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Business journalists meed to cover morality and ethics on their beat

July 20, 2020

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Business journalists often address ethics issues in their coverage, but rarely in a philosophical setting. Doing so adds breadth and depth to reporting. (Credit: Pixabay user Enlightening_Images)

You don’t sustain a career in journalist without constantly learning. Even if you’re a business journalist who’s worked an industry beat for years, or decades, there’s always new technology, new ideas in marketing, new regulatory regimes.

However, business reporters and editors have a different challenge—one that, frankly, has been there forever but that was too easy to ignore. We all need to cover morality and ethics in business.

For example, after massive protests over police violence and racial inequality, businesses once again ran to embrace a social movement. Gestures designed to improve corporate public profiles may be far less full than executives would like the public to think.

In the wake of the protests, Starbucks said on Twitter that it would “stand in solidarity with our Black partners, customers and communities.” But then came the stories about how the company would not allow employees to wear anything promoting “black lives matter,” even though people could support other social movements like LGBTQ rights.

The decision lasted just long enough for Starbucks to be roasted more than its coffee beans. Then came the reversal and announcement the company would be “providing a Starbucks designed t-shirt that acknowledges this movement and demonstrates our support.”

Coverage focused on the controversy and potential marketing and PR fallout, as might be expected. But what of the moral and ethical questions of trying to gain public credit for “support” that was constrained? Or whether employees should be able to support something they felt was just? What would the implications be if someone sincerely wanted to support an idea that was less publicly palatable?

Many companies are “boycotting” Facebook over the way it handles hate speech. The reason for the quotation marks around boycotting is that the actions are at times in contrast to how the companies may otherwise behave. As journalist Josh Sternberg, with a heavy background in covering advertising and marketing, put it in his newsletter The Media Nut:

The point is this: if companies were really the values-based entities they say they are—their justification for boycotting Facebook—they’d work on themselves before announcing how evil they think Facebook is. They’d also deactivate their accounts; a boycott isn’t just for a month. If you want to live your values, live your values all the time, not just when it is expedient. But it’s challenging. Companies rely on Facebook for a variety of things—marketing, public relations, customer relations, etc. Pulling the plug isn’t an option, especially since, at this point, Facebook’s web architecture is embedded in almost every aspect of the digital ecosystem.

That set of conflicting realities—public relations versus internal practices, whether a person or company must be without fault before objecting to something, and if a company can walk away from realities of operation—can be wonderfully analyzed in the context of morality and ethics.

Business journalists often address such issues, but rarely in this philosophical setting. Doing so can add breadth and depth into coverage, open doors to new types of experts and insights, and help differentiate one’s work.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

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