Maintaining High Ethical Standards in the Media

5 Ethical Oversights That Can Hurt Your Career

A photo of three men displaying mass media ethics by hearing, seeing, and speaking no evil
••• Photo © Zigy Kaluzny / Getty Images

Far away from the computer, microphone, or camera, even the most experienced media professionals face situations that test their media ethics. While some questions will be answered by your company's policy manual, others will require you to make a choice that could impact your career. Decide how to handle ethical dilemmas before they confront you. Know the media ethics rules that apply to today's media professionals.

Avoid Accepting Payola

Payola is usually associated with the radio industry—record companies that pay disc jockeys to play their songs. However, many media companies, including those outside radio, require employees to sign ethics disclosure forms. If you're offered money or gifts, ask yourself what the giver wants in exchange so that you avoid accepting payola.

Some gifts are harmless. You cover a charity walk and the charity gives you a free T-shirt or lunch that's provided to everyone there. Other gifts may have strings attached, and not in obvious ways. You may be offered an expensive meal, a weekend getaway, or electronic gear. Weeks or months later, the giver asks for a favor, such as news coverage or other exposure. Because you've accepted the gift, the giver hopes you'll feel obligated to provide what they want.

Before that happens, check your company's policy on accepting gifts. Some only allow you to accept trivial items—T-shirts, coffee mugs, pens, etc. Others set a dollar amount, typically $100 or less. Or you may find that you can accept a thank-you gift that is offered to other people, such as a gift certificate that was given to every judge in a chili cookoff.

Let your gut be your guide. If the giver is trying to act secretly, chances are their intentions are not good. Alert your supervisor, because others in your company may also be offered the same thing.

Beware the Pitfalls of Political Connections

Just because you work in media doesn't mean you don't have political opinions. Some people are paid to give theirs publicly, but most in the media are expected to set their own views aside. If you want to appear unbiased, be wary of all the ways that your political leanings may be exposed, because critics are sometimes eager to make accusations of political bias. That's especially true for those who are always on the lookout for alleged liberal media leanings.

Going out to dinner with a political candidate isn't a good idea if you are well known, even if you just want to conduct an informal interview. People in the restaurant who see you will draw conclusions that you are chummy with the politician, maybe even a clandestine campaign worker. Remember that some politicians are highly skilled at manipulating the media to their benefit. They may not be at all concerned about your reputation.

You can be exposed in other ways. If you attend a candidate's fundraiser on your own time, photographs from the event might end up on a campaign website. Even if you simply send a candidate a check, your name could be revealed in the campaign's financial disclosure forms. Your best bet is to avoid any contact with politicians or their campaigns that happens outside an official setting.

Stay Away from Business Conflicts of Interest

Business owners can cause you the most grief. That's because many operate on a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" principle that's at odds with a high standard of media ethics.

Say, for example, you work in a TV newsroom and call up a nearby grocery store that advertises on your station to do a story on whether shoppers use more coupons when the economy is bad. You get a good story out of it, so the next time you need a grocery store, you head to the same spot. In time, that becomes the only grocery store your station uses.

One day, the grocery store owner calls you to ask you to do a story on the store's newly refurbished produce department. You politely turn him down because it's not big enough news for your station to cover. The owner gets mad and threatens to cancel his advertising contract. That gets the sales department and possibly your general manager involved.

Next, you may be told to do the story because your managers don't want to lose a client. While you will be forced to obey, you could have avoided the whole confrontation by going to a variety of grocery stores — including those that aren't clients — so the one store owner doesn't think that you owe him.

You should also prepare yourself on what to do when there's bad news involving a client of your sales department. You must resist any pressure to get you to drop the story assignment.

Set a Personal Code of Conduct

When you work in media, especially if you are well known, you give up some of your personal privacy. You may think it's great when someone recognizes your face at the post office. But those same people will recognize you stumbling out of a bar after one too many. They will talk, and what is said will affect your professional reputation.

Think you have to be convicted of a drinking and driving charge before you can lose your job? That's not necessarily true if you work in media. Many professionals sign contracts with personal conduct clauses, which means that if their conduct could cause harm to their company, they can be fired long before going to trial.

Remember that you represent your company every time you step outside your front door. Media pros who are used to getting special treatment because of the job sometimes expect it everywhere they go. Stop yourself from demanding a better table at a restaurant. The most respected people who work in media are the ones who want to be treated like everyone else and not as though they are entitled to freebies or special treatment just because of where they work.

Don't Let Social Networking Cause Problems

You would think that people who work in the media would know how to handle social networking because it's a form of new media. The problem, though, is that guidelines aren't set by many media companies until after an employee has gotten into trouble.

Your online conduct, whether in the form of tweets, Facebook photos or message board comments, can be as public as what you say to your audience while on the job. Supervisors are Googling job candidates' names more often than ever as a way to check them out for any ethical or reputation concerns.

That's more of an issue for younger job candidates, who may have posted wild party pictures from their days in college. Still, it's worth examining your online profiles to see what's out there. Google your own name to see if there are potentially embarrassing parts of your past that appear in the search results. Eliminate content that could reflect poorly on who you want to be today and that may cost you a job opportunity in the future.

It's hard to stay anonymous when you work in the media. If you judge every aspect of your personal and professional conduct through the eyes of your audience, you will go a long way toward making the right ethical choices and keeping your media career on track.