The “Affaire” of Unethical Conduct in our “Romantic Times”

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I’ve been engaged in a discussion on the Writer Beware blog about the egregious ethical lapses committed by Affaire de Coeur magazine in their editorial coverage (running cover stories and reviews about books published by their advertising director, requiring some publishers and authors to buy advertising in exchange for reviews, etc.). Rt_logoI thought it might be helpful to share the portion of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics that applies to the relationship between editorial and advertising content:

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. Journalists should:

— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity
or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced
by thousands of writers, editors and other news professionals. The present version of the code was adopted by the 1996 SPJ National Convention, after months of study and debate among the Society’s members.
Sigma Delta Chi’s first Code of Ethics was borrowed from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926. In 1973, Sigma Delta Chi wrote its own code, which was revised in 1984, 1987 and 1996.

Most newspapers and magazines have adopted similar guidelines. For example, here are the guidelines for publications produced by the Mystery Writers of America (I should disclose that I was on the committee that drafted these guidelines):

For Articles, columns, interviews and essays:

  •          
    The editor should maintain honesty, integrity,
    accuracy thoroughness and fairness in reporting and editing of articles,
    headlines and graphics.

  •          
    There should be a clear distinction between
    news/feature stories and opinion pieces. It 
    should be made clear that any opinions expressed are those of the author
    and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mystery Writers of America or the
    local chapter.

  •          
    The reporter or author of editorial content in
    the newsletter must avoid any conflicts of interest, real or perceived, with
    regard to the subject of his articles. All potential conflicts should be
    disclosed (eg: an author interviewing his own publisher or editor).

  •          
    The reporter or author of editorial content in
    the newsletter should  refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special
    treatment related to the articles they are writing (eg: free travel and
    registration at a conference in return for the article).

  •          
    Unless a piece is clearly identified as “opinion,”
    personal views such as religious beliefs or political ideology should be kept separate
    from the subjects being covered. Articles should not be approached with overt
    or hidden agendas (eg: someone who hates cozies shouldn’t be writing about the
    popularity of cozy mysteries).

  •          
    Competing points of view should be balanced and
    fairly characterized.

  •          
    Persons who are the subject of adverse news  stories or features should be allowed a
    reasonable opportunity to respond to the adverse information before the story
    is published.

  •          
    Fairness means that all important views on a
    subject are presented and treated even-handedly.

  •          
    Authors should always cite their sources and
    never plagiarize.

For Advertising:

  •          
    Editorial impartiality and integrity should
    never be compromised by the relationship and the chapter should retain
    editorial control of ALL content. Selection of editorial topics, treatment of
    issues, interpretation and other editorial decisions must NOT be determined by
    advertisers.

  •          
    Editors must never permit advertisers to review
    articles prior to publication.

  •          
    Advertisers and potential advertisers  must never receive favorable editorial
    treatment because of their economic value to the newsletter.

  •          
    Editors must have the right to review, prior to
    publication, all sponsored content and other advertiser supplied material.

  •          
    The choice of advertisers (conferences,
    self-publishers, editorial services, etc.) should not bring the MWA into
    disrepute or imply an endorsement by our
    organization of any of the goods or services being advertised. This is
    especially important when it comes to self-publishing firms, agency representation,
    editorial services, writing contests, and writers conferences.

  •          
    There should be a clear and unequivocal separation
    between the advertising and editorial content of the newsletter. Editors have
    an obligation to readers to make clear which content has been paid for, which
    is sponsored, and which is independent editorial material.

For “Non-Paid” Promotion

  •          
    Editors should carefully review all “non-paid”
    promotional content,  such as lists of
    upcoming events and contests, to assure the events and organizers are reputable
    and legitimate. The printing of these announcements in our newsletter can imply
    to some readers an endorsement by the MWA.

  •          
    Occasionally, some newsletters post news about
    publishers accepting submissions.  Editors
    should review the MWA’s List of Approved Publishers before printing material of
    this nature.

I find it disgraceful that Affaire de Coeur and the Romantic Times require some publishers and authors to buy advertisements in exchange for having their books reviewed. Not only is it unethical conduct, it’s also unfair to small presses & authors … and brings into serious doubt the editorial credibility of both magazines.

Affaire de Coeur doesn’t just sell their reviews to advertisers, they also sell other kinds of coverage. Here’s an excerpt from the Affaire De Coeur website page that explains their various advertising packages:

“To compliment your ad and review we also offer interviews or articles. If you would like an interview let us know 3 months in advance so it will go in the same issue as your review and ad. We accept articles at any time, we need articles 3 months in advance. All articles must receive approval on subject matter.”

“We will not accept submissions less than three months prior to the date of publication unless it is associated with an ad. We do not review books after publication unless it is done in association with an ad”

If you buy an advertisement with Affaire de Coeur, they will “compliment” it with articles and reviews. They will gladly review your book after publication, or if you submit it late, if you buy an ad. There’s clearly a connection between buying ads and getting coverage. They aren’t even subtle about it.

But do they inform their readers which reviews, articles and interviews were published because of their connection with advertising? Of course not.

Basic ethical conduct requires that any review or article that is printed in exchange for advertising should be labeled as such so the reader knows just how “objective” the coverage really is (just how “honest” can a review be if it’s paid for?)

And if a reporter or editor has a financial stake in the books or companies being written about or reviewed, that should also be clearly disclosed, because it’s a conflict-of-interest and has an obvious impact on the “objectivity” of the reporting and placement of the stories.

But those disclosures aren’t being made to the readers of Affaire de Coeur or Romantic Times. If I was a reader or writer of romance fiction, I would be outraged about the conduct of these two magazines. That is why I have refused to acknowledge Affaire de Coeur’s “five star review” of my book.

UPDATE: I just stumbled on a November 2007 blog post on EREC that shows just how much coverage in Affaire de Coeur that Light Sword received in one issue compared to other small press advertisers — which is no surprise, since Light Sword’s co-owner is the magazine’s advertising director:

Light Sword Publishing
* 3 pages of advertising
*
6.5 pages of content (3 being an article that is clearly
self-promotional, aimed at authors not readers and available for free on their website)
* 1.5 pages of book review space

Medallion Press
* 2.5 pages of advertising
* 2.5 pages of book review space

Parker
* 0.25 pages of advertising
* 0.75 pages of book review space

Dafina
* 0.25 pages of advertising
* 0.75 pages of book review space

Torquere Press
* 1 page of advertising.

My point? I’m not sure. Perhaps that advertisers should buy ad space.
Readers should ‘buy’ the other content by having it aimed squarely at
their interests. 26 pages of large press book reviews, fine. 10 pages
puffing the advertisers wares… not so fine. If you buy ads you can
apparently also write the magazine’s content
and get your small press books reviewed. So if you want only large
press book reviews at least half the magazine will be of interest to
you. The rest seems to be almost entirely at the pleasure of the
advertisers.

13 thoughts on “The “Affaire” of Unethical Conduct in our “Romantic Times””

  1. As a subscriber to AdC I worked out the problems pretty quick. The content is largely written by the advertisers and other involved parties. They also reprint parts of the Light Sword website like it is good advice. As they are never in store I made the mistake of getting a whole year subscription, sight unseen. I now don;t even bother reading it.

  2. It would be a problem with journalism ethics only IF it were journalism.
    But this kind of thing is common in specialised trade publications – however it accepted because everyone understand that it isn’t ‘journalism’.
    Some companies even specialise in these kind of ‘non-journalism’ magazines. For example Reed Business Information churns out magazines like ‘Pharmacy News’, ‘Mining Engineering’ and even the terribly exciting ‘Factory Maintenance Monthly’.
    These magazines aren’t journalism but provide a great communication medium for some pretty niche industries. I wouldn’t think that they are an ethical problem for the simple reason that nobody expects them to be ‘journalism’. Indeed, considering it is the same office that produces almost every magazine, they could hardly even be experts on the subjects. Despite this, they can be really, really useful – even if they are simply a collection of the more interesting press releases nicely formatted!
    The problem would be if one of those trade mags was being touted as ‘journalism’.
    I guess deep down I’m agreeing 100% with what you say, but trying to add that there is a place in the world for non-journalism trade magazines …. as long as everyone who receives them understand what they are.
    Mac

  3. I don’t agree. I would argue that trade publications not only follow the Code of EThics, but are even more vigilant about it than many mainstream publications. After I graduated from college,I worked as a reporter for a trade publication, ELECTRONIC MEDIA (now known as Television Week), which served TV station managers and programmers. It was published by Crain Communications, which also published ADVERTISING AGE, and trade publications for the medical insurance industry, the car-making industry, the business insurance industry, pension & investment industry, the rubber and plastic industry, the laundry industry, and dozens of other industry-specific magazines. We shared the same offices and I hung out with the reporters of those magazines (and read’em, too). They had a more rigorous Code of Ethics than most mainstream publications and prided themselves on their high journalistic standards. In many cases, their magazines were the “NY Times” of their particular industries, so credibility and respect was very very important to them.
    In fact, I found this statement on the Crain Site just now:
    “Where advertisers don’t affect editorial principles…
    Crain’s editorial tenet that published material must be of real importance to the reader and facts given accurately and fairly distinguishes the company from its competitors. All Crain publications and electronic news sites operate under the same ethos: it is the responsibility of our editors, reporters and correspondents to ensure that editorial independence is guaranteed in all circumstances. G. D. Crain Jr., the founder of Crain Communications, laid this guiding principle down over 90 years ago, and it continues to stand the test of time.
    Crain only publishes material if it passes these stringent tests establishing the company with an unrivaled reputation for information-rich reporting. This, in turn has attracted readers who want independent and insightful analysis of their respective industries. It has helped build a readership unmatched in the industry including the most senior executives and decision-makers. And it gives advertisers a preeminent opportunity to reach these key decision-makers in their expanding global businesses. The company’s guiding principles have proven to be both strong and influential.”
    Affaire de Coeur and Romantic Times should have the same standards. Unfortunately, they don’t. Apparently, they have no standards at all.
    Lee

  4. If a publication is going to present itself as a source of legitimate book reviews (to use the example from this instance), it’s imperative that the critical responsibilities of the publication be as unbiased as possible. The more that the commercial/marketing/advertising elements of the publication infringe on its critical sphere, the more compromised the reviews become — and the less valuable they are as a result. This is why paid-for book reviews (like the ones in Kirkus Discoveries, for example) are considered to be worthless.

  5. I agree whole-heartedly that these ethical tenets are GREAT, and that Craine is obviously reaching the highest degree of excellence for what it is doing. More power to them.
    On the other hand, there are a few issues that play out in Canada a bit differently.
    First, when reporters adopt such standards of ethics they tend to see themselves untouchables, that is, that they are subject to no other influence or power except for their ethical standards. In practice, this tends to turn reporters and journalists into “rogue elephants” who believe that they, themselves, are the judge of who and what is right or wrong. They tend to write articles exposing bad practices. They tend to believe their own innate bias are, in fact, “the truth.” They tend to resist all direction from editors and owners in the name of “independent reporting.” This is a problem because what if the editor sees the same set of facts differently? As a result, what happens in practice is that reporters are given some leeway, but they are required to follow the editorial slant of the paper. This is how, in Canada, editors wrested control of their publications back from “rogue elephant reporters.” If you like the slant of the publication, you buy it. If you don’t, you don’t. In Toronto, the “Globe and Mail” is right wing and upper class. The “Toronto Star” is centrist and middle-class. The tabloid “Toronto Sun” is left-wing and working class. Reporters have to accept it or go work someplace else. In Toronto, there is no feeling that this state of affairs is unethical.
    Secondly, there’s the issue of ownership of the publication. In Canada, media properties are controlled by a few families and a few companies. These owners make no apology for the politics and business issues they support. They believe they have the right to tell editors and journalists what stories to write and what slant to take. And this is what occurs. To regulate these media owners, there is the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, the CRTC, who reviews complaints. Basically, the country is run by a certain set of interests, and everybody accepts that this is for the best.
    Considering these three issues — “high journalistic ethics” and “rogue elephant reporters” and “owners with political and financial agendas” — the result is that there are certain benchmarks in society that must be reached before Canadians start getting restless for change. One of these is the national federal surpluss. For about eleven years now, the federal government has run a surplus and has been paying down the national debt. Furthermore, taxes are being cut, albeit slowly. As long as this continues, the country is unlikely to demand change within its media institutions. But should the national finances go south, the demand for “more objective reporting” would start to be heard.
    It’s a case, in Canada, of having the media we deserve rather than having the media we want.

  6. I doubt if RT cares. They operate the way they want to. This issue has been brought to their attention before.
    Authors and publishers still buy their ads. Business continues as usual. Until people stop buying their ads and reviews, I doubt much else will make an impact on them.

  7. As Carol Stacy is so kindly pointing out on another blog. RT doesn’t review every book that takes out an ad, nor do all the reviewed books have paid ads. Plus even though an review may have a paid ad, it doesn’t guarantee a good review. Double plus, the reviewers have no clue which are ad paid books and which are not.
    Last I knew, the only books that would never get reviews even with a paid ad were gay and lesbian books. RT may have changed that policy, but I can’t say if they have or not.
    There is failure to see any possibility of an unethical business practice, and all is right as rain to RT.
    As I said, business continues as usual, and without a real clue.
    I am so surprised by this, I can’t possibly articulate my pure, unadulterated shock. Really.

  8. (Mark, I enjoyed your article on the CUT cult. It could have been a hilarious send-up but you treated it with respect. At least these people are trying to ponder out the meaning of their religious and spiritual feelings even if some of their ideas, like reincarnation, are a bit of a stretch to believe. I also agree, Lee, that you’ve done some good scam-busting work.)

  9. Lee:
    You are indefatigable! This post would have taken me an hour or more to assemble. That you take the time to do this while maintaining your busy professional writing career is amazing and commendable.

  10. Ethics are great, until you need to eat.
    With publications folding left and right, and the periodical industry in big trouble, I can understand trading ads for reviews.
    I read a lot of women’s magazines, because I write for a female character, and because I’m still trying to figure out where the g-spot is.
    Often there are articles about health, or sex, or weight loss, that go on for a few pages, and seem like content. But then you look in the upper corner and it says something like “special advertising.” So these are ads, not articles.
    I’ve long believed that instead of a full page ad featuring a few blurbs and a big cover image, instead the ad should be an excerpt, interview, or review. And like the women’s mags, it should state that this is an ad.
    So maybe the ads-for-reviews problem, rather than go away, should have a disclaimer.
    Frankly, I don’t see how one person’s opinion, whether it was bought or not, is that important anyway. My opinion included.
    I love critics, because they’re one more way to get the word out about my books. And I’m grateful to those who have said nice things about me. I’m also grateful for those who say negative things, because any exposure is good.
    But a review, good or bad, paid for or not, isn’t what I would call objective journalism. It’s op-ed.
    Paying for opinion isn’t like paying for hard news. Hard news involves fact. Opinion is subjective.

  11. Book reviews are subjective, no question, as are an agent’s opinion on what should constitute a book they would like t represent, but paying for a positive review isn’t the same thing as earning one, from a reviewer intent on finding fault with it. I’d take a luke warm review from a tough critic over something that’s the realm of Midwest Book Review any day.

  12. If abstract ethics are not sufficient, I think the issue is that if content is there to please the advertiser, it is less likely to please and influence the readers (without whom the whole exercise is moot). Therefore the review becomes more ineffective the more you pay and a nasty spiral occurs as the publication becomes even more dependent on advertisers rather than sales and subscriptions.
    Not to say it doesn’t happen a lot. I stopped buying several magazines when the ad vs. content line blur and effectively vanished. I need a camera magazine to tell me about camera on the market in a timely and honest way, very few do. The same might be said, on the whole and in my opinion, of romance book review magazines.

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