Journalist ethics question

I know, I know… what ethics?

Here’s the situation. I interviewed a large company about a pricing issue. That company told me they would be changing their pricing very soon, and that I had the scoop on this news for our upcoming issue. I gave them my word that I would not break the news until the issue hit the stands. All of this was on the record.

Two days later, the company comes to me and says that they don’t want me to print the change info in the upcoming issue, that they want me to wait until after their shareholder meeting 1 week later.

My editor was pissed. Not at me, but at this company. He says we should run the story, and make the price change the lead item. I’ve got to do what my editor says, of course, but I have this slight twinge in my stomache. I won’t be breaking my word if we run the story, but I may seriously harm my credibility with this company.

What say ye?

Run it, no twinge. Holding back info from shareholders is super assy.

Call back the company, warn them what’s about to happen, and ask them if they’d like to clarify any comments before they go public?

They were okay being on the record as long as you held it until the issue hits the stands. Just because someone on their end screwed up doesn’t mean you need to coddle them.

Your creditbility shouldn’t take a hit because you did what you said, not what they cam eand begged you to do later when they realized they’d goofed.

I would probably not want to make the price change the lead item, simply because now you’re taking something that wasn’t a huge deal before they asked you to hold it and taking advantage of their change of plans. In the end, that’s your editor’s call and the credibility problem is on him, if there is one.

The price change was the lead when we first heard about it. It’s the only hook we have on a trend story.

As you’re the writer and you’re doing what your editor tells you, I wouldn’t feel too bad about it.

If you’re the editor, I’d be a little leery about it. No you don’t have to hold the company’s hand, but you don’t have to be an asshole about it either. If it’s your lead I guess I can understand the editor’s frustration, but if it’s not worth antagonizing the company you supposedly have good relations with, just to punish them for making a honest mistake, then your integrity is in question to begin with.

— Alan

So EA is gonna make the 60 thing perma isnt it?

Jesus. I can’t believe writing for PC Gamer is still called “journalism” with prevalent attitudes like this. This isn’t like keeping the date for D-Day under your hat so the US can stick it to Jerry or something. Being complicit in keeping information from shareholders is a hell of a lot less ethical than printing information a company changed their mind about and are going to release a week later anyway - a week after the point when you can be anything besides a late-comer to the story.

Honestly, either release it anyway, or just shrug and admit that you’re essentially fifth-wheel, voluntary PR flunkies.

I don’t write for PC Gamer, never have.

Maybe I just don’t understand the situation.

As for PR flunkies - give me a break. You have to maintain relationships in industries where communication and good relations is your bread. These are called - wait for it - sources. You know, the side of journalism where people tell you things. Sometimes to help themselves, other times to be informative.

If you wait to betray this relation, you:

  • Feel it must be important enough to never have this relationship on this level again

  • Don’t think it’ll influence any change in the relationship either way

  • Get to keep your job

  • Feel that you’re being totally used for alterior motives

If it’s stock/price manipulation ahead of stockholders then I don’t see why you shouldn’t run it. But the situation honestly isn’t clear here.

As for your critical in-depth analysis of games journalism, please get a clue. It isn’t as black and white as your sophisticated jaundiced viewpoint misleads you to believe.

— Alan

Its also called burning bridges. Which could happen if you run it.

All of the reasons you listed are why real journalists do not generally make paid representatives of companies speaking on the record their sole primary sources, to be relayed in a vacuum filled with uncritical light. If your only source is quoting the PR department - and alienating that source is going to mean you’ll never be able to report news from them ever again - that’s not journalism. At best, you’re just a telegraph operator who sent a faulty transmission.

Alex, didn’t you get fired not very long ago for discussing behind-the-scenes work stuff on Qt3? Regardless of this particular situation, don’t you want to be more discreet?

As an added point, when was the last time you saw a sentence like this in a piece of gaming journalism:

An EA representative, speaking off the record, confided that Sims 3 was having internal difficulties. “Features are going to be scrapped, and I doubt it’ll be released in Q3 2006.”

Almost never, right? Yet you see that sort of thing all the time in every other form of journalism - from political, business, tech, fashion, hell, even sports. That’s because other forms of journalism do not allow PR departments to stranglehold them for an exclusive look at the next Sims 3 alpha.

GameSpot as I recall tries to confirm stuff all the time and did so even before I wrote for them, which was a long time ago.

— Alan

Yes I was fired for talking about behind the scenes stuff, though in hindsight, I feel that my firing was inevitable anyway.

When you report on an industry as a whole, the members of said industry must be spoken to. If I am writing about Nabisco, and Nabisco has a new cookie that’s made with rat poison, you’d better believe I’m going to call their PR department and try to get a statement. I will ALSO talk to consultants, experts, professors, etc.

But if I’ve previously done something to make Nabisco unhappy, their PR department will likely not talk to me. Thus, the story would have the dreaded “Nabisco refused to comment.”

But if I expose actual news I can’t be a whore anymore!

Alex- So why not just keep the whole rat poison story under the radar then? After all, you never know when you’ll want to get chummy with Nabisco in the future!

Dr Crypt nails it. They gave you something on the record. They requested you keep it under wraps until press time, which is pretty par for the course. Nothing wrong with that. Then they come and tell you what they want you to write. And you feel like this is an ethical quandry?
If you’re going to do exactly what the PR department wants you should not have a job. Just give the PR rep your editor’s email address.

I agree (though not with the implications that you are selling out). You should run the story and not feel bad about it. That said, this suggestion bothers me:

As you’re the writer and you’re doing what your editor tells you, I wouldn’t feel too bad about it.

I know it wasn’t intentional, but that sounds like Nuremberg thinking. As a writer, you should fight your editor (to a point) to do what is right. But in this case, I think your editor IS right, except about making more of an issue out of it because they asked you to hold it. That’s just petty.

Is this a weekly publication? I could maybe see delaying for one week if that were the case. Otherwise, I’m leaning towards running the story, provided that you can back up your decision with the on-record agreement. I suppose you could notify the company as a courtesy, but you’re not here to cater to their business needs. It’s bad enough that the payola accusations resurface every three years or so, and there’s no reason to support the notion that publications are beholden to the publishers. Sure, the company may elect not to share their upcoming pricing numbers with you in the future, but that’s their timing problem, not yours.

That said, personal contacts are extremely important. Then again, as long as you conduct yourself in a professional manner, most individuals won’t take it personally even when you say something undesirable about their company. Just don’t make it a personal issue and you should be fine. Besides, anybody who does take it personally probably isn’t a very professional contact to begin with.

  • Alan

You know the facts, but your source is trying to vet your story.

Normal procedure is to begin investigating. Start calling employees, former employees, etc. Especially ones who were fired and still have friends in the firm. Find a confirming source and cite them anonymously. You don’t have to worry about them lying, because you know the facts from the original source.

One boilerplate ‘trick’ is to phone up and ask something like “so when did you guys decide to do n?”, not “Are you guys going to do n?”

If you work the phones, you’ll get results.

The problem is, and I understand it is presumptive and probably unfair of me to assume this, is that the idea of investigating doesn’t seem to have crossed your mind. It sounds as if you view the story as being about what a company is saying, not what a company is doing.

A lot of newspapers won’t publish single-source stories, except as two paragraph “in brief” filler crap. They’re a sure sign of laziness, of slapping a byline on a press release.

EDIT: It dawns on me that there is the “don’t burn bridges” element here. I though briefly about whether your original source would be upset about your getting a second source, etc., but then something struck me: in years of being a reporter and journalist, this quandary never once crossed my mind, and never once burned a bridge. PR people, and anyone who deals with the press, know what the press is up to. Worrying about burning bridges with a marketing person suggests that you are dependent on that marketing person for news, which means you haven’t really taken a journalistic approach to your journalism.