The importance of ethics in journalism and legal blogging

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A newspaper in Tacoma, Washington is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Last year, The Tacoma Weekly sent a promotional flyer to local political candidates offering them a $2,500 ad package in the paper. The package included an editorial, a cover story about the candidate and even the endorsement of the paper.

To put it bluntly, this is a violation of the most basic ethical principles of journalism—as well as a violation of state election law.

The paper now faces a $15,000 fine for violating those laws and their reputation is irreparably damaged. The publisher of the paper claimed that the original flyer misrepresented what they were offering and that they sent out a revised version of the flyer offering an “advertorial” and a meeting with the paper’s editorial staff.

But according to the local publication, Crosscut, two political candidates took the paper up on the advertising package with the understanding that it included a cover story:

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The Tacoma Weekly subsequently ran cover stories on two candidates who purchased the promoted ad package. Those stories were written under a staff member’s byline, with no mention of there being paid advertisements.

Chad Standifer, an assistant attorney general working with the Public Disclosure Commission, said the front-page articles ‘contained similar language to advertising that was also published in the same Tacoma Weekly editions.

Those two candidates both had to pay $150 fines, while The Weekly’s publisher still holds that the paper followed their normal editorial process on the two cover stories. The publisher has agreed to pay half of the $15,000 fine—the rest will be suspended so long as the paper does not violate campaign finance laws again over the next four years.

In the end, this all could have been avoided had common-sense publishing ethics been followed. While legal bloggers are unlikely to find themselves embroiled in a scandal like this one, publishing ethics are always a topic worth revisiting. As a journalist, blogger or lawyer, the one thing you can’t afford to lose is people’s trust.

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In the legal blogging space, the most common ethical questions relate to the authorship of posts. One such question is whether or not it is ethical to publish posts written by someone other than an attorney, under an attorney’s name—otherwise known as ghostwriting.

A common phrase you’ll see leading a ghostwritten post, in place of authorship credit, is “On behalf of [law firm name],” which is intended keep things ethically-compliant.

This has been a long-standing issue, in fact LexBlog founder and CEO Kevin O’Keefe was writing about it all the way back in 2012. In his own blog post on the ethics of ghostwriting, O’Keefe points to the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, specifically, Rule 7.1:

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A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer’s or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

O’Keefe says there’s a case to be made that ghostwriting is both misleading and constitutes omitting facts under this ABA rule. He revisited the topic of ghostwriting in 2019 with another blog post on the issue and reiterated his line of reasoning:

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What’s misleading? That you as a lawyer or law firm are holding out that you wrote the blog post. 

Ask anyone who they think wrote a blog post listing the author blogger when it’s posted on the New York Times, Harvard Business Review or ESPN? They’ll look at you kind of strange wondering why you’re asking and say the person in the byline, of course.

For whatever reason, lawyers who should be leaders when it comes to ethical behavior, think they get a pass when being ethical would take time.

Legal blogs are meant to demonstrate the breadth and depth of knowledge of attorneys at a given firm. This goal would be seriously undermined if it was revealed that the attorneys are not the ones writing the posts. Would you still trust such a firm’s expertise on those topics? Could you even trust them at all?

Aside from the ethical ramifications, engaging in ghostwriting would only be robbing yourself. While there is no “right way” to legal blog, this would definitely be a wrong one. The potential benefits that come with legal blogging cannot be achieved if you aren’t willing to do the work yourself.

While you’re not going to be slapped with a fine like The Tacoma Weekly, the fallout of unethical or even ethically questionable behavior can be difficult to recover from. Especially in the legal space where your blog is meant to build trust with potential clients.

When it comes to ethics in the publishing world, it’s just best to err on the side of caution.

Alec Downing
About the Author

Alec is an intern on LexBlog’s publishing team where he creates content for the company’s various digital platforms. A former radio news anchor, Alec brings both a background in journalism and a passion for law. Alec has the eventual goal of attending law school—and of course—starting his own law blog. His writing has been published in The Seattle Times and Crosscut.

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