WSJ and Yahoo's peanut butter: Conspiracy? NO Ethical? NOT SO

Veteran journalist, and fellow ZDNet blogger, Larry Dignan, has taken to "right" what he perceives as wrongs done to the “old media” Wall Street Journal by “a few hundred” bloggers that were inspired perhaps by me!
Written by Donna Bogatin, Contributor

Veteran journalist, and fellow ZDNet blogger, Larry Dignan, has taken to "right" what he perceives as wrongs done to the “old media” Wall Street Journal by “a few hundred” bloggers that were inspired perhaps by me!

While Dignan’s bluster is impassioned, his “new media” rationale--“fair trade” involving press coverage of a public company and hopes of gaining “millions of in-bound links”—in support of what he deems to be the “business paper of record” actually underscores my clarion call for the need for editorial clarity. 

How about a very “old media” source to back me up? The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and its Code of Ethics.

Although Dignan brandishes that my questions about the ethical groundings of a non-bylined WSJ story are “irrelevant and naïve,” my questions, in fact, correspond to the principles put forth by the SPJ to promote the “highest professional standards” and I excerpt them below:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice. 


Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should:

--Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
— Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

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.


Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
Journalists should:

— Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
— Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
— Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
— Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
— Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

Dignan’s portrayal of how reporting at the WSJ “works” (copied below in italics) appears to differ from the standards of practice instilled within the SPJ’s Code of Ethics; The SPJ does note, however: "The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of writers, editors and other news professionals."

A) How did the Journal get the memo? The Journal got the memo because it's the business paper of record (and a damn good one at that). It's called reporting and brand credibility that has taken decades to build. If you're a CEO–or any exec–looking to float a memo you are going to the Journal. It's your first stop to reach the folks that control your market cap. Sorry new media, old media has clout.

B) Did Yahoo give the memo to the Journal? Of course it–or someone that knew the higher ups wouldn't mind–did. Journalists are used to float trial balloons all the time. Say you want to acquire an wacky startup like YouTube. What do you do? You go to the Journal with a story noting "talks are in the early stages and may unravel." Then you watch Wall Street's reaction. If the stock is flat to up a bit on the "news" you do the deal. If the stock falls 30 percent perhaps that acquisition isn't a good idea. This is standard practice. For instance, Microsoft internal memos don't get leaked. They get spoon-fed to key reporters with clout.

C) What were the motives? Every story you read has a motive. Yahoo's motive: Look like you are doing something–anything. Say you're Yahoo CEO Terry Semel and the peanut gallery is calling for your ouster. In Semel's position you can't look passive so maybe Yahoo determined it made sense to "leak" the memo to the Journal. Now before you run off yelling "Conspiracy!" this is called reporting. Yahoo wanted to see what would happen if it floated the idea of laying off a bunch of people. The Journal gets a good story and millions of in-bound links. That swap is a fair trade and standard operating procedure, but it sure isn't a conspiracy. 

Editorial standards