A growing number of Americans are going online for news. A May 2000 survey found that one in three Americans go online for news at least once a week, compared to 20 percent in 1998. (1) in addition, 15 percent say they receive daily reports from the Internet, up from 6 percent two years ago. About 99 percent of the nation's largest newspapers and most medium-sized papers now have an online presence, and more than 4,000 papers are online worldwide, about half of those in the United States. (2) Most leading radio and television broadcast entities are also offering an online counterpart.
As online news becomes a bigger component of how people in the United States get news, the practices of online news providers are increasingly important. Online publishing raises many challenging ethical concerns, including issues in the areas of privacy, advertising/business relationships, copyright, attribution, linking, posting supplemental materials, immediacy, manipulation of data and graphic images, community publishing and potentially harmful content. Jay Black was right on track when he wrote, "The bottom line (is that) new media technology and delivery systems make it necessary for individual journalists to develop more sophisticated ethical decision-making skills." (3)
Traditional print rules, such as the formal separation of editorial and advertising content, might not translate to the Internet, where the lines between news and advertising are often invisible. (4) The speed of publication on the Internet has raised the concern that information might be disseminated before it has been adequately checked. (5) Correcting mistakes may be a fact of life at most daily newspapers, but how many new media managers are going to assign their teams to point out errors online when they can simply wipe them out and set the record straight by immediately publishing a new version of a story? In a medium built for speed, should the old methods of fact checking remain or can shortcuts be allowed, and, if so, how can an organization possibly regulate them to avoid costly errors?
Previous discussion of online news ethics, mostly anecdotal, suggests that online publication challenges traditional news standards and the new medium presents new ethical dilemmas. (6) The purpose of this study is to measure online journalists' views about what the ethical dilemmas in online journalism practice are and how news standards change when publishing online. This study takes a quantitative approach to online ethics by surveying online editors at U.S. daily newspapers. First, the article reviews the literature addressing the opportunities and challenges of publishing news on the World Wide Web. Then, the findings of the survey of online editors at U.S. dailies are reported. Finally, the article discusses the issues raised by online publication and suggests ways to improve online news practices.
News and the World Wide Web
The arrival of the digital age has fostered dramatic change in the way information is gathered, processed and presented in the United States. The number of Web sites on the Internet in June 1999 was estimated to be 6.6 million, and by January 2000 the number had risen to nearly 10 million. (7) Over the past three years, most of the daily newspapers in the United States have hurriedly expanded their operations to include a World Wide Web site. Many such sites are equipped with bare-bones staffs. A 1997 study found that typical full-time staffing for the online newspapers includes one advertising employee, one technical employee and two editorial employees. (8)
Numbers have risen only slightly since that time. Singer, Tharp and Haruta reported in their 1999 study of United States news operations that online staff size increases with circulation size, but with considerable variation. (9) One of the largest papers had 55 full-time permanent employees on its online staff, plus another 250 stringers. …