Online Ethics: The Beginning Of the End of the Ad Hoc Era?

Editor’s note:
This article is an analysis of a recent conference held at The Poynter
Institute in an attempt to kick-start a conversation about drafting a
set of guiding principles for online ethics. The author of this article
was not a participant in the conference, but rather an observer, and
reports his impressions here.

The 25 professionals who convened at Poynter recently for an
online ethics conference seemed no longer willing to settle for “making it up
as we go,” as Poynter’s Kelly McBride put it. Following a format with no speeches
and no panels, the group jumped right into detailed discussion of the dilemmas
facing online publishers and began drafting the kind of guidelines that may
lend some order to what remains an often chaotic landscape.

Without putting too historic a sheen on the event, the
gathering almost recalled a certain meeting in Philadelphia
during the sweltering summer of 1776. The work was worthwhile and hard — addressing
a task that could be approached but hardly completed during the two days of the
conference. Unfortunately, there was no Thomas Jefferson in the house to
eloquently draft the sense of the meeting.

Even if full answers are to come later, the conference did
succeed in raising the most burning ethical questions from the front lines. And
the group came up with starter sets of principles and protocols across five
main areas: voice and tone; revenue and content; credibility and accuracy;
resources and capacity and user-generated content.

Small groups of participants tackled each of those areas
and, in the process, found a common issue sparking more debate than resolution
across four of the five: the ethics of linking.

The work is still very much in progress, and it’s unclear
when finished documents will emerge. What follows represents one observer’s
take on several of the issues, beginning with the hottest one of all.


Linking

If you provide a link to an external source, what are you
saying about its reliability, taste and transparency?

On the one hand, participants agreed, links represent a core
strength of the Web with potential to make any entry richer and more
complete. Traditional commercial
concerns about sending customers to external sites no longer make sense as a
rationale for staying out of the linking game altogether.

But if accuracy, transparency (about where the information
is coming from) and taste are ethical values of an organization — and part of
what the “brand” stands for — how should those values inform decisions about
links?  Isn’t linking to below-standard
material just another way of publishing it?

There are further complicating factors. Links to such recent hot potatoes as the
Nicholas Berg beheading or the anti-Islamic Danish cartoons were generally
rejected on grounds of taste. But, as James
Brady
of The Washington Post and
other participants asked, isn’t it something of a cop-out if you let readers
know where they can find the sensitive material online while withholding the
clickable link? 

Is there a slightly reduced threshold for links from
blogs? Should the standard be relaxed
further if the links come from user-generated blogs?

Many — but not all — of the groups seemed to believe that, at
risk of some stodginess, journalistic Web sites need to be sure links are
vetted before being posted. But that
formulation raised a further question: How to balance such often-conflicting
considerations as editing resources available, the volume of material to be
linked and the role of the reader in assessing the linked material for himself
or herself? And just how thorough a vetting are we talking about?

Conference leader Bob Steele
made clear he was not looking for a rulebook from the group.  Instead, as in earlier Poynter sessions that
developed guidelines on such matters such as photo manipulation and privacy, he
urged the participants to define the issues, relevant principles and the right
questions to ask.

So, for instance, links may fall under the general
principle, as one working group put it, that “we commit to presenting as
accurate and complete a picture of our world as possible” and “taking full
advantage of emerging media and technology” to do so.

General online publishing protocols could include asking
such questions as:

  • What
    purpose will be served?
  • What
    harm might be caused?
  • How
    much of this content is verified?
  • How
    reliable and comprehensive are the sources?
  • Are we
    giving proper context?

That’s a beginning, but hardly a complete list. What do you do if you find out, after the fact, that
a link is badly flawed? Of course, you
can take it down. But do you also owe readers some species of a correction, an
explanation of what had been there and why it was pulled?

Longtime bloggers and other online writers routinely pepper
their copy with links as a form of documentation. In opinion pieces, links can also be a handy reference
to an opposing viewpoint (for the sake of scope and balance). But neither of these is a convention of
newspaper or broadcast stories — so there is a question of whether writers and
users will be clear on the purposes of a link. Maybe a policy, once established, needs to be published?

The conference closed with a discussion of Poynter Online’s
own painful case in point — a link to a blog item on the death of a young
photographer in The Indianapolis Star
newsroom. Star editor Dennis Ryerson, who took part in the conference,
reiterated his earlier complaints that parts of the blog account were flat
wrong and hurtful to the company’s reputation and to him personally.

Looking back, as Poynter Online editor Bill
Mitchell
did in a published enquiryit is clear that the account was
flawed. And yet it was written by a
recently retired reporter, new to blogging, and in a quick read seemed to hang
together. Nevertheless, the item had no
named sources, contained implausible allegations, displayed extreme
anti-Gannett animus and appeared to have been posted without giving the accused
a chance to reply.

Those factors help define the circumstances when alarm bells
should go off for the vetting editor in a hurry. The conference concluded with participants
wanting a fuller exploration of the issues and protocols. The issue of links has been added
as a separate topic for follow-up work.



Revenue and Content

I’ve written often about how online revenue growth is the bright spot for otherwise flat newspaper
and broadcast operations. It also stands
to reason that bringing more readers to the sites and getting them to stay
longer with expanded editorial offerings will help sell more advertising.

All true, to a point. But those in the trenches are beginning to experience heightened revenue
pressure.
The business side is asking
their counterparts in news to produce the kind of content that will
support “vertical” categories such as health and real estate. Editors
are faced with
signing off on various specials, the online equivalent of advertorials,
which
may or may not be clearly described as something other than independent
news
content.

The pressure is most intense at the biggest, best-established
sites — Yahoo!, MSNBC, the Los Angeles
Times
. But the sense of the
conference was that this 21st-century version of the old tensions of
newsroom vs. business–side is beginning to surface at smaller operations, too.

A
complicating factor is that the newness of the Web and frequent site
redesigns have created publishing formats without the physical and
visual boundaries that are fairly obvious in a printed edition. In other words, it may not be clear, just by
looking, what is editorial, what is advertising and what is some sort of hybrid.

One more complication. It is easy to measure which stories
generate the most traffic. But the
editors agreed that serious public service journalism needs to remain part of
the mix even if crime, sex and celebrity get the heaviest readership online.

The draft guidelines offered a nod to the notion that “the
enterprise needs to make money to sustain itself.” But a Wild West leniency on ad placements and
sponsorships could undermine the consumer experience and credibility of the
brand. The guidelines called for “a
defined process for decision-making” to revolve disputes between news and
advertising. Time ran out at the conference before the working group could get
specific about what such a process would entail, but the work continues.


User-Generated Content

A more predictable hot-button topic was what to do with
user-generated content. Embracing it, at
least to a degree, comes with embracing online and the platform’s potential for
broadening content and debate and connecting people of like interests.

And it provided a nexus for a broad issue that ran through
the entire discussion: How do you import
the most important values of the parent news organization, while at the same time
recognizing what is different in some online content and, as several put it, “just letting go” of traditional strictures?

One guideline doesn’t fit all situations. Lea Donosky of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said she has grown comfortable with
shooting for a different tone in a discussion site about politics and one focused
on dating. Joe Michaud
of MaineToday.com said he was inclined
to ask less of a one-time, “drive-by comment” than of a user who had become a
blogging regular.

On the one hand, user-generated content is integral to a broadened
mission of developing community as well as reporting the news.It positions a newspaper or broadcast outlet
as getting attuned to multi-directional conversation in which the audience becomes
a valued contributor.

But, boy, are there landmines. One working group discussed at length whether
guidelines should invite contributors to say what they want but at the same
time be “respectful.” After some debate
the group concluded that users can be rude, flippant, hostile — snarky, in
short — at least to a degree, in expressing their opinions.

Then there is the question of anonymity, increasingly
frowned on as sourcing for news stories and prohibited in letters to the
editor, but accepted — even preferred — in many Web-based discussion forums. Another working group took this first pass at
a guideline and protocols:

Publishers need to weigh the value of anonymous postings
against their internal values. On
considering the risks and rewards of anonymous posts ask the following:

  • Are
    there personal safety and privacy issues?
  • Will
    it increase the flow and exchange of ideas or enhance the diversity of
    conversation by allowing anonymity?
  • Do you
    have the capacity to monitor or clean up inappropriate posts?
  • Are
    there categories of content where anonymous, user-generated content is
    essential? Where it is
    unacceptable?
  • Is the
    community clear on the conditions under which the anonymity is
    granted/limited?
  • Does
    anonymity damage the credibility of the information or debate?

Plus, there is a complicated mix of editing possibilities. Foul-language blockers can do part of the
job. Before-the-fact editing is possible,
but generally rejected as impractically expensive.

After-the-post
editing catches some problems. So does
self-policing through reader complaints. But all that is a little haphazard and a shock to the system of
traditional organizations where layers of editing are the essence of quality
control.


The three issues highlighted here were by no means the sum
of the discussion. Others included how
to balance speed (especially in spot news posts) with thoroughness and
accuracy. Should online corrections be
handled differently than traditional corrections?  It would be good to involve audiences in the
process of formulating the guidelines and protocols, the group agreed, but
how?  Limited resources should not be an
excuse for shoddy work — but limited resources are limiting.

One other meta-question hovered over the proceedings. Of the
25 participants, 24 were representatives of traditional media
organizations. Then there was Robert
Cox, president of the 1,000-member Media Bloggers Association. The work product
was bound to be dominated by concerns of preserving the best of traditional
values while finding a way to embrace the potential of new media.

Would the guidelines be applicable, too, for independent,
unaffiliated bloggers? Draft wording
made some gestures in that direction, but Cox indicated he would be content if
the finished guidelines were simply available to those bloggers to make their
own decisions about following them or not. 

“We have an ethics policy, but we don’t call it an ethics
policy,” Cox said. “We have a statement
of principles … Some feel it (an ethics code) is contrary to the spirit of
blogging.

That gets to the heart of the matter, of course: How to
develop guidelines that would be worth considering by a range of stakeholders
that includes traditional news organizations, individual bloggers, and the
millions of people who read, view and use content on the Web.

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