Journalism codes leave vexing problems untouched

Since the 1920s journalists in the United States have been writing and rewriting codes of ethics. This began because they wanted the public and their own employers to regard them as worthy of respect (and decent pay), with rules, specialized expertise, and lofty purpose—genuine professionals, just like dentists and accountants. They also wanted guidelines that would keep them both honest and out of court.

There are quite a lot of codes around: The broadcasters have one; a good many news organizations, from tiny newspapers to major market TV stations, have their own; the Online News Association is even hosting a participatory hacking party to encourage members to draw up their own codes, “because one size does not fit all.”

Most recently, just after Labor Day the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) released a revision of its 1996 code, probably the most influential and most widely consulted among U.S. journalists.

Codes typically have many problems because they fill conflicting needs. The ones written by news outlets are often no more than employee manuals, and pronounce on confidential sources alongside overtime and severance. The deft touch of in-house lawyers is apparent, and the codes give management both deniability if reporters mess up and the moral license to nail them even if their misdeeds are more embarrassing than unethical.

But the bigger problem of codes is that they are so clearly overmatched by the swirl of ethical challenge that inundates contemporary journalism.

To be sure, right conduct can be encouraged by admonitions such as seek the truth, don’t plagiarize, correct errors, don’t shill, and treat people with respect.

But like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, those instructions constantly clash with each other and with real world pressures. Today’s journalists—and their employers—face challenges that are immensely more perplexing than those that these codes anticipate, let alone address. Take these hot-button issues the SPJ code does almost nothing to clarify:

– Clickbait: News organizations increasingly rely on web analytics that track, in real time, the traffic that particular postings draw, according to research by Angele Christin of the New School in New York. The result, Christin suggests, is the emergence of incentive structures that tilt reporters’ attention toward editorial confections with strong audience appeal but little news value. Isn’t this an ethical problem? Indeed, isn’t the way that editorial resources are used the quintessential ethical problem that journalism faces?

– Herding: Similarly, the ability to discern momentary trends in online chatter lures editorial resources toward offerings that will draw more of the mindshare of the minute and keep the news outlet “in the conversation,” as the trendy usage puts it. At what point does that constitute an abandonment of the discernment that was once called editorial judgment in favor of a continual state of market-chasing panic?

– Corporate complicity: News organizations now routinely incorporate social media into their newsgathering and online distribution operations. They crown Twitter users as trendsetters by recognizing tweets as newsworthy, they treat Google as a natural part of the utility landscape, they sell products in partnership with Amazon, and they build outreach strategies on Facebook. Yet those same vast networks are built on bare-knuckle competition, high-stakes lobbying, and problematic appropriation of user data. Isn’t this complicity a problem? Doesn’t Continue reading “Journalism codes leave vexing problems untouched”

On Google, the curse of the Permanent Record, and the right to be forgotten

 

Once, we came of age under the shadow of something called a Permanent Record. Nobody ever actually saw one, but it was a scary thing, and as youngsters we understood we had to keep our own permanent records clean, since any stains on them could do lifelong damage.

Plainly, the idea of an authoritative, ineradicable ledger on individual behavior is a powerful one. Widespread too. You see it in everything from the divine Book of Life to the gift list kept by Santa, who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.

That permanent record meant somebody was paying attention, which was good, but it was also a brooding and oppressive background presence, since it enabled even trivial sins to curse our futures.

A good thing it was largely mythic. Back then, actual record-keeping was spotty and forgetful, and technology had zero ability to corral the manifold traces that we leave as we make our way through life into some all-knowing compendium.

No longer. Welcome to the digital age. Its mighty search engines have spawned a virtual permanent record for millions of individuals. It’s updated constantly, lasts forever, and is in fulltime public view.

What gets in it and with what prominence—those are mysteries, depending on the alchemy of particular search engines. Generally, it seems, they suck up most anything about someone that was published or resides in Internet-accessible public records. (The search engines don’t scour social media like Twitter and Facebook, yet.)

That means the fraternity house dustup that led to a sleepover in jail, or the rude remark at a political rally, or any of a thousand missteps and embarrassments that in a pre-modern age would have faded into oblivion—the debris of what Justice John Paul Stevens called the “practical obscurity” we used to inhabit—remain vivid, alive and, potentially, toxic.

Hence the importance of last month’s ruling by Europe’s highest court. It authorizes people to demand that links to material that threatens their privacy be scrubbed from search results.

The case involves Google, the California-based colossus that handles roughly 90 percent of Europe’s Internet searches. It was brought by a Spaniard who challenged a link to a 1998 item in a Catalan newspaper about the auction of his home, which was repossessed to pay off debts he owed. He reasoned that the matter had been resolved ages ago and there was no reason people who googled

Continue reading “On Google, the curse of the Permanent Record, and the right to be forgotten”

A digital journalism revolution with strings attached

Bring more than a thousand journalists together, many of them young and most of them brimming with skill in handling today’s most dazzling information tools, and you’d expect feverish talk about producing the kind of reporting that moves nations. Apart from dropping names and looking for jobs, that’s what journalists do in their off-hours—they talk stories, they talk opportunities to do the kind of work that matters.

And that’s what I expected when I rejoined the Online News Association, the premier organization of digital journalists, and went to their recent annual conference in Boston.

Boston did have some of that, notably sessions on the Arab spring, on telling in-depth stories better, and on the largely overlooked history of racial and sexual diversity in the digital revolution—which was fomented, as it happens, by lots more minorities and women than the standard fable of white boys in the garage might suggest.

So the rising generation of journalists didn’t seem wholly indifferent to the needs of a world that the rest of us hope they’ll dedicate themselves to serving, if not saving. But the conference sessions that generated the most buzz, and which had people sitting in the aisles and clustered at the doorways, weren’t about rooting out corruption or feeding the hungry.

They were about entrepreneurial journalism, which isn’t some new catchphrase for street-smart, down and dirty reporting. It’s a term for turning news and comment into a perpetual hustle. They were about transforming yourself into a “brand,” a recognizable label that can be monetized, thanks to the online traffic successful brands draw via New Age social media. They were about “cooking up tasty apps,” which is tech-speak for clever new interactive feeds that slice the informational customer base in novel ways.

And throughout the conference was the hip, deft, never-heavy hand of the affable lords of the online world. On the panels, at the booths, on the podiums were representatives of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, even Microsoft, which sponsored the first-night reception. They were welcomed as authoritative guides to the sophisticated, market-savvy journalism of today. They were envoys from colossal corporate enterprises, but they were embraced as ambassadors of a revolution—not because they know anything about news, but because they tend the meadows where the customers browse. Continue reading “A digital journalism revolution with strings attached”