Category Archives: Lectures

Sources under siege: The need to protect the flow of news in the digital age

This is adapted from a talk I gave to the annual conference of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen, May 20, 2013, in Los Angeles.

Last year I was asked to prepare a presentation for an investigative reporting symposium that’s held every year at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

My assignment was to offer an overview of the state of investigative reporting in the USA.

This was a time when the country was, in principle, on the declining end of the anti-terrorism panic that gripped the nation after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. National leadership had changed too, and the country was now led by an administration that was winding down the two wars the government of George W. Bush had begun, and had essentially repudiated the war in Iraq.

The president himself, Barack Obama, was well-read, well-spoken, and well-educated. He had spoken approvingly of greater cooperation with the press, greater support for open government, and greater tolerance for whistleblowers within government.

Hence, what I found was surprising. Among the practitioners I interviewed there was widespread, almost unanimous, agreement that the climate for tough, investigative reporting had worsened dramatically under the Obama administration.

Part of that had to do with the industrial transformation the US media were, and are, undergoing. That transformation has weakened many news organizations—especially the once-pivotal regional press. They are left with neither the financial muscle nor the editorial will to conduct lengthy in-depth projects and to pay the lawyers who may be needed to protect from reprisals the reporters who carry out those projects.

Nor is there confidence among the media that the emerging news-consuming public has the appetite its elders once had for such journalism.

The subject I want to talk to you about today is a less-apparent dimension of this more difficult environment for investigative reporting (which is merely the more glamorous term for what we really recognize as accountability journalism.)

This dimension concerns the vulnerability of sources.

Sources are more vulnerable than ever before, thanks in part to the same technological marvels that we associate with the digital revolution.

The media have been slow to recognize the potential exposure of their own sources as a problem, not just for their news operations, but for the larger purposes that journalism is supposed to serve. Continue reading

The Ethics of Product Placement

Panel Presentation
Magazine, Media Ethics and Advertising
divisions,
Annual Conference,
Association of Educators in Journalism
and Mass Communication
San Francisco, Calif.
August 3, 2006

What is the ethics perspective on product placement? That is, is there anything wrong with product placement, and if so, what does that wrong consist of?

I’m going to start by putting product placement into context, and this context involves far more than getting Captain Crunch onto Tony Soprano’s breakfast table.

I’ll suggest that context is one of a steady, sweeping process of inventorying and exploiting practically all modes of communication for their potential utility as marketing instruments: from conversation to public ceremony, including the mass media.

So most of the concerns I’ll raise apply to this wider phenomenon, and the questions raised by product placement implicate an extensive and growing number of contemporary techniques.

After I survey that context, I’ll try to identify what the ethical concerns are with product placement.

There we will look at three areas:

1. Deception
2. Expressive integrity
3. Trust

Context: To my first point about context: It’s difficult to exaggerate the scale and audacity of efforts to insert commercial intent into unrelated communicative contexts.

Consider some of the more notable expressions of this process, part of what media scholar Robert McChesney has called, hypercommercialism.

The Pope. Getting one of the most closely observed and most admired people in the world to use your products is certainly a coup, and apparently Pope Benedict XVI is an appealing target of carmakers, shoe-makers, sunglass manufacturers etc. Vatican isn’t paid for the Pope’s choices, according to the report in the Wall Street Journal.

Theater. Product integration has come to Broadway, with Neil Simon deleting a mention of scotch from “Sweet Charity” in favor of a paying tequila brand; Sprint got itself written into an off-Broadway production.

Books: This started in 2001 when Bulgari, the Italian jeweler, paid novelist Fay Weldon to feature the brand in a book called “The Bulgari Connection.” It has now spread to young adult fiction, especially books targeting teen girls. Also, Procter and Gamble’s Cover Girl is highlighted in exchange for marketing mentions on a web site catering to adolescent girls.

Comic books. The Detroit Free Press reports that Time Warner’s DC Comics has created a new series, Rush City, as a paid product placement for Pontiac’s Solstice. Marvel Comics, having already done deals with Sony, Schwinn and Nike, has a deal of its own to slip Dodge Calibers into Spider Man comics.

Gas station TV: Advertising Age says a startup company called Gas Station TV plans to have 20-inch video screens on the pumps in 100 gas stations in Atlanta and Houston by fall, and hopes for 400 stations in top 10 markets by January. Since the “captive audience” stands pumpside from 4 to 4-1/2 minutes, programming will consist of 4-minute loops of ABC content with 15-second ads.

Eggs: CBS is emblazoning ad slogans and its trademark eye on 35 million eggs this fall.

Puke bags: US Airways will be selling space on air sickness bags.

Video games: Food industry is developing such games as Chips Ahoy Soccer Shootout and the Pop-Tart Slalom, built to attract young people to web sites where they can interact with brands, register to learn about new products, etc.

School buses. BusRadio, according to the Wall Street Journal, has contracted with school districts in Massachusetts, California and Illinois, to put custom-designed radio programs beamed via bus speakers, with about 8 minutes per hour of ads.

E-mail: Following the hijacking of the postal service, which serves overwhelmingly as a vehicle for junk mail, it’s estimated that 75% of e-mail is spam.

Most worrisome, forms of person-to-person communication. Advertising has discovered viral marketing online and buzz marketing, in which paid operatives agree to talk up products among people they know. An estimated 85% of top 1,000 marketers already using buzz marketing, now worth $100m-150m/yr., according to Advertising Age.

This represents an insertion of commercial calculation deep into the fabric of interpersonal relations, of friendships.

(I’m not sure what’s next. My own candidate is traffic lights, since somebody eventually will tumble to the fact that motorists sit there, gaping at the light, and would make ideal ad targets._

And of course, product placement. PriceWaterhouseCoopers says placement on TV will growth to $10b in revenue by 2010, up from $750m in 2005.

In the first quarter of 2006, prime time TV on average had more than 17 minutes of commercials and over three minutes of product integrations—meaning 35 percent of air time devoted to commercial messages, according to TNS Media Intelligence. In so-called reality programs, that can be more than 40 percent in an average hour-18-plus minutes of ads plus over 7-1/2 of overt product integration.

And we’re not talking solely about fictional content. A PR Week survey released in June 2006 found 49% of 266 senior PR execs admitted to paying for placement, chiefly in magazines and broadcasting. (And half of those who haven’t said they would if asked.) Here the targets were photos and news features.

Such is the context of galloping commercialization, sometimes overt, sometimes furtive.

Now to the ethical problems with product placement. I want to consider three areas: deception, what I’ll call expressive integrity and trust.

1. Deception: The insertion of clearly branded products as if they were naturally occurring artifacts in a disinterested fictional landscape feels deceptive, but is it really? And does the wrong depend on the audience’s being tricked? What if the audience is in on it, or grows to view product placement as a routine and expected element of content? If the deception is gone, does the wrong then disappear?

Product placement doesn’t involve any of the usual elements of deception. You aren’t being lied to. The character isn’t kidding about enjoying the Diet Coke and isn’t falsely driving the BMW. So what’s deceptive?

I think the falsity consists of gaining entry under false pretenses. The commercial mentions aren’t labeled as such, and we’re caught unawares, with our consumer skepticism on hold. We haven’t been alerted to put on the filters we normally use in dealing with content that we know is deliberately manipulative. We’re susceptible, distracted. We agreed to hear a story, not sit through a sales pitch. So our attention is on the drama we’re watching, the dilemma the character is facing, and we may think we don’t even notice the brand of beer he opens. What we experience as deception and trickery is perhaps better understood as resentment that the marketer is taking advantage of a susceptibility that we weren’t aware of.

Actually, in a larger sense product placement replicates the essentials of any good advertisement. The psychological structure of a classic ad is intended to distract and disarm us to make us receptive to the sales message. Hence, what product placement does is transform the entire surrounding content into a series of advertisements.

Fair enough, but I’m not sure this is deception. And how much of this is a matter of convention? Perhaps the problem is that our training as consumers has lagged behind marketing practice. After all, traditional TV ads aren’t labeled as such. We’ve been trained to recognize the pause, the changes in voice, visual cues and the like, and we say, oh, this is a commercial. Time to go to the bathroom. If we are retrained to understand fictional forms as some mongrel form of integrated marketing and creative expression, we’d no longer have a basis to object to product placement  not, that is, on grounds of deceptiveness.

That may be the direction we’re going. An October 2005 survey by media agency StarCom Mediavest found 65% of consumers believed editorial mentions of products in magazine articles were paid for. So does the harm disappear?

I think not. Deceptiveness, as an ethical critique, rests on shifting sands. But we’d still have other grounds on which to object to product placement.

2. Expressive integrity: Here I want to talk about product placement as a process by which the vocabulary of creative expression is altered as a direct and deliberate response to payments. Accordingly, even if audience expectations evolved (or degraded) to where people no longer expected programming to be free of commercial insertions, something would still be lost.

It’s true, as placement supporters say, that we inhabit a brand-rich environment, and when we see characters in a supposedly realistic film reaching for a bottle of beer labeled, “Beer,” we disbelieve the authenticity of the scene.

What that suggests, however, is that brands constitute a palette with which creative artists can portray character and comment on how fictional people spend their money and express their personalities. Bond drove an Aston Martin and smoked Turkish Sobranis for reasons. A TV private eye lives in a trailer and drives a beat-up old MG  these are touches his creators decided on that helped flesh out their characterizations.

Now those defining elements are being put out to auction, and control over a colorful and eloquent segment of the creative vocabulary is gone.

How far that will spread is unknowable. It’s no longer a matter of getting Evian on the table, its label facing the camera. Scriptwriters are being pressured to make provision for explicit mention of products, and narratives are being altered to enable the plugs to be seamless, graceful, even amusing. (And don’t forget, legitimate creative options are foreclosed too: Tony Soprano won’t be throwing Captain Crunch in AJ’s face. And he won’t complain that his mother would never have served such junk to him instead of a proper, hot breakfast.)

What is it, then, that we’re watching?

To my final point:

3. Trust: I think, ultimately, this is the most serious ethical problem with placements. The consequence of widespread, undeclared product placement is to create a taint, to cast doubt on the purpose of even innocuous communication and raise the possibility that it too has an ulterior motive, an unstated aim, which is manipulation.

We’re no longer telling, we’re selling.

It is true that commercial media were born with a sales mission. But it’s easy to make too much of that truism. Artists have always wanted audiences; they’ve always sought to draw a crowd. But that didn’t make them marketers.

We trust that they’re ultimately committed to presenting their art. We take that on faith, we trust their good will. And as moral philosopher Annette Baier has written, trust is a generalized reliance on the good will of the other person, not the competence, but the good will. If the wish to entertain, to enlighten, to inspire or provoke, is assumed to be routinely pressed into service of the ulterior wish to sell things, what happens to the essential relationship created by the communication?

Maybe the commercial nature of placements blinds us to what’s going on; after all, they’re just selling stuff. So instead, suppose we’re not talking about plugging a product. Instead, a producer is clandestinely paid to be sure that the program hypes a religion, or a political philosophy. Or, perhaps, to say something nasty about a political figure.

Something has changed in the relationship that’s created by that communication. Just as you no longer can look at a relationship the same way after you learn that your friend who was rapturous about her new blue jeans was being paid to shill for the apparel line.

What’s gone is trust. And I’d conclude that even if product placement comes to be accepted, that acceptance will come at the cost of a belief we deserve to have, that the people whose work we watch and listen to are intending to entertain, illuminate, provoke, inspire  not to quietly nudge us in a direction they’re not telling us they’re being paid to encourage.

So to conclude, I’d suggest the ethical critique of product placement based on deceptiveness, even though it feels intuitively right, isn’t strong, but that criticism based on a loss of expressive integrity and a destruction of trust is powerful and accurate.

Transparency and Quality Journalism

To the Forum Folha de Jornalismo, Sponsored by Folha de S. Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 10, 2006

This topic is well chosen, since it implies that transparency might not be fully compatible with the requirements of quality journalism.

That is good to remember, since “transparency” has recently become one of those irreproachable terms of journalistic aspiration – along with fairness, accuracy, balance and public service – and if we’re not careful, before long it will be no easier to criticize the notion than it would be to suggest that journalists have a duty to fabricate stories and a professional obligation to defame the innocent.

Still, I’m going to offer a mild dissent to some of the misuses of transparency, while suggesting other areas in which the principle ought to be applied more aggressively than it now is.

Let’s recall that the “transparency” movement originated as a response to governmental and corporate corruption, and has targeted dishonest public and business officials who were enriching themselves at the expense of others and the public trust.

That kind of corruption has never been a key element of the critique advanced by those who want to apply “transparency” to the media. Instead, the media transparency initiative has largely aimed at exposing what its supporters believe is an ideological pollution, which systematically and secretly insinuates bias into the most influential organs of news and opinion, while masquerading behind a ritualized insistence on fairness, objectivity and public service.

The critique that these transparency advocates offer is not, however, to challenge errors of discourse and expose them as inaccurate, unfair or unconvincing. It is to mount ad hominem attacks on individual journalists, denouncing them for whatever evidence of predisposition can be uncovered (or invented,) and declaring that whatever journalism these people create is necessarily the product of unshakeable prejudice and bias.

In that respect, the point is not to hold media accountable, but make certain media discountable, by asserting that the journalism those media organizations provide is programmatic and ideological – is little better than propaganda – and cannot be trusted.

But “transparency” also has allies within media organizations, and among non-ideologically inclined critics. It has captured the imagination of media leaders, who are generally eager for solutions to a decline in public esteem that has harmed their business franchises. Let me characterize the thinking of transparency advocates as follows:

a. News organizations are needlessly and improperly secretive, and should be willing to submit to the same scrutiny that they demand of other institutions they cover.

That seems reasonable.

b. Submitting to such scrutiny, and practicing greater openness in regard to editorial practices, would help the media to overcome public doubts about their honesty and intentions, and reverse the decline in their credibility. This is the principal reason media industry management and ownership have embraced a limited notion of transparency: It seems to be good PR.

That also seems reasonable, but as I’ll argue, it does not appear to be true.

c. Submitting to such scrutiny would not only be good for the soul, but would actually improve the quality of the journalism that news organizations practice.

That seems dubious. Greater transparency, as I’ll argue, could actually harm quality journalism.

The first proposition is that news organizations have historically been far too resistant to legitimate disclosures about their practices.

I believe this is true. In the U.S. case, I can point to the glacial progress of the ombudsman movement itself, the historical opposition of the country’s most influential news organizations to press councils (which would adjudicate disputes involving aggrieved citizens), and the longstanding belief that what news organizations do is already sufficiently public.

My own background is as a business journalist, and no businesses I or my reporters covered in my 25-plus years as a journalist were ever as mindlessly, reflexively and even abusively resistant to criticism and scrutiny as the media. Not even lawyers were as bad.

Thanks in part to the Internet, some measure of transparency has been thrust upon the media. Disclosures about newsroom controversies, personnel fights and policy disputes are now routinely leaked through various back-channels to blogs and other web sites that monitor the media. In addition, we have a newborn corps of citizen-journalists. Some of them are political operatives, many of them independent; some are skilled journalists, some are good only at polemics. But they have repeatedly forced established news organizations to re-examine and sometimes repudiate their work. (Whether that’s because the work was truly flawed is open to question.)

And overall, the level of responsible media criticism has been getting progressively higher. There are more people offering commentary, their analyses are sharper and more sophisticated, and I think in response media have recognized to a greater degree than ever before that their deficiencies are a legitimate area of inquiry and an important area of public discussion.

But now, to the second point, that this openness is enabling the media to overcome doubts about their honesty and intentions, and is leading to a reversal in the much lamented decline in their credibility.

Maybe it should. We all like to think that virtue is rewarded. But I am skeptical. In fact, I have to say it seems apparent that the eagerness of media organizations to recognize and acknowledge their own shortcomings is accelerating declines in credibility and deepening the already deep well of cynicism about what the media do.

I am speaking primarily about the U.S. media, and I hope what I’m going to say is less true of media elsewhere, where I suspect that journalists have some measure of union protection and where disciplinary matters are handled with dignity and procedural consistency.

But in the U.S., in this new climate of transparency journalistic wrongdoing has become a new and powerful cultural artifact. The rogue journalist has become a recognizable social phenomenon. Where once plagiarists or fabricators would be quietly fired and their errors corrected, they are now denounced publicly with zeal and venom. Even minor wrongdoing, and actions that may not be wrong at all but might prompt doubts in the public’s mind about the rectitude of journalists, are met with harsh reprisals.

If media managers hope that the result of this crackdown is to create an image of an institution that is fiercely and uncompromisingly dedicated to ethical purity, I believe they have failed. Instead the widespread impression is of an institution that is overrun with liars, intellectual thieves and moral reprobates.

So if going public was ever supported as smart PR (and I’m not suggesting that should be the principal concern), my own sense is that the evidence is against it.

Moreover, people are being hurt in the name of this purification. Newsrooms are littered with the careers of journalists whose wrongdoing might have been forgiven in a less zealous age, but who have lost their jobs in a public ritual, as Napoleon said, pour encourager les autres, “to encourage the others.”

To the third and most important point, which is whether this transparency is actually improving journalism.

Here I’m going to suggest that it can, but it hasn’t yet. And it has the potential to cause real harm to good journalism.

The problem goes to the nature of journalism, which is practiced in a state of continual tension between private and public spheres. As public as the reporter’s orientation is, journalism relies on an untidy, creative and collaborative process of debate, argumentation and muted conflict. I think that is how journalists strive to understand the realities they are then supposed to represent to the public via news. That process needs a space and needs a degree of privacy.

I would strongly agree that the news media need to be held accountable publicly for the results of that process, especially when those results are badly flawed. But that is not the same as saying that the process itself should be routinely conducted in public view – as we now have increasingly, with at least one news organization proposing to webcast its editorial meetings. This suggests the newsroom as a promising new venue for Reality TV, but I fear that journalism cannot be practiced in a fishbowl.

(Nor does accountability oblige news organizations to react with shame and self-flagellation every time they determine they’ve made a mistake. The celebrated case of CBS News 60 Minutes, in which a longtime producer was fired and a prominent anchor forced out for a flawed report that was essentially correct, is a powerful case in point.)

Let me take this point further with the help of a familiar metaphor. Advocates of open government often say that sunshine is the best disinfectant. The meaning, obviously, is that corruption, like an infection, is less likely to occur if governance is conducted in public.

It’s a cliché, but an interesting one, because sunshine is a complex phenomenon and a rich metaphor. It’s also true that strong sunshine casts equally strong shadows. By that I mean that an unintended consequence of aggressive disclosure practices may be that participants are forced into more elaborate and more secretive techniques – including leaving important things unsaid – out of fear of subsequent embarrassment.

Another fact about strong sunshine is that it not only illuminates, but as a visual artist would tell you, it bleaches out subtleties and nuances that emerge only in soft, indirect light. Journalism is the product of a creative collaboration, in which a robust exchange of possibly unpalatable opinion is essential. When that exchange is suppressed, and opinions go unexpressed out of fear they’ll be shared with others, the news process suffers.

And to turn the metaphor on its side once more, not everything grows well in strong sunlight. Some plants need shade to flourish. And their flowers may nevertheless be brilliant.

I realize I’ve advanced some views that seem incompatible with the idea that the media should be a model institution in its commitment to be honest, forthright and accountable.

Accountability, or the reasonable demand that media explain errors and other features of their operations sufficiently to continually merit the public’s trust, will always require some measure of openness, a willingness to let the public we serve see and evaluate. It is a powerful weapon against conflicts of interest, which might otherwise stand between the journalist and his or her most important duty, public service. And indeed, with journalists now equipped with powerful technology that enables them to publish without the permission of their bosses, that openness is no longer merely optional, it is unavoidable.

I’m in favor of all that. But I’m suspicious of the PR motivation behind the transparency movement, and I’ve grown increasingly fearful of threats that it poses to a core media requirement, that of independence. The campaign for transparency has come not from some vast, undifferentiated “public,” but from groups with specific agendas who want to scrutinize newsroom deliberations minutely for evidence of a lack of sympathy with their agenda.

As long as we continue to insist on media independence, we’ll need to realize that not every cry for “transparency” is just, and not every proposal to open newsrooms to outside inspection is wise.

Let me close by suggesting that some of the less discussed avenues for transparency involve the business side of media operations, which pose unusual risks to principled journalism :

Is the public fully informed about the full range of business interests that media-owning companies have?

Can the public have confidence that the news and opinion they receive is not influenced by undisclosed financial entanglements? Should media organizations disclose instances of self-censorship?

Are news owners prepared to discuss with their readers their own funding decisions in regard to newsroom budgets, and share with them their thinking about which areas of public life they are covering and which they are ignoring?

As news operations move on-line, is the nature of the business model that sustains Internet news clear to the public, and are your readers aware of how much of their online activity is being monitored, recorded and supplied to advertisers?

So to conclude, I think the drive for transparency derives from a sincere desire for principled, ethical journalism. It also has the potential of becoming yet another obstacle in the path of dedicated journalists, who already have quite enough obstacles to contend with.

Ethical Journalism in the Internet Age

A presentation to the Organization of News Ombudsmen annual conference, Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 8, 2006

I’m very glad to be in this magnificent country. I’m also mindful of being one of the few academics here, and although it was as a journalist that I spent most of my working life I may succumb to the academic habit of making simple things overly complicated (just as journalists have the opposite problem, of making complicated things overly simple.)

Anyway, I’ll try to be careful and offer some observations that make some sense and may prove useful.

My topic is Ethical Journalism in the Internet Age, and my main argument is straightforward: That the Internet is a transformative technology, changing not just how we do things, but the ethical landscape within which we operate: technologies, by creating capabilities, also create new duties and obligations and recast the ways we look at existing duties and obligations.

I think we are just beginning to see the ways in which the full range of professional rights and wrongs that journalists routinely negotiate in the course of doing their jobs is being challenged and redefined by the Internet.

Many of you play important roles (though perhaps not as important as you would like) in helping your editors and news directors – and the public you all serve – to sort through problems of professional ethics. My hope is that this talk will help you figure out how you can contribute to handling controversies that are, to a great degree, novel — and which derive from the Internet’s astonishing capacities to create, retrieve, preserve, modify and publish news and information.

News organizations are terrible at thinking beyond their next deadline, and it’s unsettling to watch them react reflexively, applying out-dated concepts, to new problems. An example in my country is the current hysteria over intellectual theft, plagiarism, which I’ll come back to in a moment.

Marcelo and the architects of this conference have wisely insisted that these presentations be kept short to allow time for debate, and I’ll be merciful.

I’m going to talk about eight areas in which I think the Internet poses novel challenges to conventional ethical practice in journalism. I’ll go through them quickly, then circle back and explain what I mean. If I were more technically literate I’d have an audio visual presentation, complete with music and onscreen chorus line. But I’m not, so you’ll have to use your imaginations.

First, the Internet’s capacity for instantaneous distribution challenges traditional practices meant to ensure truthfulness and completeness: When is a story “ready” to be posted – meaning when is it true enough to publish? That question is now being answered inconsistently. It implicates an ethical maxim that lies at the core of most journalism codes, truth-telling. So my first point concerns the problem of veracity in the era of the so-called converged newsroom (one in which journalists are using two or more distribution technologies at the same time – whether print, online, radio or TV.) The Internet’s instantaneousness, in sum, threatens veracity.

Second, once even a small news organization posts its content online, its reach becomes global. Because the Internet is universally accessible, it has impact on at least two ethical concerns. One is that this very reach may, paradoxically, represent a huge obstacle to the goal of public service: The Internet exposes journalists to a vast, unknowable audience of unprecedented diversity. How do you serve – meaning remain relevant to and respectful of – a public you don’t know? The other ethical problem concerns the maxim to avoid unnecessary harm: universal accessibility means tiny, local instances of wrongdoing become global facts. It annihilates the degree of relative privacy that the good old days of limited distribution used to protect. Is that fair? So secondly, we’ll look at the consequences of universal accessibility.

Third, we’ll talk about the Internet’s imperishability: Its content is not just universally accessible, it is everlasting. Journalists are no longer simply producing news, they’re creating permanent archives on deadline. That is a challenge to existing corrections policy. It creates a disturbing new possibility: That we are obliged to follow through on stories and ensure that the record is straight. And we may find the model of news as a contemporaneous account – the idea that we’re mainly producing reports for right now – under siege. Do the people who’ll be relying on us one year or 10 years from now matter too? What might serving them require? So my third point concerns imperishability.

Fourth, the Internet has made available a huge amount of valuable content that is easy both to find and to appropriate. That raises the professional standards of proper research and backgrounding. It also makes intellectual theft nearly unavoidable. I’ll talk a bit about plagiarism, which I think has generated a lot more heat than it deserves. My fourth point concerns the ethical consequence of unparalleled informational abundance.

My fifth and sixth points implicate a different area of professional ethics, this having to do with what North Americans call the workplace and the rest of the world calls labor relations.

The fifth point is that the Internet places powerful distribution technology in the hands of individual journalists, who are no longer dependent on their employers to reach the public. What does loyalty mean when the employer no longer exercises the same degree of control over the means of news production  and reporters can self-publish? One does have duties to supervisors and employers, I suppose, and which of those should survive this new empowerment? Hence, my fifth point concerns the Internet as an empowering technology, which upsets traditional workplace obligations.

Six, paradoxically, because of the way Internet technology is being adopted – as part of the so-called converged newsroom – it is being used to accelerate the work pace, degrade the working environment for journalists and make in-depth reporting even harder to conduct. In this respect, the editorial policies the Internet is being used to advance are potential harmful to sound journalistic practice.

My seventh point is business related. Expansion into Internet services commits news organizations to dubious business choices, which may undermine trust relationships with their public. Although some organizations are opting for subscription models, which is at least intelligible, the dominant model on the Internet is an online advertising model that is increasingly based on surveillance through what many of us consider to be spyware. How much of this should be disclosed, and what might reliance on spyware do to a precious ethical value: trust.

Finally, thanks to the Internet and e-mail the public is providing incomparably greater feedback to newsrooms than ever before. Do journalists therefore have a new duty: A duty to listen?

(1.) My first point concerns the Internet’s instantaneousness and the threat that poses to traditional standards of veracity.

I think that anybody who has worked on a newspaper has had occasion to be profoundly grateful for its inefficiencies, thankful for the 19th Century, mechanical age clunkiness of the entire news production process. Traditional news cycles incorporate a substantial margin for error between the close of the workday and news production, most of it based on the events of that day. The morning newspaper and late evening newscast have the evening hours to prepare reports for the public, with multiple levels of review. The routine hence integrates a period during which checking and verification can take place without endangering distribution deadlines.

News produced for the Internet has none of that. It has no inbuilt delay between creation and production, and between production and publication. Converged or Internet-based news operations introduce a “deadline every minute” capability, like traditional wire services, and a corresponding urgency.

When is a story ready? The same reporter who is being pressured to provide a first account of a news conference within 15 minutes of its conclusion is then supposed to turn around and provide a more considered story for the print edition. Is it understood that it’ll be less complete, possibly unacceptable by print standards? Does it require a warning label? Which version is the reader supposed to trust? And what is the logic of populating a new medium with inadequately reported content?

News organizations are trying to extend their reputation for accuracy that they base on their performance in one medium to their reporting via other media, where it doesn’t apply, which is deceitful.

(2.) My second point concerns the easy, universal accessibility of Internet content.

At least two ethical consequences flow from that: The first is a potential one: How can we understand our audience’s needs and interests, be respectful of them, avoid giving them offense needlessly and gratuitously, if we don’t know who they are? Worse, if they could be anybody, anywhere? You could imagine a Danish cartoon controversy attributable to Internet distribution. How is your sense of responsibility affected by the growing reality that you’re communicating with a vast anonymous audience of people who may stumble on your work via search engines? Does that constrain your staffs’ willingness to express themselves in potentially controversial ways? Should it?

The second consequence of universal accessibility is very different, and I think it’s not just potential, but real: This is the transformation the Internet provokes to the traditional distinction between public and private information.

As journalists we may insist on an unlimited right to publish information that is in the public sphere, but we’re also mindful that reporting nominally public information can harm people. The difference between an arrest for public drunkenness that makes the papers and one that does not can be enormous for the person who was arrested. Normally we’d say, too bad.

That’s because before the Internet the likelihood was that the arrest would remain of local, and short-lived, interest. All of us could expect to benefit from – or take refuge in – what I call a zone of relative obscurity. Someone who wanted to probe that person’s past would have needed to already know about the arrest, and with that foreknowledge to cull newspaper clips or physically visit the courthouse and pull records. No longer. News reports are already indelibly, and universally, available; we will soon have keyword-searchable TV news archives as well.

I don’t have an answer for this. I do think this raises questions about the routine practice of publishing minor news about wrongdoing that is easily available to anybody who’s the slightest bit curious, and unfairly causes the subject disproportionate harm. I’m not saying stop; I’m saying this is a problem, one that isn’t going away.

(3.) That’s related to my third point, which concerns the imperishability of Internet postings.

Journalists are no longer just reporting news, they are creating archives: Indeed, these archives aren’t just universally accessible, they are permanent.

We had an incident at my university involving an alumnus who had been interviewed as a student some years ago for a class project that was subsequently posted online. The project involved weapons, and this student had a collection of knives that he bragged about. He would even carry a knife or two with him, he said. The problem now is that if you Googled this young man’s name, the first hit you’d get would be this long-ago student project, and of course, he sounds to a prospective employer like the very last person you would ever want to hire. He appealed to the Journalism Department for help, and although we could remove the story from the original site we could not guarantee that it wouldn’t continue to reside on innumerable servers throughout cyberspace.

So this was a harm without a remedy. (We just hoped he wasn’t still armed.)

Imperishability also recasts the problem of corrections: If you are, indeed, now in the business of creating archives, do you need to revise corrections policy? Generally, organizations run a correction only if it’s not long after the story is published, only if it’s requested, and only when the mistake meets some materiality threshold. (It has to be important. Except if you’re the New York Times, which prefers correcting things that don’t matter, and the Guardian, which corrects things that are funny.)

But if we are in the archives business, shouldn’t we expect the reporter who discovers an error in a story that ran months before to see to it that the archived version has correct information? Has technology thrust upon us an obligation to tend and modify an ongoing record to reflect facts as they come to light, even if they don’t merit new “news” coverage? Burdensome, yes. But some day soon a court may well rule that archived defamatory falsehoods are actionable. (When it happens, remember where you heard it first.)

I think mistakes must be addressed much more zealously than they now are, no matter how long ago the original report ran, even if nobody complains. Those papers may be landfill, but the error is still hanging there in cyberspace, fresh as ever, wrong as can be.

(This is a bit fanciful, but imperishability opens yet another issue: Suppose the people who will read your newspaper in the future and pay to use it as a research tool rival in size your immediate audience. Does that alter what you choose to report? Does news itself need to be rethought if it’s less a record of daily events and more a regular contribution to a continuing chronicle of social realities that are thought to have enduring importance? Certainly pushes us in a different direction than the 24/7 news cycle that
everybody seems to think the Internet has institutionalized.)

My final thought on imperishability has to do with the problem of follow-through: Can you continue to report arrests without ever noting that the charges were dropped and the defendant acquitted? Routine neglect like that was tolerable in an age when we could assume the matter would soon be forgotten. But nothing’s forgotten that way now. On the Internet, that arrested person remains under a cloud.

(4.) My fourth point concerns this unprecedented abundance of information available to news creators.

This, it seems to me, strengthens the obligation to background stories thoroughly. A higher standard of research and context is appropriate. In fact, now that journalists work in an informational environment of unprecedented abundance, it is virtually professional malpractice not to sweep the Internet for relevant stuff.

But paradoxically, reporters are subject to harsh reprisals when they use information without what’s viewed as adequate attribution. Often the real sin isn’t the use, but the failure to conceal the borrowing by paraphrasing skillfully. The standards of ethical borrowing are not clear, and it isn’t enough to brand all such borrowing as “theft” and to reflexively apply standards of “originality” lifted from creative fiction that have little application to journalism.

What is originality in journalism? Journalists aren’t poets or novelists; they are supposed to be derivative. A reporter is who truly “original” is a reporter who needs to be fired. They don’t invent characters or plots. Their whole job is to find and convey realities, words, ideas from somewhere else. It isn’t their originality we value. Indeed, we even insist their accounts remain faithful to source materials. We call that accuracy.

I’m being a little facetious, but the current spasm over intellectual theft is excessive. Passing somebody else’s work off as one’s own is plainly impermissible; failing to attribute specific facts fully may or may not be an ethical breach. We should worry more about what the public cares about: is the information true?

In my view, the more serious theft is that which occurs when market-dominant news organizations blithely re-report stories that first appeared elsewhere as if they had never been published before, but that’s a subject for another time.

Points five and six relate to workplace relations between journalists and the organizations that employ them.

(5.) Point five concerns the degree of autonomy and empowerment the new technology provides to individual journalists.

Through blogs and e-mails reporters can leak information about their own organizations easily and routinely, and can circumvent their own supervisors and get stories out even if their editors believe the work is premature or doesn’t meet editorial standards. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was an early example; it was posted by a blogger named Matt Drudge, who reported – almost certainly as a result of a leak – that Newsweek magazine had written, but was not publishing, a story about President Clinton and an intern. Once Drudge posted that leak, the story was published.

Do reporters have a responsibility not to use such back channels work to publish work their employers are balking at publishing?

And what standards are to apply when staff members maintain blogs or participate in online discourse? Is it appropriate for a news organization to restrict what a journalist says on a website he or she maintains independently?

And for that matter, what standards should apply to blogs that are hosted on the news organization’s own site? A Los Angeles Times columnist was recently disciplined for posting comments under a pseudonym on an unaffiliated website, where anonymous postings are routine. Why? What ethical maxim did he violate?

My point is that the traditional relationship between journalism employer and employee is being challenged. The employee has vast new powers, and the employer is asserting expanded new authorities. The obligations of each aren’t at all clear. They need to be addressed and articulated.

(6.) This takes us to the sixth point, which looks at ethical challenges related to Internet technology not as empowering, but as a tool of institutional strategy moreso than journalism.

The model of the “converged newsroom,” in which editorial staff are cross-trained to use various distribution technologies, or “platforms,” opens up frontiers of newsroom exploitation. It amounts to what trade unionists call a speedup: workers doing more work for the same pay. This is a troubling development. The practices that constitute ethical journalism include workplace policies, and reporters who are treated unfairly in the newsroom are ill-disposed to treat their sources and subjects with the care, commitment and compassion they deserve.

Moreover, convergence may pose a threat to depth reporting, to thoughtful and carefully contextualized work that exemplifies the best of journalism. The reporter who is expected to post progressively more detailed versions of a story is doing so at the expense of other efforts.

It is deeply ironic that news media leaders, who fret constantly about their credibility and the declining appetite for news, should dive headlong into the 24/7 news cycle – which first, ensures haste, errors, half-truths and all the things the public supposedly loathes, and second, is calculated to appeal mainly to the same, fiercely committed news junkies who are widely assumed to be dwindling into extinction.

(7.) The appeal of convergence is a commercial one, which brings me to my seventh point, related to particular ethical problems associated with doing business on the Internet.

There are many of these: Is it appropriate to link from a theater review to the box office that’s selling tickets to that play (and to accept a sales commission)? Is it acceptable to sell advertising placement alongside news stories that advertisers believe constitutes the right environment?

But my main concern relates to what has become known as behavioral marketing, which is expected to become the dominant revenue source of the Internet-based news model: By behavioral marketing, I mean a collection of technical features that assemble and retain records of your reader’s activity on the Internet and sell that information to advertisers, so they can anticipate the reader’s receptivity to sales messages and “serve” them with ads they’re likely to respond to. (This is the Google model, by the way.)

Increasingly, your online appeal as an advertising venue will depend on your willingness to watch what your readers are doing online, which stories they read, which ads they click on. Marketing people would dispute this characterization, but to me this is an advertising model built on surveillance, which must be largely concealed from the public.

It’s an irony of the Internet that for all its clamor about transparency, its emerging business model is anything but transparent. The question for you is whether this model is consistent with the trust you want to establish with your readers? Is it ethical? Do you have an obligation to disclose it? And, here’s the crunch: Will you bar from your site readers who refuse to accept “cookies,” the bits of telltale code implanted in their computers that enable outsiders to track where on the Internet they browse?

(8.) My last point, and I thank you for staying with me, concerns the unprecedented volume of comment from the public that e-mail makes possible, even inevitable.

E-mail is a big, messy subject: Is e-mail to a reporter private? Is it even the reporter’s, or does it belong to his/her employer – and can the reporter therefore not even promise confidentiality?

But here I want to focus on the issues raised by its volume and its enormous value. All by itself it has the potential to transform, or at least to modify, the traditional communicator-audience relationship from the one-way flow to the much discussed conversational model.

But there’s a problem: Nowhere do journalists accept an essential precondition – a duty to listen. It’s not in any codes that I know of. A journalist may or may not play back messages from strangers or read unsolicited letters from ordinary people. But inflows from the public are peripheral to his or her main duties, likely to be distractions, and responding to them is not ethically significant, and may earn rebukes as a waste of time.

I think that is no longer defensible. So my final point is to argue for a duty to listen, which would hold that reading and, when appropriate, answering the dozens of e-mails from ordinary people that the reporter gets every day isn’t noblesse oblige, it’s a duty. And it gets us closer to a suppler, potentially richer kind of news creation, in which a greater range of voices are heard, and heeded.

I’ll close with this thought. It’s striking how much of the decision making about Internet applications – which ones to use, what rules should govern their use – are made by the people who own and run news organizations and who are acting in view of big strategic objectives. These determinations typically aren’t being made by ordinary journalists. Nor are they made for reasons of journalistic professionalism. Journalists may, of course, accept the inevitability of the converged newsroom, but I don’t know of any reporter who has clamored for it, and as I’ve pointed out, it is something that may not be at all good for them and what they care most about.

I know of no effort by non-managerial journalists to put together their own position on Internet use. As I’ve argued elsewhere, newsroom ethics isn’t just a set of rules for management to invoke in maintaining discipline and ensuring that institutional goals are met. It should be a set of principles that arise from the practice of journalism, and which have as their main purpose, public service. And that’s the real challenge to ethical journalism in the Internet age.

Coming up Short: The Dilemma of the Evil but Truthful Source

Remarks on the problem of short-sellers to the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW)


Gary Klott Memorial Ethics Symposium, Minneapolis, Minn. on April 30, 2006

Initially I thought this was a fairly thin subject: What’s the problem with accepting information from short-sellers? If the story’s solid and newsworthy, you run with it, right?

But I started thinking more about it and decided it was an inspired choice, so let me see what I can contribute.

Mine is the perspective of somebody who tries to teach professional ethics, and I’ll be honest and say that this isn’t the perspective I would’ve offered as a business journalist, back before I was a virgin.

Forgive me for being the academic, but my job is to make simple questions complex, just as yours is to make complex questions simple, so I’ll start by breaking this topic into two questions:

First: Are there unique ethical problems raised by the practice of soliciting or accepting information from short-sellers for business reporting?

So the first question is, is there something unique here?

The second question is one of generalized relevance: Does the use of short-sellers illuminate larger problems that are presented when journalists serve as willing conduits for information that, for whatever its public value, is intended to harm? Does that intent matter? And is using it still OK?

So the second question is what we might conclude about the wider, familiar, vexing issue of which shorts are a special case.

And I’m going to wind up with some comments about what I propose to call the Dilemma of the Evil but Truthful Source.

I. To the first question: Is there anything unique about the problem of short-sellers.

The answer here, I believe, is yes.

(Parenthetically, let’s assume for sake of discussion that the information the short-seller is tipping you to is accurate and apparently newsworthy, and is something you can verify for yourself. So you don’t have to take his/her word for it. I want to distinguish this from a host of problems associated with using confidential sources. In other words, technically, this is a tipster, not a source.)

What’s unique about the short-seller situation?

First, clarity of motive. The benefit that the source will derive from your use of the information is clear and undeniable. Oftentimes, motives are hard to infer when it comes to sources. Not with shorts. They are tipping you to information in hopes that they will make money as a direct consequence of your publishing it.

And, if benefits are clear, so too the harm is equally clear and undeniable. Their gain will be somebody else’s loss. The valuation of an asset is supposed to suffer. Your source is betting on a market plunge, in which people who aren’t plugged in will be screwed and the source will help scrape up the difference. I’ll come back to the counter-argument that the companies the shorts target often get no more than what’s coming to them. So the first element is clarity of motive.

Second, the entire play is short-term, and it takes place over a tightly confined period. A fuse is burning. In that respect, if you view your normal mode of activity as a business journalists to be in some sense comparable to that of value investors–looking to understand and analyze economic activity in terms of their fundamentals and long term realities–this is a time-bound ploy that is quite different.

Third, your collaboration is integral to the financial maneuver.  Hence, you think you’re just writing a story, but you are getting the story only to buy your participation in a market-moving strategem.  And I’m going to suggest that you can’t evaluate your choices unless you look at whether you’re OK with that strategem.

It is possible that the story you’re going to write will provoke needed reforms, and will trigger a market response that’s entirely appropriate (and newsworthy.) But that isn’t the reason you’ve been handed the story. It’s in the hope that your reporting will touch off a stampede, or will soften up the company in view of a possible takeover play you don’t even know about.

Your situation is very much like the short-seller’s. Both of you are looking at short-term benefit – for you, a story – from disclosures that will harm other people and may or may not have an offsetting beneficial effect. Neither of you is supposed to care about that long-term benefit.

So to wind up this uniqueness discussion, I’d say there’s a clarity and intelligibility to the problem posed by short-selling that’s a relief, compared with the lunacy of political sources.

II. Now to the second question: In what respects is short-selling emblematic of larger issues raised by listening to sources with damaging information and agendas of their own (as if there is any other kind)?

My point here will be that the shorts situation is an especially clear instance of a larger problem that journalists routinely face:

The Dilemma of the Evil but Truthful Source.

Some of you won’t like where I’m going here, but I’m going to conclude that if you knowingly and willingly accept a role in a ploy, a strategem, in exchange for information, you can’t evade a share of responsibility for the overall morality of that ploy by hiding behind something called professional obligation.

First, obviously, even though the source has motives of its own, the information may very well be solid and may indicate gross improprieties and wrongdoing that under any standard of newsworthiness or public service ought to be exposed.

In that respect, you take your shot. If you get tied up in meditations on ultimate consequence – which is unknowable – you’d never get out of bed in the morning. So run with it, and let the chips fall.

That’s easy. It’s the pure case when the existence of a private agenda seems clearly to be of lesser importance than the wider benefits that derive from publishing. So somebody settles a score, God bless. That unpleasant reality is outweighed by the importance of the news that gets out.

But what about when the public stake in the disclosure is less unequivocal? When you can’t be sure anybody apart from your informant and a small number of market players will benefit? Suppose this is juicy, personal stuff that will embarrass current management and feed doubts about its credibility, but will have bearing on the company only because you’ve reported it? (Stuff from divorce files that makes the CEO look like a jerk, e.g.)

All you know is that the market will react – isn’t that enough to make it newsworthy and reportable?

Here, it seems to me, you have a weaker line of defense: Serving the market. I’m sure we have a number of the faithful out there who believe the market is a powerful instrument of efficiency, democracy and justice. I came of age in a more skeptical time, but enough of that…. For you the market relies on a free flow of information. Even disclosures that seem cheap and harmful serve as lubricant; besides, they may be countered by other disclosures, and some rough balance is achieved:

“I’m just a reporter, and I don’t adjudicate rights and wrongs, let alone know what the ultimate effects of a story will be. It’s not my job. I serve the market system with accurate information.”

But is that just an occupational reflex – or does it reflect some larger morality that you’re pledging subservience to? Does it justify indifference to abundant evidence that you’re about to harm people?

In the case of short-sellers, I think it’s a beguiling argument, but a cop-out. Indeed, one danger here is that the notion of newsworthiness itself is trivialized and corrupted: If you decide that information is newsworthy because it will move the market, you are no longer making that judgment as a professional journalist, you’re making it as a proxy for a narrow class of market players. You’re no longer engaging the norms and values of the larger economic system.

What if there is information about the private doings of a CEO that his or her enemies will seize on? Is that a story for you too – simply because it’s likely to have a real-world impact, even though it invades privacy and causes personal harm and doesn’t really reflect on professional competency?

Yes, sometimes companies get what’s coming to them. That’s what you’ve got to look at. Because the shorts aren’t. They may still have a smart interesting story to sell that may drive down the share value of the company within the time frame that they need – without reflecting significant realities about the company or prompting reforms in the targeted firm.

I’d argue we’re not absolved from basic moral obligations just because we’re journalists. Role morality isn’t the last word.

(That’s right. You pull the kid out of the river, even if it means you don’t get to write the story about the tragic drowning.)

In fact, our own codes demand we refrain from doing unnecessary harm. As a journalist, I’ve always argued that you don’t keep newsworthy things from the public unless there’s a very good reason.

But I think journalists retain a wider and pre-professional obligation to scrutinize their conduct and understand their susceptibility to manipulation by special interests, who understand too well what we need to do our jobs.

The problem of the Evil but Truthful Source is not straightforward. Life would be simpler if our job was just to get the news and write the story. But when you’re knowingly enlisted in a financial strategy, you can’t pretend your role is limited to writing a story that just happens to advance that strategy. This is not comfortable to say, but you need to decide whether you want to serve its ends.

And falling back on your duty as a journalist doesn’t relieve you of that responsibility.

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