What constitutes ethical behavior in online journalism?Â AreÂ print and broadcastÂ norms relevant online?Â As viewers and advertising dollars migrate to cyberspace,Â shouldÂ editorial andÂ sales departments work together to figure out how to make money in new media and, if so, how can this be done without ethical conflict?Â What are the rules and who makes them?
About 15 years ago I sold two tiny publishingÂ companies and returned to graduate school to study journalism at Columbia University. SomeÂ of my most memorable classes were theÂ rambling discussionsÂ about ethics conducted by professorÂ Steven D.Â Isaacs.Â He wouldÂ gather usÂ in a large hall. My class (’91)Â hadÂ about 200 studentsÂ ranging in age fromÂ newly-minted undergraduates toÂ older second-career types like meÂ (I was mid-30s at the time). Isaacs would wander the room with a wireless microphone, like a TV talk-show host,Â posing questions and stirring debate.Â I recallÂ there being an almostÂ religious toneÂ to the discussions, as if we wereÂ monks or nunsÂ preparing toÂ takeÂ vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (ok,Â well, one out of three ain’t bad). Being a decadeÂ older than most of my classmatesÂ (median age about 26) I wasÂ desperate to quit incurring debt and start earning an income.Â I sometimes foundÂ these discussionsÂ too syrupy to swallow, particularlyÂ given that myÂ default behaviorÂ isÂ smartass.Â Yet in 15 years as a newspaper reporterÂ those discussions and the framework ofÂ self-examinationÂ they taught,Â have becomeÂ the learning I’ve used most often in myÂ work.
TodayÂ people are pouring into journalism from every quarter and user-generated content is the rage.Â I would be the last person to say theseÂ newcomers can’t be real journalists until and unless they get a degree. ButÂ I also could not imagine doingÂ my jobÂ without the moral compass I acquiredÂ at J-school. Seriously.
Last AugustÂ the Poynter Institute brought together an impressiveÂ gangÂ of new media leaders last August to discuss the questions I posed above. TheÂ rosterÂ inclines toward big shotsÂ from bigÂ sites who haveÂ theÂ proper pedigrees, the practical experience and the time to indulge in such aÂ civic pursuit.
This conferenceÂ producedÂ an excellent set of guidelinesÂ that would be a great starting point for discussion in any student setting or inÂ anyÂ startup newsroom.Â I wish the guidelinesÂ weren’t 23-pages long.Â After allÂ Moses boiledÂ human behavior down toÂ 10 injunctions on two stone tablets. ButÂ being journalists we do loveÂ words. If you can stomach a few more of mine, click through and let me give some highlights and impressions of the guidelines.
Incidentally, Poynter commentator Bob SteeleÂ wrote a summary in which he also described how the event was put together but my quick and dirty take is that the overall tone of the document inclines toward the traditional newpaper-world view of newswriting — thou shalt be low of voice and high on fairness. The second point is an absolute butÂ I’d quarrel with that first notion. The Web is all about voice. To march into that medium with the mealy-mouthing that too often typifies print journalism would be the old-fashioned TV guys, who moved over from the radio world, parking their butts in front of the camera and reading the news with a big honking microphone in front of their face. The Web demands a certain excess; how else you gonna keep all those twitchy fingers from clicking onto something else?
But of course the extent to which a news operation sensationalizes to get attention has been a conundrum since the days of the Yellow Press, so it’s a question to raise — and likely to be the sort of issueÂ that each news site and each online journalist will confront every time they make choice.
I found the discussion on television news ethics for reporters fascinating. As I think we all realize this is a cross-platform time for news; print and online people want the exposure afforded by television but it can be a trap as the Poynter folks note. TV interviewsÂ demand the utmost in simplification. TV wants to know what does the reporter, as the resident expert, really think. At what point does that stray into opinion and at what cost to the notion of distance from the subject? (I blogged recently about aÂ CJR pieceÂ that mentions howÂ one NY Times reporterÂ quoted anotherÂ Times guy whoÂ expressed conclusions about Iraq onÂ the Charlie RoseÂ showÂ that would not been deemed appropriate in print!)Â
Anyway, plenty of grist for the mill. It will be interesting to see whether soul-searching discussions about newsroom ethics migrate to the online world. I don’t know that the old rules were good or consistently applied, nor how appropriate they areÂ to new media. But I can’t imagine operating without some sense of the rights and wrongs of news judgment.
(I’d like to start accumulating similar guidelines from other sources; any links or thoughts from startups that have drafted their own rules would be appreciated.)