Helter Skelter No More: An Evolving Guidebook for Online Ethics

Ethical challenges abound in the world of online journalism.

Many of the issues connect to the traditional values of accuracy and fairness: how to gather, edit, produce and deliver sound, substantive information as quickly as possible.

Yet many other ethics issues relate to the various forms of content and the different methods of producing news online. There are potholes related to blogging and there are land mines in the area of user-generated content. And there are significant issues related to the online intersection of news and advertising content.

Mix in some of the particular pressure points associated with publishing on the Web — including linking, anonymous feedback and interactivity — and you have stew that can turn from tasty to troubling.

In an effort to help journalists and news organizations address the challenges, Poynter convened a conference to explore the most critical ethical issues on the Web and to develop a series of useful protocols for newsrooms and other online-content producers to consider.

We built the conference agenda on the results of a survey we conducted among the invited participants and other Web journalists. Their answers revealed a range of issues that was both impressive and daunting. Among the concerns that we heard:

  • “Walking the line between fast and right.”
  • “Speed of posting versus confirmation.”
  • “How do you balance the value of serving readers with timely, immediate information versus the value of providing them with accurate, fair, complete and carefully vetted information?”
  • “How do you balance the values of giving readers conversational, spontaneous and timely blogs that engage them versus serving readers with the journalistic values of accuracy, fairness, balance and editing that insures those values are upheld?”
  • “How to work with contributors who are also stakeholders in community issues. These are likely to be the people who have the best information, but they also have a point of view, which could be a strong bias.”
  • “Are we comfortable with journalists who are not opinion columnists expressing more voice in their blogs than they can in the paper?”
  • “With ‘citizen journalism’ gaining a stronghold on the Web, new questions arise every day in our shop about what role, if any, the newspaper/Web site should play in orchestrating or controlling the discussion.”
  • “One area that’s not really sorted out is the issue of what commentators can link to. Clearly porn sites are a no-no, but what about links to videos or photos of dead and wounded or politically inflammatory sites?”
  • “On the financial side, not a day goes by when I’m not being pushed by our business folks to introduce new advertising models to lure clients into opening their wallets. There’s no question the rules are looser on the Web.”
  • “The ability to satisfy advertisers by promising ‘new advertising experiences’ that mix real content and advertising.”

It was clear from sampling those working in the online world that while the challenges are considerable and the desire for clarity is great, the solutions are elusive. In our survey we asked, “How do you address such issues currently?” We heard:

  • “Right now it’s a bit of a wing and a prayer.”
  • “Right now it’s a bit of trial and error.”
  • “We struggle with the questions as they arise, on the fly. The issues are evolving as the medium evolves, and the answers are evolving, too.”
  • “We deal with them on a case by case, and, frankly, haphazard basis.”
  • “We’re making it up as we go, and in the future we’d like to have it all figured out.”
  • “We are mostly addressing the issues as they arise, but it seems that the technical advances are ahead of our thinking or our creation of systems to cope with the change.”
  • “We currently address these issues case-by-case, erring on the side of caution. In the future, I’d like to create a mission statement and ‘guidelines’ — not mandates — that both editorial and advertising can live with.”

With the survey results in hand, Poynter brought together about two dozen participants to further examine the online ethics issues.  The challenge was to create a series of guidelines and protocols that would serve as practical tools for these individuals and for all others engaged in some form of online journalism.

The protocols are prefaced by five “Assertions of Ethical Decision-Making in Digital Media.”

The result should be viewed as a work in progress. We welcome feedback on these guidelines/protocols. In fact, we’ve created an Online Ethics wiki in which we invite your participation.

We also seek your input on any guidelines or protocols that you and/or your organization apply to online ethics.

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