Full Disclosure: Ethics and The Web

Last year, I got into a squabble with our National Public Radio affiliate about the airing of a high-technology news radio program whose content was provided by a local advertising agency. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I used to be an employee of the agency, so I had unique insight into the stated and unstated purposes of the program.)

My issue was one of journalistic integrity, although my former employer tried to portray the whole thing as an ex-employee’s vendetta. The show purported to be a quick morning update about local and national technology news. Oddly enough, some of the agency’s clients kept being featured in the program’s content. Even more baffling, there were no disclosures of these obvious conflicts of interest.

I felt it was inappropriate for NPR to even tacitly support such a program. To this day, I find it curious that anyone would disagree with the concept that reporters should refrain from covering subjects in which they have a financial stake. But several well-meaning people did.

Throughout my little campaign — which consisted of six emails, eight phone calls, and two interviews with the local press — I was reminded by folks that I was the only person raising this issue, while tens or hundreds or thousands (depending upon who was talking) were not at all troubled. “Many listeners love the show,” I was told. (For that matter, even I liked the show.)

Which brings me to the web.

I am happy to say that I am far from alone in wondering about the relationship between online editorial content and advertising dollars. As content providers struggle for viability — juggling business models over caf mochas — I can hardly blame them for wanting to cut as many deals as possible with alliance partners, affiliate programs, content sponsors, banner advertisers, and so on. I completely sympathize with the scramble for dollars because I am in the midst of it myself.

But I do wonder. I wonder when the online component of a respected high-technology magazine has a content sponsorship deal with a huge advertiser. Does this mean that certain articles unfavorable to the advertiser won’t appear?

And I wonder about affiliate programs. Is it possible that a certain innocent text link that looks like “pure” content begins a carefully tracked process that could eventuate in some revenue-sharing or a bounty for my business?

And I wonder about something called “transactive content,” although I’m not entirely certain what it is exactly. It just sounds a little fishy.

All of this to you, wizened web-izen, may appear like so much 1950s-style root beer foam from Pleasantville or the brain candy of some Pollyanna wannabe. But, hey, I’m as much for turning a quick buck as the next guy.

In the sprawling, brawling frontier town that is the web, there is no profit for me in preaching rules that nobody wants to buy. Further, if the rules don’t apply, then maybe I should be making this rule-lessness work in the best interests of my clients.

Still, what would be so horribly anti-business about a full disclosure policy? That way, instead of finding out from the name on a “cookie” who the real sponsor of a particular site is, I could read it in black and white. It would allow me to assess the content with just a little bit more information. Knowing me, if the pitch is compelling enough, and my need is real, I’ll still do the deal.

In my opinion, all this sneakiness — and there is a lot of it on the web — is, in fact, anti-business. As (I think) Freud once said, “secrets secrete.” The truth leaks out. Then, feeling betrayed, folks turn away in droves.

In case you’re wondering, the local high-tech radio news show is still on the air here in Austin. On commercial air, that is, not on the NPR affiliate. Exactly where it always belonged.

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