An ethical framework for news operations

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What constitutes ethical behavior in online journalism? Are print and broadcast norms relevant online? As viewers and advertising dollars migrate to cyberspace, should editorial and 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? What are the rules and who makes them?

About 15 years ago I sold two tiny publishing companies and returned to graduate school to study journalism at Columbia University. Some of my most memorable classes were the rambling discussions about ethics conducted by professor Steven D. Isaacs. He would gather us in a large hall. My class (’91) had about 200 students ranging in age from newly-minted undergraduates to older second-career types like me (I was mid-30s at the time). Isaacs would wander the room with a wireless microphone, like a TV talk-show host, posing questions and stirring debate. I recall there being an almost religious tone to the discussions, as if we were monks or nuns preparing to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (ok, well, one out of three ain’t bad). Being a decade older than most of my classmates (median age about 26) I was desperate to quit incurring debt and start earning an income. I sometimes found these discussions too syrupy to swallow, particularly given that my default behavior is smartass. Yet in 15 years as a newspaper reporter those discussions and the framework of self-examination they taught, have become the learning I’ve used most often in my work.

Today people are pouring into journalism from every quarter and user-generated content is the rage. I would be the last person to say these newcomers can’t be real journalists until and unless they get a degree. But I also could not imagine doing my job without the moral compass I acquired at J-school. Seriously.

Last August the Poynter Institute brought together an impressive gang of new media leaders last August to discuss the questions I posed above. The roster inclines toward big shots from big sites who have the proper pedigrees, the practical experience and the time to indulge in such a civic pursuit.

This conference produced an excellent set of guidelines that would be a great starting point for discussion in any student setting or in any startup newsroom. I wish the guidelines weren’t 23-pages long. After all Moses boiled human behavior down to 10 injunctions on two stone tablets. But being journalists we do love 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 Steele 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 but 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 issue 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 interviews 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 a CJR piece that mentions how one NY Times reporter quoted another Times guy who expressed conclusions about Iraq on the Charlie Rose show that would not been deemed appropriate in print!) 

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 are 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.)