The Golden Rule #1

Online Journalism Ethics – An Oxymoron?

As digital media blazes new trails and transforms itself, the need for fresh ethical standards grows more urgent with every deadline. At Poynter Online, Bob Steele has written “Helter Skelter No More: An Evolving Guidebook for Online Ethics,” which outlines one of the institute’s recent projects: to assemble professional journalists with experience in online journalism to establish a new Guidebook for Online Journalism Ethics. The project was triggered by a survey the Institute conducted that revealed what many already knew: deep ethical dilemmas exist when doing journalism online. And they are different than the ethical challenges print journalists frequently encounter. They include vetting the opinionated nature of “news” blogs; easing the tension between the speed of news delivery and the quality of news content; understanding the sophistication of digital advertising and its relationship to content; and tempering the growing need for more visual content, to name a few. The Golden Rule applauds these efforts and looks forward to reading that guidebook.

However, at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC, which hosts the Online Journalism Review, a “wiki” titled “What are the Ethics of Online Journalism?” takes a different stance. The wiki, updated on January 14, 2007, by Robert Niles, states, “The ethics of online journalism are, ultimately, no different than the ethics of journalism.” The piece describes the dangers of plagiarism and accepting gifts, and the importance of full disclosure, honesty, and facts. Yes, those are vital ethical standards and are synonymous with the standards print journalists must follow. However, what I find unusual about this opinion is its medium: wikis themselves raise ethical concerns because they allow any user to update or edit the content. I have no idea who Robert Niles is, but he has edited the content on this page. Apparently, according to the registration page for this wiki, non-journalists and students (does that include high school students?) can register to edit. Notwithstanding Niles’s good intentions, I do have a few questions. Did Niles edit portions of the page? If so, who is the original author? Or is Niles responsible for the entire page? What exactly does “updated” mean? What are his qualifications? I’m fully supportive of citizen journalism efforts; however, this page is further proof that online journalism does raise a different set of ethical standards that must be added to the longstanding ethical tenets many print journalists have been following diligently for years.

Apparently, contributors to “The Editors Weblog,” part of The World Editors Forum, a World Association of Newspapers organization, agree with the folks at Poynter. And journalists should love this weblog’s tagline: “editorial solutions for the newspaper renaissance”. That is exactly what is happening in journalism: a total rebirth of the industry and its mediums. An entry titled “Bloggers as Journalists: what are the rules?” raises the fundamental question of blogging ethics and standards. CNET’s Declan McCullagh raises this important question: “Are Web loggers (or bloggers) journalists?” If so, how should governmental organizations treat them? Do they also warrant press passes? McCullagh notes that during the Scooter Libby trial, two seats were eventually reserved in the courtroom for bloggers, but much “prodding” from the Media Bloggers Association is what prompted that gesture. McCullagh also notes that many U.S. states’ shield laws were written decades before the Internet explosion. Without a federal shield law, state judges are allowed to interpret those antiquated laws in various ways: some quite literally (a newspaper is not a Website or blog) and some quite loosely (a newspaper can also mean a news magazine or Website). Bloggers must carve their niche in the industry, both ethically and legally, before governments do it for them.

Chris Justice is an Assistant Professor of English & Mass Communication at The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, United States.

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