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Media Ethics for Today's Media Professionals

5 Areas That Can Hurt Your Career

By

Far away from the computer, microphone or camera, even the most experienced media professionals face situations that test their media ethics. While some questions will be answered by your company's policy manual, others will require you to make a choice that could impact your career. Decide how to handle ethical dilemmas before they confront you.

1. Avoid Accepting Payola

Payola is usually associated with the radio industry -- record companies that pay disk jockeys to play their songs. Many media companies, including those outside radio, require employees to sign ethics disclosure forms. If you're offered money or gifts, ask yourself what the giver wants in exchange so that you avoid accepting payola.

Some gifts are harmless. You cover a charity walk and the charity gives you a free T-shirt or lunch that's provided to everyone there. Other gifts may have strings attached, and not in obvious ways. You may be offered an expensive meal, a weekend getaway or electronic gear. Weeks or months later, the giver asks for a favor, like news coverage or other exposure. Because you've accepted the gift, the giver hopes you'll feel obligated to provide what he wants.

Before that happens, check your company's policy on accepting gifts. Some only allow you to accept trivial items -- T-shirts, coffee mugs and pens. Others set a dollar amount, typically $100 or less. Or you may find that you can accept a thank-you gift that is offered to other people, like a gift certificate for judging a chili cookoff that was given to every other judge.

Let your gut be your guide. If the giver is trying to act secretly, chances are the intentions are not good. Alert your supervisor because others in your company may also be offered the same thing.

2. Beware the Pitfalls of Political Connections

Just because you work in media doesn't mean you don't have political opinions. Some people are paid to give theirs publicly. If you want to appear unbiased, be wary of all the ways that your political leanings may be exposed.

Going out to dinner with a political candidate isn't a good idea if you are well known, even if you just want to conduct an informal interview. People in the restaurant who see you will draw conclusions that you are chummy with the politician, maybe even a clandestine campaign worker.

You can be exposed in other ways. If you attend a candidate's fundraiser on your own time, photographs from the event might end up on a campaign website. Even if you simply send a candidate a check, your name could be revealed in the campaign's financial disclosure forms. Your best bet is to avoid any contact with politicians or their campaigns that are outside an official setting.

3. Stay Away from Business Conflicts of Interest

Business owners can cause you the most grief. That's because many operate on a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" principle. Say you work in a TV newsroom and call up a nearby grocery store that advertises on your station to do a story on whether shoppers use more coupons when the economy is bad.

You get a good story, so the next time you need a grocery store, you call the same place and go over. In time, that becomes the only grocery store your station uses. Then one day, the grocery store owner calls you to ask you to do a story on the store's newly-refurbished produce department. You politely turn him down because it's not big-enough news for your station to cover. The owner gets mad and threatens to cancel his advertising contract. That gets the sales department and possibly your general manager involved.

Next, you may be told to do the story because your managers don't want to lose a client. While you will be forced to obey, you could have avoided the confrontation by going to a variety of grocery stores -- even those that aren't clients -- so the one store owner doesn't think that you owe him.

4. Set a Personal Code of Conduct

When you work in media, especially if you are well known, you give up some of your personal privacy. You may think it's great when someone recognizes your face at the post office. Those same people will also recognize you stumbling out of a bar after one too many. They will talk and what is said will affect your professional reputation.

Think you have to be convicted of a drinking and driving charge before you can lose your job? That's not necessarily true if you work in media. Many professionals sign contracts with personal conduct clauses, which means that if their conduct could cause harm to their company, they can be terminated long before going to trial.

Remember that you represent your company every time you step outside your front door. Media pros who are used to getting special treatment because of the job sometimes expect it everywhere they go.

Stop yourself from demanding a better table at a restaurant by asking a waiter, "Don't you know who I am"? The most respected people who work in media are the ones who want to be treated like everyone else and not as though they are entitled to freebies or special treatment just because of where they work.

5. Stop Social Networking from Presenting Problems

You would think that people who work in media would know how to handle social networking, because it's a form of new media. The problem is that guidelines aren't set by many media companies until after an employee has gotten into trouble.

Your online conduct, whether in the form of tweets, Facebook photos or message board comments, can be as public as what you say to your audience while on the job. Supervisors are Googling job candidates' names more often than ever as a way to check them out.

That's more of an issue for younger job candidates, who may have posted wild party pictures from their days in college. Google your own name to see if there are potentially embarrassing parts of your past that appear in the search results. Eliminate content that could reflect poorly on who you want to be today and what may cost you a job opportunity in the future.

It's hard to stay anonymous when you work in media. If you judge every aspect of your personal and professional conduct through the eyes of your audience, you will go a long way toward making the right ethical choices when faced with tough decisions.

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