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Blogosphere rapidly developing a code of ethics, something Old Media never quite got around to 6/24/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Bloggers, Ethics.

This weekend’s blogs were abuzz with another debate on bloggers’ ethical issues. This time it was about whether there are any circumstances under which bloggers who review technical products can participate in manufacturers’ advertising campaigns (see Jeff Jarvis’ summary). Recently there was a similarly heated debate over whether bloggers have the right to refuse traditional Press interviews in favor of blogged ones. These debates are intense, they move very rapidly, and generally last no more than a few days. Lots of people weigh in, a combination of bloggers and their audiences. The debate is open to all and the arguments and the arguees are transparent. And despite the seeming chaos, they somehow usually succeed in reaching some sort of equilibrium point that resembles a consensus. In these incremental steps, on at times seemingly arcane matters, a compilation of best ethical practices for the blogosphere is steadily being codified.

In contrast, there is no similar process in the Old Media, nor has there ever been. Since Journalism never became a true profession, it continues to lack an agreed-to code of ethics. When NBC aired the Virginia Tech killer’s video, there were no codified criteria to which NBC could turn to make a “no go” decision. When the Duke lacrosse team players were found innocent, there was no forum for post-mortem hand-wringing on what the Press might do differently next time to avoid ruining the lives of innocents. It’s too late to do anything about it now, but imagine how much higher the public’s trust in Old Media might be today, and how much of a leg-up they would now have on upstart online competitors, if they had placed similar energy in self-flagellation as the blogs do now.


1. Clyde Bentley - 6/29/07

Good Lord, Steve, what media rock have you been hiding under? Every journalism organization out there has version of a code of ethics. And half the newspapers in the country have a copy of Walter Williams’ “Journalist’s Creed” written in 1906. The second paragraph of that is the basis of almost all other media ethics guides.

“I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.”

Bloggers, like Old Media journalists, will never adopt an “agreed-to” code of ethics. Why? Simply because universal collusion on any idea is the antithesis of a free and open press. Someone always disagrees, which is their right under our Constitution. The First Amendment that ensures we have multiple sources of information also ensures that those sources cannot be regulated.

The current call for a blog code of ethics comes primarily from the developing “Blogosphere Old Media.” The professional bloggers and commentators out there are being overwhelmed by the 175,000 new blogs created each day. Right or wrong, the recent arguments sound too much like turf-protecting.

2. Steve Boriss - 6/29/07

Clyde, I’d say the fact that “every journalism organization out there has a version of a code of ethics” on the surface supports the point that there actually is no agreed-to code of ethics. But the bigger issue I believe is that what are commonly referred to as codes of ethics are mostly a collection of high-sounding prose that in practice do not provide real guidance to newsrooms. For instance, the words you cited in Walter Williams’ creed do not provide specific direction to NBC struggling with the VA Tech airing issue nor the Press figuring out how to cover the now deemed innocent Duke students. Whether the blogosphere will ultimately end-up with a single association and a codified ethics package is to be determined. But it is a positive sign that there is a lot of ongoing debate, facilitated by the natural online structure, and one gets the sense that the ethics debate will be an ongoing feature of online news.

3. Clyde Bentley - 6/30/07

So where is agreed-upon code of ethics for university professors? Or for mayors? Or business administration?

I don’t fault you for lauding the attempts to publish guidelines of good taste and civil communication, but codes of ethics are almost never universally adopted. The Society of Professional Journalists has a code, as do many city governments and some universities (couldn’t find WU’s, but it is probably there).

The so-far workable ethics system in both journalism and blogging is to encourage articulate critics like you and like me to raise the challenge. Intellectual pressure can effective. Peer pressure can be devastatingly effective.

4. Steve Boriss - 7/1/07

Clyde, I agree that many ethical codes are vague. What strikes me as a little bit unique, though, about journalism is the difference between the pronouncements we often hear about the high standards of journalism and the absence of standards to back them up. If too much “sensationalism” is a problem, why do there seem to be no definitions of it or words explaining why this is a problem? If breaking the law is OK, as the NY Times apparently believes it is in the case of leaking classified documents, under what circumstances is it not OK? We hear about a “public right to know,” but is there ever a time when it’s OK, or better, for the public NOT to know? In practice it seems more like a journalist’s right to say whatever he or she wants, independent of the legitimate objections others may have. Without the profession/craft explaining the high principles behind their practices, these are hard for the public to accept, and I think this has caused serious problems for the field.

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[…] Steve Boriss worries about blogging; and the ethical site of it. His article opens a discussion about ethical values in both, online […]

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