A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Ethical Negotiations – Talking it Through

By Quill

If a journalist believes his employer is acting unethically — or asking the journalist to act unethically — what can that journalist do to impress his or her ethics upon his employer without losing a job?

Dr. William Ury said the negotiation tactics he suggests for journalists facing a potential disagreement with their bosses are the same as those used by the likes of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela: constructive, respectful and positive negotiation that avoids pandering to questionable ethics.

“Why not give negotiation a shot,” he said. “You might be able to find a creative solution.”

Here are some further thoughts from other negotiators working today:

“I have on a number of occasions had to take an ethical stand before a demanding and threatening supervisor. What is most interesting to me is that these supervisors gained respect for me after I took my stand. One of them went as far as calling me his best employee. What is important in taking an ethical stand is to do so calmly, using as few words as possible and not labeling the supervisor or the organization. Simply say, ‘I wouldn’t feel right about making that change.’ When doing so, slow down your speech and make sure that your tone of voice is a bit softer than normal. Chances are, in most cases, that your supervisor will back down.”

— Gregorio Billikopf, mediator and author specializing in labor management for the University of California, Davis, is the author of “Party Directed Mediation: Helping Others Resolve Differences.”

“[It is] important for [a] journalist to uncover the values and interests that lead him to say no, and see if he can connect those to values and interests his boss shares. For example, if he knows his boss well enough, he may know the story of what inspired him to pursue journalism in the first place and what it might mean to his boss’s own self-respect if they [published an unethical journalistic piece] … I spoke with a remarkable number of people who exercised courage in situations such as this, and what stood out was that when they focused on trying to help the right thing happen (rather than being right), they often discovered far less retaliation and far more creative options than first appeared.”

— Elizabeth Doty, organizational consultant, coach and facilitator specializing in how people participate in large organizations while being true to themselves and contributing to a larger sense of purpose. She is a steward of the Bay Area Society for Organizational Learning since 1999 and received her MBA from Harvard in 1991.

“Interests are what motivate you to take your position. Both sides have multiple interests that motivate them, and you will find that there are interests in common. So instead of focusing on the position you want, you need to set it aside and instead focus on why each of you wants your particular outcome. Some possible interests for a reporter: to do a good job, to keep their job, to establish a good professional reputation, to get along with their employer, to relieve workplace stress, to stand up for an important principle. For the employer: to run a successful newspaper, to remain financially solvent, to maintain good employees, to attract good employees, to maintain their professional reputation, to maintain a good work environment. Once you uncover common interests, the task is then to work together as collaborative problem-solvers. That is, the issue can be framed somewhat like this: ‘How can we cover this story in an accurate and neutral way so as to maintain our professional reputations?’ And then the two sides should discuss various options in how to accomplish their common interests in a way that is acceptable to both.”

— Nan Stager, senior lecturer at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and former assistant director of the Indiana Conflict Resolution Institute.