Cyberspace in the Curricula: New Legal and Ethical Issues

Article excerpt

Journalism and mass communication programs have been forced to take long, hard looks at their curricula as they join the media industry in eyeing the encroachment of interactive media technology (Yavovich, 1996). The newspaper industry has embraced electronic publishing with a fervor that has made the establishment of on-line editions almost a necessity, evidenced by the fact that 1,600 daily and weekly newspapers had launched on-line publishing endeavors by the end of 1996 (Levins, 1997). Advertising agencies and public relations firms have enthusiastically eyed the Internet's new marketing and promotional possibilities among a psychographically unique, computer-oriented consumer culture (Dorf, 1995; Worthington, 1995). Broadcasters and cable networks have launched on-line endeavors that are currently mostly promotional in nature, but some companies, such as the Discovery Channel, have introduced innovative information services to compliment their telecasts, and other channels at both the network and local market level are forecasted to follow this trend (Bates et al., 1997; Tedesco, 1996).

Educators have responded to the hoopla surrounding cyberspace with the realization that some degree of exposure to interactive media is an important component in training tomorrow's media professionals. Computer assisted reporting classes have been established to teach students the art of using electronic data bases as tools of information retrieval (Lee & Fleming, 1995). Moreover, as interactive media have somewhat blurred the distinctions between the various disciplines, many schools have also begun to incorporate web page design and multimedia production into advertising, public relations and broadcasting courses (Friedland & Webb, 1996; Thompson, 1995). Clearly, the abyss of cyberspace and interactive media has challenged the imagination - and, to a degree, the resources - of journalism schools as educators timidly join the business sector in anticipating the future possibilities of this new medium.

But as this industry-induced vacuum pulls educators in the direction of interactive media technologies, critics sound a note of caution. The new media, they say, were born into a world more concerned with gadgetry than substance, just as radio and television were first introduced as technological achievements earlier this century, with little thought devoted to their actual use. As Everette Dennis (1995) writes:

While the new electronic media have many value-added elements, from speed of delivery of information to convenient electronic editing, it is clear that those who manufacture equipment and engineer software have not been overly concerned with stimulating public discourse or affecting the conduct of public affairs. Although they do see information delivery as a major function of online services... (they) have been more concerned with process than with content (p. 1).

The growing popularity of the World Wide Web has created an atmosphere where, as columnist Mark Fitzgerald (1995, p. 34) observes,"anyone-or any business - can be a publisher of something that at least looks like a newspaper." And while the new media forms fostered by interactive computer technology bear some resemblance to more traditional prototypes, the peculiarities associated with cyberspace -the anonymity of its users, the ease with which sensitive information can be accessed, and the complexities involved in creating meaningful regulation-have bred complex new twists to old legal and ethical problems, and those complications seem to defy the parameters of accountability that have traditionally governed print and broadcasting. In the words of legal specialist Margaret Blair Soyster (1996), "Media law has not kept pace with on-line technology, leaving newspapers and their lawyers scrambling to devise practices that will stand them in good stead when legal challenges arise" (p. 281).

These complexities shroud the reputation of the Internet at a crucial juncture in its development as a communications medium. …