So Sue Me
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This past month has been interesting for those of us involved in news publishing. First came the worldwide uproar over Danish editorial cartoons that pictured offensive images of Islam's prophet Muhammad. Then we had the hunting accident involving Vice President Dick Cheney and Texas attorney Harry Whittington. The first raises the issue of press freedoms vs. press responsibility, while the second simply begs the question, "Just what is news?"
All news organizations, including those that cover trade news (Quality Digest among them) make decisions every day regarding their ethical responsibilities, their responsibility to readers and, especially for trade magazines, their responsibility toward advertisers. That's the order--ethics, readers, advertisers.
Sometimes the line on what to print is very clear, sometimes not. Is an editorial cartoon hate speech or social commentary? Make the wrong choice and you get fired… or torched. If you're lucky, it's just your embassy. When news organizations get bored (ISO 9001 again?) we look for more interesting news. Trust me, if there was some quality angle to vice presidents accidentally shooting their hunting partners, I would be all over it: "Statistical Analysis of Bird Shot Distribution," anyone? Even mundane stories--and that one was pretty mundane (except to Whittington, of course)--are interesting if they have the right name attached. Again, make the wrong choice and you're accused of news selection bias or, worse, your competitors cover the story.
So I'm very familiar with the lure of the sensational, which is why I've had to weigh a recent complaint (well… to be more precise… threatened legal action) against Quality Digest from a disgruntled news subject.
About a decade ago one of our columnists mentioned a company that lost a lawsuit stemming from an unethical business practice. The story was factual and pertinent to a large segment of our readership. At issue for the company today is the story's appearance in search engines whenever you look up the company name. The story appears in scores of other Web sites as well. The company doesn't like that, so it's demanding that we remove the story from our archives.
So I run through my responsibilities. Is there anything unethical about the story itself, any stereotyping, name-calling or so forth? No. Is the story accurate? Yes. Is the issue it brings to the table pertinent to our readership? It was and still is. Does the story inconvenience the company? It says it does. I say, if it hadn't done the deed, it wouldn't be there to read. That doesn't mean we don't sympathize. In fact, we're working with the company's attorney to come up with a solution other than it trying to sue us.
But suppose the company still insists that we take the story down. That smell is the smoking rubber soles of my Keds as they drag me kicking and screaming down that road. Our responsibility is to factually report what is happening or has happened within our industry so that our readers can make informed decisions. If an advertiser or potential advertiser or some company unfortunate enough to get nailed for wrongdoing doesn't like what we print, too bad. Can you imagine the uproar if the White House tried to sic its attorneys on Time, U.S. News & World Report or Newsweek to remove all stories regarding Cheney's errant blast or Monica Lewinsky's blue dress from their Web sites? Regardless of whether you like these stories and regardless if they inconvenience the people involved, if the stories are fair and factual, it's the publisher's right--our right--to run them.