Business Ethics and the “New York Times” Rule

On Monday, the front page of the New York Times featured at story about financial firms adjusting the timing of bonuses in response to anticipated changes in tax laws. I mention this story not because of the particular ethical issues involved, but because it was featured on the front page of The Times. How would you like your decision-making subject to that kind of scrutiny?

From some perspectives, ethics is simple: “do the right thing.” For others (especially for philosophers like myself) it is incredibly complex, involving an ongoing centuries-old debate between arcane theories like deontology, utilitarianism, social contract theory, virtue theory, and others. In-between, we see lots of bits of ethical wisdom bundled into rules of thumb for ethical decision-making. Some of them are useful, some are misleading.

The one I’d like to discuss briefly today is the so-called “Front Page of the Newspaper” test, or sometimes “The New York Times Rule.” In one of its standard versions, it gets stated this way: “never do anything you wouldn’t want to see reported on the front page of the New York Times.” Some versions have additional qualifiers. Some, for example, say that you shouldn’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see fairly reported on the front page. That qualifier rules out slanted or malicious reporting — there are presumably plenty of fully-justifiable behaviours that we wouldn’t want to see reported in a malicious way, on the front page of the NYT or anywhere else.

The first thing to say about the Newspaper Test is that it probably is a useful heuristic. Asking the question it poses at very least serves as an opportunity to pause and ask yourself whether the action you’re about to take is one that could withstand publicity and scrutiny.

But there are two clear problems with the Newspaper Test.

One problem is that it can seem to serve as an argument against actions that are actually perfectly ethical. John Hooker, in his book Business Ethics as Rational Choice, gives this example: Imagine you’re CEO of a large corporation, and due to tough economic times you’re forced to lay off several thousand employees. Imagine that some of those employees slide into clinical depression. Others become alcoholics and end up beating their children. Lives are ruined. You probably wouldn’t want all of that reported on the front page of the NY Times, but that doesn’t mean your choice was unethical. In fact, Hooker points out, it might have been the least-bad option available. The point here is that sometimes even ethically good decisions are ones that we wouldn’t want publicized, either because their negative consequences are more visible than their positive ones, or because the reasons behind those decisions are reasons that, despite being good reasons, would be difficult or even impossible to explain.

The other problem is that it can seem to condone behaviour that is actually unethical. Most obviously, it can let you go ahead with an unethical plan if you happen either to be either generally insensitive to bad publicity or blind to subtle ethical dimensions of the question at hand. The former possibility is pretty self-explanatory: some people (and some companies) just don’t seem to care what the public thinks of them, or believe themselves to be above all need for accountability. As an example of the latter possibility (ethical blindness), picture a company sending its CEO to Washington on a private jet, with the aim of asking for money, and being utterly oblivious to the idea that the public might find this unseemly. If you don’t recognize, or care, that someone might object to your decision, then conducting the Newspaper Test isn’t going to stop you from doing something you shouldn’t.

The thing to remember about the Newspaper Test is that, like so many other catchy rules of thumb, it is at best a heuristic, and not an algorithm. It doesn’t automatically crank out an answer that is both determinate and correct. What it really is is an ‘intuition pump.’ It is a way to force yourself to ask, as part of a well-rounded ethical decision-making process, whether your decision is one that, in principle, you could defend in public. The hidden strength of the Newspaper Test lies in the notion of accountability, i.e., of having to give reasons for your actions in order to make them understandable to society at large.

10 comments so far

  1. Mark on

    Good topic Chris,

    There’s another side to this “front page” heuristic that for me is the perhaps the most important. The heuristic is really about community values and how we judge ethical standards. However, different newspapers have different audiences and they each reflect and feed into the different values of those audiences. So the heuristic will result in different decisions depending on the newspaper and the values of its readers. What the front page of many business newspapers tells me is that the values of the corporate world are often very much out of step with those of other, perhaps more broadly based, communities. The “front page test” as applied to Wall Street Journal or the Australian Financial Review might result in very different ethical choices when compared with, say, the Washington Post or The Age. This gets back to your second point of “ethical blindness”, buts it’s a blindness of the audience as much as anything else. Perhaps we need to develop our moral imaginations through the use of a new 21st century front page heuristic – “never do anything you wouldn’t want your children to read about you on Facebook”.

    Mark

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Mark:

    Great point. Exactly right. I think really the only good way to use this kind of heuristic is to make it one of several such rules. Others can include “never do anything you wouldn’t want to report to your…mentor…mother…clergy…etc.”

    Chris.

  3. wesleywilliam on

    I am recently new to your blog, but I am really relating to what you have to say. I think a simple “newspaper test” is a good thing for top officials and leaders of companies to think about. I understand that they can not solely rest on that test, but it is a good notion for making appropriate ethical decisions.

    I am also highlighting the importance of business ethics in my own blog. Please check it out.

    http://somethingaboutbusiness.wordpress.com

  4. […] The concreteness of discussing real people and how they found themselves on the failing side of the “newspaper test” helps keep ethics discussions timely and […]

  5. […] The New York Times Test is the name of a check that one can undergo to determine whether one should say or do a certain thing.  It goes like this: “How would you feel if your actions were reported on the front page of The New York Times?” […]

  6. fordjunagmailcom on

    I use the test not so much to determine right / wrong, but to remind myself of the existence of the risk that anything can be made public. In that sense, I interpret it as less about doing the right thing but more about doing the smart thing and considering all potential consequences of my action..

  7. […] like the Wall Street Journal test, are well known (although not always fully understood – more here), while others have been drawn from agencies whose people make high pressure decisions in relief […]

  8. […] is a rule of thumb in business ethics called the “New York Times Test”. It states that a business should not do anything that it would not want to see reported on the […]

  9. […] is a rule of thumb in business ethics called the “New York Times Test”. It states that a business should not do anything that it would not want to see reported on the […]

  10. […] The New York Times Test is the name of a check that one can undergo to determine whether one should say or do a certain thing.  It goes like this: “How would you feel if your actions were reported on the front page of The New York Times?” […]


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