEO of Apple — and the probable link to the decline in Apple’s stock price and valuation — has been well reported and debated for months.

Joe Nocera blasted Jobs and Apple’s PR staff for not being forthcoming last July in his New York Times blog and column. I used that as an opportunity to opine as well.

So two questions. Did Jobs disclose enough? And what took him so long?

And exploring those questions could fill up a week’s worth of discussion in an ethics class. Here you clearly have what ethics guru Rushworth Kidder would define as a right versus right dilemma. On the one hand, Jobs’ right to privacy. On the other, his obligation to Apple and its shareholders.

And the law and corporate governance requirements relative to disclosure are murky. So in my mind at least it comes down to ethics — and responsibility. Here’s from a Business Week online article:

Securities laws require that publicly traded companies disclose facts that are “material,” but arguments rage over what constitutes material, Grundfest said. “Suppose Jobs were losing weight and it didn’t interfere with doing his job, but he didn’t know why he was losing weight,” he says. “What’s the board of directors to do? Say that the CEO is losing weight and it doesn’t know why?”

Strictly speaking, Jobs isn’t required to disclose much. The rules on disclosure of a key executive’s illness, while arguably material information as far as investors are concerned, are weighed against privacy laws and standards. Various CEOs have acted differently over the years. When then-Intel (INTC) CEO Andy Grove was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1995, the company didn’t immediately disclose the fact, but Grove did so the following year by writing an article for Fortune magazine about his experience combating the disease. When Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA), underwent surgery to remove benign polyps from his colon in 1997, he chose to disclose the circumstances to his investors and release details of his succession plan.

I know from experience that this is a tough call for Jobs and for his senior PR people — if they are in any way involved in the decision making. Still, I believe we have to keep prodding business and government leaders to disclosure more and more — and in a timely and honest manner. This ethic of responsibility falls to them.

By the way, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have a hormone imbalance. It involves my thyroid. Still not sure about Steve Jobs and his “hormone imbalance.” Oh well. It’s a start.

Whose Rules? — Kent State’s Media Ethics Workshop

Had an interesting day yesterday attending a media ethics workshop at Kent State that was hosted by my former employer — and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It was one of the better workshops that I’ve attended in years. And there is absolutely no question that Kent State’s journalism program — housed in the way-ahead-of-the-state-of-the-art Franklin Hall — is one of the best in the country.

OK. With that bit of honest promotion out of the way, here’s my take on the workshop. Journalists are finally starting to get it. The revolution involving the news media, to paraphrase Jay Rosen, is over. Freedom of the press now belongs equally to amateurs and professionals. And we are going to have to figure out a way to make this work in the best interests of our country — and our democracy.

The professionals for the most part missed that train when it left the station a few years ago. But now they appear to be jumping on-board. At least from what we heard during the various sessions yesterday.

But I think Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, overall had the most insightful and inspiring comments. Understandable perhaps since he was the luncheon keynote speaker. And he took the time to post his remarks on his blog, PressThink. It’s worth the time to read his post, “If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t. So Let’s Get a Clue.”

Rosen makes the point that we now have closed and open editorial systems — which are different. He writes:

They don’t work the same way, or produce the same goods. One does not replace the other. They are not enemies either. Ideas that work in one—and describe the world in that system—do not work in understanding the other: they misdescribe the world.

He said that in a closed system, the barrier for a writer is getting published. In an open system, the barrier for a writer is getting picked up. My problem exactly. I digress.

My view is that many professional journalists are still uncomfortable with this “open system” idea. But it’s reality.  As Rosen says, ” ‘Press tools’ once owned by media companies and operated by professional journalists are now firmly in the hands of anyone who wants them.”

Particularly important, at least it seems to me, are Rosen’s views about citizen journalism. From his blog post:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that “citizen journalism.”

Citizen journalism is most likely to thrive on an “open” platform.

That’s what “blogging” is: an early and awkward name for open platform publishing, in which anyone can participate.

Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, said A.J. Liebling. Well, blogging means anyone can own one. Therefore freedom of the press belongs equally to the amateur and the pro. So does journalism itself.

If anyone can that does not mean that everyone will. It means, “anyone who has time and reason can freely participate.”

Closed and open editorial systems, press and press sphere, are not separate things but richly interactive with one another in the news and information marketplace.

Some other of my observations:

  • Susan Goldberg, editor of The Plain Dealer, is impressive. This was the first time I had the opportunity to meet her or listen to her comments. She talked about the conflict between being first to disclose information — and the need to be right. “I don’t want us to be wrong,” she said. “Big mistakes hurt people and companies. It undercuts credibility.” The Plain Dealer prematurely disclosed the death of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones. “I regret going with the Representative Tubbs Jones story,” Goldberg said. Something tells me The Plain Dealer is in good hands these days.
  • I still get the sense that print journalists beleive they are working for two different businesses: one involving dead trees and one involving the blogosphere. Wouldn’t it make sense these days to view them as the same business — and allocate resources to produce the best product possible in print and online?
  • Lauren Rich Fine, former media analyst at Merrill-Lynch and now professional in residence at Kent State, asked why the mainstream media are afraid to make a mistake — given the self-correcting nature of the online media these days. Jon Talton, a journalist who writes the “On the Economy” column for the Seattle Times had a good answer: “We grew a generation of risk-adverse news managers.” He said this is one reason why the traditional media were late to go online.
  • The Poynter Institute, a “school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders,” partnered with Kent State to hold the ethics workshop as it has for the past several years. Kelly McBride, Poynter’s ethics group leader, moderated several of the sessions and added to the discussions. “Can’t tell any more who is a journalist,” she said. “But we can tell what is journalism.” Not sure about that, personally. But Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada and former Knight Ridder executive, said that the role of journalists is to verify, to authenticate. “Ain’t news if it isn’t verified,” he said.
  • And then there is Bob Steele, who loomed over the workshop — literally — with his image from his office at DePauw University prominently displayed on the room’s big screen. Steele led The Poynter Institute’s ethics program for 13 years — and he has this pretty much down by now. At the end of each of the morning sessions he hurled some digital thunderbolts from the mountain top. Here’s one. “We’re fighting for the credibility of journalism,” he said.

Lots more I could add here. But overall, an exceptional workshop on an extremely important and timely topic.

And kudos to Jan Leach, my friend and former faculty colleague, who pulls this workshop together every year. She’s the former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal — and the students are fortunate at Kent State to have her as part of the faculty.

Ethics, pregnancy and working moms

There’s something that just doesn’t sit right with me about the coverage of the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s teenage daughter. Clearly we are moving quickly toward a more personal — call it tabloid — form of journalism in this country. And I don’t see anything wrong with that. The “he said/she said” form of objective reporting is broken and represents a losing business model. But I hope we are not also losing the standards of good taste and ethical conduct.

Plenty has been written and broadcast about this story. I won’t rehash the details. Palin and the McCain campaign disclosed yesterday that the governor’s teenage daughter is pregnant and plans to marry the father and have the baby. Oh, boy. That hit the airwaves with about the same force as Gustav moving through the Gulf Coast — and the story got legs after posts on the Daily Kos, a liberal blog.

Howard Kurtz has an excellent story about this in The Washington Post today, “A Blogger, a Baby, a Cry of Concern.” Here’s from the story:

It is hardly unusual for a teenage girl to become pregnant, and unless she is Jamie Lynn Spears, who sold her baby pictures to OK! magazine, the news value is minimal. But some media commentators say Palin is fair game, not just because she is running for national office but because she is a self-described “hockey mom” who told the nation that her eldest son is headed to Iraq.

“Once she’s brought her children in as selling points, unfortunately the bad comes in with the good,” says Lisa Bloom, a Court TV anchor. “She’s integrating her mom quality as a key part of her résumé. We didn’t do that in the press; she did that.”

Give me a break. I believe the story about Palin and her daughter is news. But it doesn’t warrant the firestorm it created — especially with the talking-head pundits on TV. Slice and dice Sarah Palin’s record and views on abortion, family values, whatever, all you want. But this is essentially a family matter involving a teenage girl (and boy) who is not a public figure. If we start holding candidates responsible for the actions of their children, we won’t elect anyone in this country.

Barack Obama had it right when he said during a news conference yesterday that families are off limits. Period.

And yet CNN went right from that report to a reporter in Alaska who talked for several minutes about — well, you know. Sarah Palin’s daughter. Good grief.

Then this morning I catch up on the musings highlighted on The Huffington Post. Yep. Sarah Palin’s daughter front and center. And get this. The Huffington pundits have a photo and story about the teenage boy, soon to be married and a father, apparently. And Huffington took the info from his MySpace page.

Objectivity — no, not really.

Good taste — no.

Ethical conduct — no.

And journalists used to look down on public relations people. Hehehe.

Tim Russert and journalism ethics

Not much I can add about the death of Tim Russert yesterday. Except that he represented the best of what we describe now as traditional journalism: honest, truthful, tough but fair. Those comments about Russert came from those who knew him, ranging from elected officials to fellow journalists.

I learned about his death on Twitter. And then headed to the TV and MSNBC.  So in less than a minute or so I made the journey from new media to old. Yet it struck me listening to the comments about Russert that there is still a deep regard and appreciation for journalism ethics. Maybe part of his legacy is to remind all of us about just how important the principles of honesty and truthful, fair reporting really all. Hope we don’t lose sight of that as journalism — and public relations/communications in general — continue to evolve.

And the portrait of Russert that emerges is of a man with integrity and character — who loved his job but put his family first. Can’t beat that.

Lots of stories and commentaries about Russert on the Web and elsewhere today. Here’s one on that shows some highlights from Russert’s interviews over the years.

Scott McClellan and public relations ethics

There are days when I just can’t wait to get out on the road at 5 a.m. for my five-mile run. Today was one of them. Perfect weather. And the prospect of having something interesting to think about: PRSA’s defense of professionalism in public relations.

I first noticed this when I checked my e-mail: “Urgent News From PRSA…” Sent at 10:05 Sunday night. (For my running friends, poets and most everyone else who could care less about this, PRSA stands for Public Relations Society of America.) Here’s the message: “PRSA today submitted a letter in response to a commentary on CBS Sunday Morning by legal analyst Andrew Cohen in which he challenged the integrity of the public relations profession.”

OMG. Have we really reached the point in this country where someone with a law degree is smug enough to question the integrity of anyone else? I digress. (But Cohen also has a degree in journalism; that moves him up a notch. I guess.)

Actually, this is an important issue — one that should be taken seriously. I’ve argued on this blog many times that ethics and professionalism form the foundation for public relations. And absent ethics and professionalism, public relations people end up like, well, Scott McClellan.

Here’s from Cohen’s commentary:

But in every tragic drama comes a moment of comedic Zen. And in L’Affair McClellan, that has come from the public relations community, where some now wonder whether the former flack violated the “ethics” of his craft.

Apparently, an industry the very essence of which is to try to convince people that a turkey is really an eagle has a rule that condemns lying.

The Public Relations Society of America states: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent…” This clause strikes me as if the Burglars Association of America had as its creed “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”

Show me a PR person who is “accurate” and “truthful,” and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed.

Ouch. I wonder if Cohen believes that all journalists are liars and plagarists in the mold of Jayson Blair? I digress again.

So I give PRSA credit for responding — although I believe that the organization should have denounced McClellan and taken a public stand on this issue — ethics and professionalism — when it first surfaced last week. Here’s from the PRSA statement by Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Julin:

Regarding your commentary on today’s CBS Sunday Morning, the Board of Directors of the Public Relations Society finds it imperative to affirm the professionalism of public relations practitioners and to take exception with what we regard as a misguided opinion. The PRSA Code of Ethics, to which all members pledge, embodies a strict set of guidelines defining ethical and professional practice in public relations. Professionals who meet the Code’s standards stand in stark contrast to the simplistic, erroneous characterization of the profession you presented.
Contrary to baseless assertions, truth and accuracy are the bread and butter of the public relations profession. In a business where success hinges on critical relationships built over many years with clients, journalists and a Web 2.0-empowered public, one’s credibility is the singular badge of viability. All professionals, including attorneys, accountants and physicians, aspire to ethical standards, and public relations professionals are no different, always striving for the ideal.
Absolutely correct. Unfortunately, though, it’s a very general statement — and like the PRSA Code of Ethics in total, really has no teeth. Instead, PRSA should have blasted away at McClellan — for being dishonest and for representing every negative stereotype of public relations professionals. I recognize that professional organizations don’t like to take positions that offend any of its members. And I’m sure that among the ranks of PRSA members there are some who still support the Bush administration. Still, when it comes to our bedrock principles — truth, honesty and acting in the public interest — couldn’t we have come up with something with a little more bite?
And consider this — because it is the issue raised last week by Gary Weiss and still being discussed in detail by Roy Peter Clark and others on If McClellan were a member of PRSA, would Jeffrey Julin and others now seek sanctions against him for violating the organizaton’s Code of Ethics? Or toss him out of the organization?
Those really are the questions that PRSA should have answered. And the response would say volumes about how public relations professionals really feel about ethics and professionalism.

Rachael Ray: Terrorist?

This is a great country. In the span of about 24 hours I’ve had the opportunity to write about the nadir of ethics (Scott McClellan) and the pinnacle of political correctness (Dunkin’ Donuts). And I don’t believe Rachael Ray is a terrorist. There. I’ve said it. Scott McClellan: If you know something I don’t about this Rachael Ray debacle — speak up now.

Anyway, here’s the story. Rachael Ray has been doing a series of ads for Dunkin’ Donuts. In the latest one, she was wearing a black-and-white scarf. The problem? Conservative Fox News talking head Michelle Malkin, and others, opined that the scarf looked like a keffiyeh, described in a article, “Dunkin’ Donuts yanks Rachael Ray ad,” as a traditional headdress worn by Arab men.

Here’s from the article:

Some observers, including ultra-conservative Fox News commentator Michelle Malkin, were so incensed by the ad that there was even talk of a Dunkin’ Donuts boycott.

‘‘The keffiyeh, for the clueless, is the traditional scarf of Arab men that has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad,’’ Malkin yowls in her syndicated column.

‘‘Popularized by Yasser Arafat and a regular adornment of Muslim terrorists appearing in beheading and hostage-taking videos, the apparel has been mainstreamed by both ignorant and not-so-ignorant fashion designers, celebrities, and left-wing icons.’’

The company at first pooh-poohed the complaints, claiming the black-and-white wrap was not a keffiyeh. But the right-wing drumbeat on the blogosphere continued and by yesterday, Dunkin’ Donuts decided it’d be easier just to yank the ad.

Oh, mama. I wonder what Starbucks would have done?

Adrants puts this fiasco into historical context. Yet it troubles me that Dunkin’ Donuts would cave on this — especially at a time when it appears that we can’t get any honest answers from our own government about the “war on terrorism.” And when companies are lined up to sponsor the Summer Olympics in a country that should raise some concerns beyond who is wearing a black-and-white scarf.

Well, I guess what I am saying is that I would stand next to Rachael Ray on this one even if she were wearing nothing. Ah, that didn’t come out exactly right. But you get the point.

And then there is Scott McClellan. Plenty of articles to read today if you are interested in him and his book. But here’s the lead from a story that was on the front page of the Akron Beacon Journal this morning:

From Beacon Journal wire services
WASHINGTON: In a White House full of Bush loyalists, none was more loyal than Scott McClellan, the bland press secretary who spread the company line for all the government to follow each day. His word, it turns out, was worthless, his confessional memoir a glimpse into Washington’s world of spin and even outright deception.

Gee, wonder what Michele Malkin and her counterparts believe is the bigger threat to our country and democracy. A White House press secretary who can’t tell the truth — or a celebrity who is wearing a scarf in a Dunkin’ Donuts ad?