Rules for citizen media?

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(Technology is making it easy for people to create web publications on any topic the choose. Are there standards of behaviour new publishers should follow? Or are the times changing so much that old rules no longer apply?)

Things do seem to be up in the air these days and notion of rules may seem like an anachronism. So feel free to invent any process that succeeds in drawing repeat traffic to your site, and to ignore any of the old rubrics of the print and broadcast era. Maybe the web changes everything.

Or maybe not. Human habits change quickly. The iPod replaces the transistor radio. But human nature is not quite so fickle as behavior. So before you decide to disregard the canons of old-fashioned journalism, at least understand its basic pricinciples and ignore them for good reason — or adapt them to new circumstances.

A good set of — lets call them guidelines – comes from the . . .

 . . . Committee of Concerned Journalists which approached the question in a document titled “What citizens should expect from the press.” CCJ is a group of academics and mainstream media folks. They wrote these seven commandments in 2002. They use “press” s a code word for serious journnalism as opposed to entertainment media. So these standards would make more sense to the New York Times than to, say, People Magazine or American Idol.

So it is fair to question whether these suggestions are relevant to which types of online publications. Certainly the closer you are to operating the online version of an old-fashioned news model these will make sense. 

But CCJ starts on firm ground when it says: “We should expect, above all, truthfulness.” Sounds like a good rule to graft onto new media. You cannot afford to waste people’s time with erroneous information. But there are exceptions to the truth standard. The Onion and its satire deliberately flout this expectation — in much the same way as those magazines we see at the end of supermarket checkout. People buy such magazines perhaps as entertainment. But they can’t take them seriously and I doubt other publications link to them. So in an age in which search engines mediate traffic, is there a premium for truth and reliability or for distortions and fesklessness? I think the former but we’ll see.

What about “objectivity” which is often raised as the standard to which the old-fashioned press aspires even if it is rarely achieved (or perhaps in unachievable)? CCJ does not use that words but warns instead:

“Journalists (should) maintain independence from those they cover . . . If journalists get too close to those they cover it only makes it more difficult for them to understand or convey all sides.”

Again this sounds like good advice to graft onto new media. It allows for activist or advocacy coverage; but it does suggest that the closer you get to any one point of view the less likely you are to grasp of the whole situation. Forget about politics. If you’re covering an industry and visitors see your site as tilted to the companies you write about (and which presumably advertise with you) it will dimish your credibility and ultimatelty undermine the reason for their visits.

CCJ links to an even more concise and common sense set of guidelines from the Online Journalism Review. It lists five “core ethical principles for online journalism” which CCJ distills down to:

1. No plagiarism

2. Disclose, disclose, disclose

3. No gifts or money for coverage

4. Check it out, then tell the truth

5. Be honest

I would add one other suggestion, more practical than ethical: be useful. People are busy. Visiting your site is a discretionary activity. Make yourself part of their routine by regularly delivering something worthwhile.