Creating Ethical Bridges from Journalism to Digital News: '... What Appears on Web Sites and on Blogs Is Not Generally Regarded as Adhering to Standards That Govern Legacy News Organizations.'

By Leach, Jan | Nieman Reports, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Creating Ethical Bridges from Journalism to Digital News: '... What Appears on Web Sites and on Blogs Is Not Generally Regarded as Adhering to Standards That Govern Legacy News Organizations.'


Leach, Jan, Nieman Reports


I fall content consumed will be digital within 10 years, as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told an international advertising audience in late June, then it's time to embrace our roles as "digital doers," and figure out how best to connect digital consumers to reliable news and information. Improving credibility will be high among our strategies, and this means more attention must be paid to ethics.

As Ballmer put it, "Static content won't cut it for the consumer in the future." Neither will static ethics; as media evolve so, too, will ethical guidelines.

Digital media--and the emerging use of social media--are exponentially expanding the reach of journalism, and this presents us, its practitioners (and those whom we hope to reach) with opportunities and dilemmas. Among those who gather news, publish it and consume it, ethical questions will be raised by the demands and possibilities of this new media environment--one that now embraces social engagement as a core function. Views on ethics will intersect and overlap among players, and there doubtless will be places where opinions diverge. It's unlikely that agreement will be easy to find across the wide range of ethical issues, but unity ought to be expressed in ways that let digital consumers know we are thinking hard about these emerging ethical issues.

Here is a sample of some of the ethical issues rising to the surface:

* How will journalists and/or news organizations approach the issue of posting stories on personal or company Web sites or blogs? If a reporter covering a local business posts negative information or complaints about the business on his news organization's site, does that compromise the reporter's objectivity?

* Is it appropriate for reporters to publish on a personal blog their opinion about a source, an event, or a story?

* Does the posting of personal opinion compromise a reporter's fairness? If opinion is discouraged, does that infringe on free expression? Does it "dehumanize" the reporter? [See Reed Richardson's essay on page 63 for more on this topic.]

* In an environment where anonymity rules, how is the accuracy of user-generated content such as tips, articles, photos and video, to be determined? And how are consumers to be alerted?

* When news organizations invite and feature citizen contributions, does publishing these stories on their site transfer "authority" to information that may be biased or incomplete?

* Posted without any moderation, comments about articles often stray off topic or, worse, devolve into name calling and ugly slurs. Does the anonymity of the Web culture encourage animosity? If so, is moderating essential for a news organization? Or is churlish online debate simply the price to be paid for increased online traffic?

Journalism's reliance on the tools of social media is evident already. What this means for a battered journalism industry is significant. Consider the coverage of the post-election protests in Iran. With journalists banished or silenced by the Iranian government, news organizations and Web sites relied on showing random snippets of video or text messages or tweets sent from people witnessing the protests on the streets of Tehran. Having access to these images and words, but not being certain of what was being shown or who was sending the information, troubled many journalists on this end of the story. News organizations were confronted with what seemed their only choice: publish unconfirmed, yet compelling pictures and information or be left behind and considered uncompetitive in breaking and updating news accounts of this global story. A New York Times story (1) well captured this dilemma: After acknowledging the difficulty in substantiating some of the citizen-witness information, news managers admitted that texts and cell phone video were the only way they had to cover the protests.

The Iran protest coverage illuminates how legacy media's goals now intersect with social media's tools. …

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