I'm creating this on April Fool's Day, 2020. But I am not feeling very April Fool's-y for rather obvious reasons. Instead, I’m addressing a much deeper topic: ethics.
No, I'm not qualified to debate the finer points of various ethical philosophies. Though I did study under the great professor Chidi Aragonye for four years.
We working podcasters have a responsibility to the people who listen to our shows. We have responsibilities when we choose to lend our voices beyond our podcast. And for those of us who help produce podcast content for others, we have responsibilities for the content we helped bring to the world.
For the first decade of my podcasting life, my day-job was in advertising and marketing. That industry is rife with ethical dilemmas, and more than once I had to service clients that… well, I didn’t agree with.
But ethics, at least as I’m defining the term for this conversation, is not about deciding if you agree or disagree with something. I want to tackle ethical considerations faced by podcasters when we encounter things that are just flat out bad, incorrect, wrong, and possibly harmful.
Ethics come into play for podcasters who interview guests. Yes, it can be oddly fun and entertaining when guests with kooky ideas come on your show. But where do you draw the line between kooky and offensive or harmful? Do you call the guest out? Do you just edit out their nonsense before the episode goes live? Do you have to tell them that’s what you are doing? Do you run the risk of changing the accuracy of that person's view or opinion?
What if you've agreed to appear on someone else’s show only to find out during the interview that the host of that show is a racist, crazy person? And if you knew ahead of time, would you go on that show? Maybe their show has a lot of listeners who might be interested in what you have to say or who might become a regular listener of your show. Is that potential boost enough for you to go on the show of a known racist, crazy person?
Perhaps you’re a podcast freelancer or you run a podcast consultancy like mine. Would you work for a client -- a paying client -- who was putting out wrong information or had a point of view that could result in serious harm because the listeners/fans of that client view the person as an expert? Are you complicit in that misinformation spread?
Maybe you’re only responsible for audio engineering episodes and you encounter something factually incorrect or unverified that could cause harm. Do you cut it out? Do you let your client know? What if they say “keep it in”? Do you refuse?
What if your job is to market someone else’s podcast, or perhaps you’re in the market for someone to help market your podcast, and you’re presented with an opportunity to use some grey-hat tactics. Which, perhaps, border on the darker side. Assume again that these tactics have been proven to get results. But wow, are they slimy! In this case, do the ends justify the means as our friend Machiavelli told us?
Ethical considerations can be much more benign, which makes them all the more murky. Are you, as a working podcaster who wants to make podcasting better, working against that cause by letting content out to the world that, if not bad, then certainly is not good? Not misinformation, but just low-quality stuff. Do you have an ethical responsibility to speak up, perhaps going so far as to refuse to participate, if the others involved don’t insist on increasing the quality of the show?
What about the ethical decisions around advertising dollars? What do you do if a legally-operating business offers you a pile of money to advertise their product or service on your podcast, but that company has some seriously bad business practices? But what if the product or service they want you to promote on your show has nothing to do with their bad business? Big companies have their fingers in lots of different pies. How far down the slippery slope are you willing to go when you vet advertisers?
You don’t even have to be a producer, a guest, or a host to face these decisions. As a listener, do you have an ethical responsibility to reach out to the hosts of the shows you listen to, telling them that you like what they have to say, but I just wish they said it better? Does that become easier if it’s less a quality issue and more a question of spreading misinformation? Does your silence make you complicit?
You might've noticed I didn’t give you an answer to any of these. That’s on purpose. This show is designed to make you think, and only you can answer these questions of ethics for yourself. Sure, I have my own opinions. But only you get to choose your own personal values. Only you get to choose where you draw the line.
I have to answer this question every day for my own work and the work of my agency. I like to think I get it right most of the time.
Chat about it amongst your friends. Ask the other working podcasters who you communicate with on a regular basis what do they think about some of these ethical dilemmas. Better yet, bring up an ethical dilemma you’re facing and get their opinions.
And, of course, tell them it was this episode of Podcast Pontifications that sparked the topic. I can always use a listener or two more, so please spread the good news.
If you want, you can tell me about your thoughts on ethical dilemmas. I'm curious about what do you do? Send me an email at email@example.com.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.