Ag Journalists Paying More Attention to Ethics

By Jim Evans, Karen Simon and Owen Roberts

American Agricultural Editors’ Association (AAEA) members, their publications and advertisers are showing signs of strengthening the role of editorial independence in today’s commercial environment.

This became apparent in results of AAEA-funded research our team presented Aug. 2 at the Agricultural Media Summit in Fort Worth, Texas, in the session titled “Yesterday, today and tomorrow: journalism ethics among agricultural writers.” We noted trends described by three surveys – 1988, 1998 and 2008 – among members of the AAEA during the past 20 years.

In the 1988 and 1998 surveys, members said they had significant ethical concerns about their profession. The 2008 survey, conducted late last year with more than 100 AAEA members, showed concerns remain.

We found in 2008, 87 percent of respondents said they consider attempts by advertisers to influence what stories appear as “harming the profession” or as “a problem in some cases.” This level compared with 84 percent 10 years earlier and 87 percent 20 years earlier.

However, findings also revealed evidence that AAEA members and the publishers for which they write show increased regard for ethics and proactive response to advertising-related pressures on editorial content.

For example, in 2006, AAEA members adopted the American Business Media Code of Ethics, along with some additions that applied specifically to AAEA. In general, the new code provides more specific guidelines and provides a method of enforcement. AAEA also established an Ethics Committee, which has provided information and resources to members on a regular basis since 2006.

Progress seems apparent. In 2008, for example, 47 percent of the AAEA respondents said their publications have a policy with regard to free meals. This share is significantly higher than the 30 percent of 10 years earlier and only 9 percent 20 years earlier.

We consider this a positive move. In fact, for the 1998 and 2008 surveys, we have operated in terms of what’s called a “contractualist” model. It’s based on agreement among a triad of agricultural reporters/editors/publishers, advertisers and producers/readers.

This triad concept features “power relations” based on mutual consent, pursuit of mutual benefits, and mutual options for departure. It operates on the premise that any party to this triad can step out of the contract when power relationships become untenable to them.

In other words, we all need each other to succeed.

Agricultural advertisers, as well, seem to be taking steps to protect the editorial independence of these agricultural journalists and their publications. For example, in 2008, 31 percent of the responding agricultural journalists and editors said that during the past year they received threats to withdraw advertising from advertisers displeased by editorial copy. This level is reduced from 39 percent in 1998 and 62 percent in 1988.

As well, in 2008, 32 percent of these journalists reported having advertising withdrawn by advertisers displeased by editorial copy. This was significantly below the reported 42 percent in 1998 and 48 percent in 1988.

Also, 37 percent reported in 2008 having experienced direct demands for editorial copy as a trade-off for advertising purchased. This represented a drop from 42 percent in 1998, although not by an amount found statistically significant.

And finally, a larger share of the 2008 respondents reported not being offered free gifts that year by sources or business representatives – 19 percent, compared with 10 percent in 1998.

Research during the round that began in 1998 included three studies, each of which focused on a partner in the triad. This 2008 survey among AAEA members is the first in a follow-up effort that will also include research among producers/readers and advertisers.

At the same time, we conducted the first comparable survey among Canadian agricultural editors. Their responses will be reported separately at a later date.

This research was funded by the AAEA Professional Improvement Foundation.

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