Ethics in online journalism--how do you measure up?
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: November 18, 2008
|During my interview with best-selling author James Redfield (The Celestine Prophecy and other books), he perfectly summed up the journalism climate on the Web. "It's like Chicago in the 1930s," he said. There's an abundance of proof for his statement. |
For instance, in October, CNN published a story filed anonymously for iReport, a citizens' journalism section. The writer claimed Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, had suffered a heart attack. The company's stock immediately began to decline. CNN learned the story was false. The writer had never filed a story before. The network ended up giving the Securities and Exchange Commission information about the writer for a subsequent investigation. Writers providing content to iReport aren't paid—all you need to file a story is a working e-mail address. Welcome to the new front line in media, where companies often solicit free content in the interest of increasing their own profits and there is little or no vetting. Fact-checking is unheard of.
Ethical lapses aren't confined to false stories. Major political candidates have experienced hacking of personal email accounts. Gossip sites—virtual 'tabloid blogs'—published without permission personal e-mails that embarrassed a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Everyone it seems wants his or her minute of journalistic stardom.
If you are reading this column, I am aware I am probably preaching to the choir. So I'll suggest you pass this information around to fellow bloggers, columnists and armchair analysts. If we don't self-impose some standards, regulation can't be far behind. Too many innocent people are being harmed, and if that phenomenon continues, legislators will cast an eye towards those of us who write and publish on the Web.
With that in mind, I've developed my own code of ethics for Web writers. Here are some standards I set for myself:
• Verify information, especially if it's sent to you in an e-mail. If at all possible, speak to the tipster on the phone.
• Don't hack. It's morally the same as stealing regular mail from someone's box.
• Don't scrape, a popular term for what we commonly call plagiarism.
• Take care when you repackage content. If you do use someone else's story as a springboard for your own commentary, check the facts. Some months ago, a smear story about a journalist covering the Middle East broke on a popular blog platform site. Major newspapers picked up the story, not bothering to talk to the journalist. Ultimately it was proven that most of the information in the smear story was false.
• Don't take money to review a product unless you tell your reader you are being paid to review the product. In essence, you're writing an advertorial and your reader should be made aware of that. This also applies to supporting a cause or political candidate.
• Disclose any self-interest related to what you're writing. My husband works in the energy field, so if I write about energy, I'm obligated to explain that.
• If you receive story tips via an anonymous source, do your best to get the source's permission to use his or her name. Sometimes it is impossible—for instance, if you're talking to a whistleblower. However, be aware that even a whistleblower is sharing a one-sided perspective on an issue. Always try to get the other side, especially if you're writing straight news and it's also a good idea even if you're writing commentary.
• Be honest. If you present a story as straight news, stay clear of advocacy. If you present a story and you want to take a position on an issue, disclose your preference.
For many of us, the Web is the greatest journalistic frontier in modern history. Presently we enjoy a profound range of freedoms. If we're to keep those freedoms, we need to do a better job of monitoring our own behavior and setting standards in the interest of honesty. It has taken years for Web writers to achieve respect accorded to print journalists. In truth, standards for traditional journalism have also declined in recent years. But we can hold ourselves to a higher standard, all of us, knowing that in the end, it's the truth that counts no matter what we write or where we publish. And that holds true even if the only person held accountable is the one we see when we look in the mirror.
Ethics of Online Journalism at Knight Digital Media Center
CNN hands over info on author of Steve Jobs rumor
On the issue of liability for writers; 2-part column at Web Savvy
--Posted Nov. 18, 2008
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Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.