Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Parent Companies and Ethical Decisions

Gentry Bennett

It can be hard to distinguish whether or not to publish something when you are owned by a company with a stake in the story. When such situations occur, often times disclaimers are attached to the story stating that a subject in the story is tied to the organization that is publishing.

The most recent editorial scandal that erupted was that of the Gawker editors. Over this summer in July, Gawker published a piece that outed a top Conde Nast executive. This in itself caused issues with the editorial staff, who later took a vote and removed the story from the website.

Gawker decided to release a statement on removing the story, which you can read here.

A selection of the statement reveals the conflicts of interest and ethical decisions that journalists so often face:

"We are proud of running stories that others shy away from, often to preserve relationships or access. But the line has moved. And Gawker has an influence and audience that demands greater editorial restraint."

This shows that the editorial world is shifting as we speak, and ethics change as technology develops. 

When Wired decided to report on the issue, they needed the disclaimer (below) that Conde Nast is the parent company of Wired. Still, they ran the story and at least attempted to run an unbiased story.

"Condé Nast is WIRED’s parent company."

In the case of CNET and CBS, however, CNET was not to report or review the Aereo services with CBS was in litigation with them. Their disclaimer was as follows:

"Disclosure: CBS, the parent corporation of CNET, is currently in active litigation with Aereo as to the legality of its service. As a result of that conflict of interest, CNET cannot review that service going forward."

Why was Wired afforded the independence to publish their article on Gawker, yet CNET cannot review Aereo? Wired continued on with their work while CNET was stopped short of their duties to review and report.

I would like to see the agreements that both CNET and Wired have with their parent companies. Does Wired and Conde Nast's state that Wired should always report on news?

On the other side, does CNET's state that CBS has the right to pull any content and reporting capability from their site?

Is there an ethical decision to making these contracts with parent companies?

Photo via TIME.com
TIME, Inc. is one such organization that succeeded in evenly reporting the happenings of their former parent company, Time Warner, Inc. This article from 2000 that was also featured on the cover of TIME that year shows that TIME was not afraid to report on the merger of AOL and Time Warner. In fact, it seems quite the opposite. These articles were in depth and featured prominently, instead of being thrown in the depths with an odd disclaimer like previous examples.

How can communicators and especially lawyers representing communicators avoid these conflicts of interest and legally binding contracts that decrease independence? Increase their stake in the value of independence, and they will fight for more right for their writing.

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