Business journalism ethics question
A business journalist that I know contacted me this morning with the following scenario. He wanted to know if what happened was an ethical problem for his publication. I have deleted the names of the company and the publication involved.
Here is the journalist’s explanation:
“The handful of people working on the story were funneling information through the Web editor. (It usually goes through me first, but again, deadline pressure.) So the editor who had talked to this source atÂ [the company] passed along the information to the Web editor, who in turn put a story up without my seeing it.
“A few minutes later, I get a call from someone atÂ [the company]Â who’s quoted in the story. She says she never talked to anyone atÂ [my publication]Â and is a little confusedÂ about what happened. I went and talked to my boss, and it turns out that he talked to a different person at [the company]; both agreed, for reasons I don’t quite get, to purposely misattribute the quote to the other PR type who we wound up quoting. Apparently, this was something agreed upon by my editor and the person he actually did talk to.
“Neither found it a big deal. It’s certainly not plagiarism. But it’s also not the first ethically stretched thing we’ve done since I’ve been here. Others have noticed and shrugged and carried on with their business.”
Here was my response:
“I’d like to know more about the person to whom the editor talked to. Was it another PR person?
“PR people all the time feed business journalists quotes from people within their company that they have probably made up themselves. They’re putting words in people’s mouths for them. To me, that’s an ethical question for the company and its PR people, not for you. If you are getting a quote from a PR person or a company representative that
they say can be attributed to someone else at the company, then you use it. If the person to whom the quote is being attributed doesn’t know about it, then the company has a problem, not you or your publication.”
What do others think?