Content marketing’s code of ethics vs. journalism’s code of ethics

Is it right to go back in time and kill baby Adolf Hitler? Ethicists came down on the side of no while a New York Times poll showed that 42 percent of participants said yes. So which is right and which is wrong? Well, that’s what ethics is all about. If you remember your college class correctly, ethics refers to the branch of philosophy that governs the concepts of right and wrong conduct. In applied ethics, we’re forced to ask, “what actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances?”

Now you must be wondering why we’re thinking about ethics. The answer is simple: the baby Hitler question needs a definitive answer! Just kidding, but we are concerned with how ethics applies to content marketing. While it differs from journalism—which has its own code of ethics—it’s critical for every brand to know content marketing’s code of ethics to create compelling stories that readers will trust. Here’s what you need to know.

Journalism and content are not the same

People, the media, and your mom like to use content and journalism interchangeably these days. We can see why it’s tempting, but make no mistake: journalism and content are not the same. Why not? Because the fundamental purposes of journalism and content are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Think of it this way: journalism is a public good. If journalism is a public good, then you must consider content as a private good to be created, distributed, and shared with by brands on their own terms.

Why do brands turn to content marketing? To leverage their self-interest in the form of business goals and initiatives. Why do journalists report the news? Ideally, to objectively report on current world issues. According to The American Press Institute, journalism exists to “provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.” A content marketer or a citizen journalist—once compared to the likes of a citizen dentist by Tony Burman—cannot do this. They do not function the same way that journalism does as the Fourth Estate, the gatekeeper, the institution designed to keep institutions in checks. Very different mission statements.

Journalism’s code of ethics

Now, because journalism is a public good, it comes under greater public scrutiny than, say, editorial and/or branded content. As the old Spider-Man saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. With such great power, journalists need a code of ethics to guide them through what is right and what is wrong. Journalism’s code of ethics can be simplified into four main tenets by the Society of Professional Journalists:

  1. To seek the truth as fully as possible.
  2. To act independently.
  3. To seek to minimize harm and behave responsibly.
  4. To be accountable and transparent.

These principles guide journalists to disclose whether or not they hold stock in a company they’re reporting or whether or not their publisher is owned by a corporation of interest. It’s a good thing.

In addition to a code of ethics (and more detailed ethics codes than the ones listed above), journalists also have other rules they must adhere to. Think: plagiarism, accepting gifts, etc. The rules we’re most interested in talking about have to do with branded content. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a whole guide outlining the rules of disclosing branded content in journalism. It has also detailed their enforcement policy for any bad ads, though how much they’ve enforced this rule is questionable. According to Adweek, a MediaRadar report found that only one third of publishers currently label their native advertising properly to adhere to the FTC’s rules. Many publishers may be failing on this front, but the rules still stand.

Content marketing’s code of ethics

So if content marketing is not journalism, then content marketing needs its own code of ethics. And brands, just like publishers, need to have their own editorial mission statement and values.

Remarkably, these ethics look very similar to the ones journalists must uphold.

  1. Promote transparency by providing appropriate disclosures. Whether it’s within your editorial statement, or somewhere on your site, acknowledge who is sponsoring the publication or content. Transparency is important. Readers are now used to seeing content backed by brands and if the content is compelling, you won’t lose their trust. Transparency is always appreciated.
  2. Provide accurate information for consumers to make knowledgeable choices. It’s important to provide fact-checked information to your consumers to build and sustain trust. Acknowledge your sources, include proper citations—even if they are your own—and use actual quotes you can reference or that the person quoted will stand behind if asked.
  3. Always create original content. Never plagiarize or use content that you don’t have a licence or permission for. Seek permission, not forgiveness.

Content marketing’s code of ethics are important to understand because they guide content marketers into creating good content. What’s good content? Good content seeks to inform, educate, and entertain its audience. Good content needs to be honest and transparent; disclosures are necessary. Good content is not plagiarized. Good content does not try to mislead or be disingenuous (re: clickbait). Good content is strong editorial that backs the values in its editorial statement. And good content stems from following the code of ethics.

Image: Markus Spiske/Pexels

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