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.

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