Online Journalism Ethics: Guidelines from the Conference

In August 2006, Poynter gathered a team of online journalists from across the country to discuss the issues surrounding their work. They created this set of guidelines for doing ethical journalism on the Web. Add your own thoughts to our Online Ethics wiki at http://poynter.editme.com/ethicsonline.


Read more about the conference in Bob Steele’s article, “Helter Skelter no More: An Evolving Guidebook for Online Ethics.”




Assertions

The Role of Journalism in the Digital Age

Credibility & Accuracy, Transparency & Multimedia

Workplace Issues: Speed, Thoroughness & Capacity

User-Generated Content

Linking




Assertions of Ethical Decision-Making in Digital Media

1.) Online publishing has the opportunity to serve audiences in new and meaningful ways.

Journalists have an important responsibility to explore that potential as part of their constitutionally protected responsibilities to hold the powerful accountable and to serve as a public watchdog.

2.) Journalism values in such areas as truth, community and democracy will endure only if we embrace dramatic changes in the pressures and competition we face and the products we publish. Journalists should accept the challenge and embrace the opportunity to build new business models that will flourish in an era of digital media. Journalism’s highest values can endure only if they stand on a sound economic foundation. It is essential that the journalists who adhere to those values be proactive — not just reactive — participants in the process of innovation.

3.) Written ethics guidelines based on those values are an essential ingredient in the decision-making required in various forms of emerging media. Such guidelines will be most useful if framed as aspirations as opposed to rules and if compiled or revised with the active participation of the audience. Ethics guidelines should not be considered the exclusive province of those who describe themselves as journalists. Their utility is tied to the act of journalism as opposed to the résumé of its creator.

4.) Transparency is a necessary dimension of the relationship that journalists and news organizations maintain with their audiences. Transparency must be linked with accountability — institutional as well as individual.

5.) Limited resources, the novelty of online publishing or a lack of protocols cannot become an excuse for shoddy work or causing harm.

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Web Reporting, Commentary, Voice and Tone

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution has protected the dissemination of news and opinion since 1791. Over those 200-plus years, journalism has experienced an astonishing and perpetual evolution of technology, form and economics — ever blessed by the protections of the First Amendment. Now, as the Age of the Internet dawns, posing ever greater opportunities for information providers and consumers alike, it is essential for credible journalists and their organizations to reflect on the contract that is implicit in the First Amendment. In its highest form, journalism is the dissemination of accurate information and provocative commentary that puts service to the reader and the common good above any special interest or economic, political or philosophical agenda. What other form would be so worthy of such First Amendment protection? Spirited independence gives credibility to journalists and their organizations in any era; such credibility will likely give journalism its enduring value in society — and in the marketplace. As new forms of storytelling emerge, new technologies move to newsroom desktops and new efficiencies promise to change the dynamics between information providers and consumers, the line between news and opinion can easily be blurred — imperiling the credibility of the practitioners and their organizations. Especially as they explore and expand their Web-based services, credible journalists and their organizations must maintain a heightened sensitivity to the various and vital forms of their craft, and articulate the distinctions in actual practice. The issues of news, commentary, voice and tone — issues that have always been of concern in newsrooms — can best be resolved and addressed through the time-tested journalistic imperatives of accuracy, fairness and independence.

Principles & Values

  • Journalists should honor the principle of independence. They should avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts that could imperil their ability to report or the credibility of their reporting or commentary. They should not accept gifts or favors from people or entities they cover or over whom they might influence coverage.
  • In addressing an issue or question of independence, the resolution might come through a strategy of transparency or disclosure.
  • Journalists and news organizations should understand the necessity of defining, and clearly labeling, news and opinion. In an open environment like the Web, consistency in presentation can help the reader see clearly where the lines are drawn between news and opinion.
  • Whenever journalists or organizations blur or blend those roles, they need to recognize the peril and weigh the consequences.
  • Variations of tone and presentation in storytelling are appropriate for reaching new audiences, but those variations should be consistent with the bedrock editorial principles of the brand. Be clear on what you stand for, and honor it.
  • These principles apply across all content and all platforms.

Protocols

Even with firm principles, journalists and organizations will always face difficult decisions. But the principles can lead to some guidelines — not rules — that can serve the decision-making. Open-ended questions produce informed discussion and good decisions. Here are some questions that can help with the decision-making on commentary, reporting, voice and tone.

  • What is this journalist’s primary role?
  • What is this journalist’s role in the context of the moment?
  • Is innovation in tone and voice appropriate for this content?
  • Is the content straight news reporting, informed analysis or opinion?
  • Does this content blur or blend the roles of reporter and commentator? If so, how should this content be labeled?
  • Does the tone of this content diverge from that of the parent site?
  • Does this content need be put through the same editing process as similar content on the parent site? Why? Why not?
  • Is there anything in this role that could create the appearance of a conflict of interest, or that could imperil the journalist’s ability to report the story objectively in the future?
  • Is there anything in this role that would cause the principles in the coverage to doubt the accuracy or independence of the reporter’s future work on this topic?
  • Have all the proper stakeholders been involved in this decision?

Frequently Asked Questions

What do you mean by saying that principles should apply across platforms?

We believe these ethical principles apply to any news operation that aspires to practice journalism: an international cable news network, a local newspaper’s Web site, independent bloggers, etc. The key is to be clear on what you stand for — and what you are doing.

What do you mean by saying that principles should apply across all content?

We believe these ethical principles apply to all content, regardless of whether it’s text, photos, audio, video, etc., and whether it’s on the web, on a blog, in print, on broadcast, or delivered via email, podcasts or beyond.

Is the opinion of the “objective” reporter ever of value?

Absolutely. But whether that opinion should be expressed, and how it should be expressed, is a matter to be reviewed with your editor. In cases where “objective” reporters believe expressing an opinion in any forum is necessary, they should discuss the matter with their editors. Be cautious, and be transparent.

What are the risks when a reporter expresses an opinion?

For starters, it could imperil your ability to continue to report the story accurately and fairly. If you express a bias on a topic, your sources of information may change the way they respond to your inquiries, and your readers may doubt the accuracy of future stories. Your expressions of bias will not be forgotten quickly.

What are the risks of “unedited journalism” — live Web discussions, TV appearances, radio hits, etc.?

Just the nature of these other forums makes it a slippery slope for “objective” journalists. You will likely be pressed by an interviewer, a reader, etc., because they want to know your opinion. Beware: Expressing an opinion on a topic you’re covering — otherwise objectively — runs the risk of compromising your reporting and/or relationship with your sources. Yes, journalists have opinions on the stories they cover, but good journalists are defined by their ability to not let their opinions interfere with their coverage of the story. They are guided by the principle of independence.

Should journalists be allowed to keep personal blogs?

Yes, but journalists who work for journalistic organizations should acknowledge that role. They should also recognize their responsibility to the organization, and review the plans for the blog with an editor, so that any potential conflicts can be discussed. It’s always best to operate on the premise of “no surprises” for your editor or your organization — or your readers.

Is it ever appropriate for a reporter to write anonymously on someone else’s blog or site? Is it appropriate for a reporter operate a blog under an alias?

No. Professional journalists should not write or comment on other blogs anonymously or run an anonymous blog. Reporters are expected to own responsibility for their work, and commenting or blogging anonymously compromises that core principle. If a reporter believes that some anonymity of similar tactic is required — possibly as part of a reporting assignment or a restaurant review — the strategy should be used carefully and in consultation with an editor. And if you decide it is appropriate, consider the plan for eventual disclosure and transparency. This same rule applies to any “journalist”: bloggers, editors, photographers, etc.

Do we need to differentiate between opinion blogs and news blogs?

Remember that a “blog” is only a medium. It’s what you do with it that matters. News organizations should differentiate clearly between opinion blogs and news blogs. Though they may share a format, the driving force behind clear labeling is the content of the journalism, not the format. News organizations should articulate clear standards and labeling for all of their news and opinion, whether it’s on a printed page or in a blog.

Can opinion journalists/bloggers do straight news reporting?

It may, at times, be impossible to avoid having commentators do straight reporting; consider the columnist or editorial writer who happens upon the scene of a breaking news story. But beware of situations where the coverage involves a topic on which the commentator has already opined. The opinions could compromise — in fact or in perception — the reporter’s independence. Again, transparency and disclosure can be effective strategies in a crucial moment.

Can a reporter who expresses opinion go back to straight, objective reporting?

An opinion journalist should be able to return to straight news reporting, though it is preferable that the reporter would not cover the same topics on which he or she previously expressed opinions.

How can you achieve the personal tone of the Web while maintaining the distance of the traditional reporter?

Many popular blogs written by journalists feature much more detail about a reporter’s personal life than their work in other media. This “personalization” is OK, as long as details of their personal life don’t compromise their independence (for instance, a political reporter discussing who they voted for).

Why should a reporter not show a stronger voice online than in the paper?

This is an issue that each organization will have to address. There seems to be little doubt that the Web audience at large is attracted to content with more “voice” than traditional journalism allows for, but deciding on whether and how to experiment are brand-specific questions. One problem with voice is that it often is used to mask ignorance. And the line between “strong voice” and “opinion” is tough to define. Also, a journalist’s strength may not lie in “voice” as much as expertise. The Web provides opportunities for much more in-depth and interactivity; a smart journalistic organization may want to explore the “depth” strategy before resorting to “voice.”

Are different tones OK for different sub-brands under one media brand?

The journalism values of a company should be reflected in all its sub-brands. Of course, requiring all sub-brands to have the same tone defeats the purpose of sub-brands. One caveat: Think twice before allowing a reporter who contributes news for one brand to offer opinion for your other brand. This is one for your editor. And, whenever in doubt, tell the readers in no uncertain terms what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

(This section composed by: Tom Heslin, Jim Brady, Jeremy Gilbert, Kurt Muller, Elaine Zinngrabe & Bob Steele)

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The Role of Journalism in the Digital Age

Managing tension between revenue and content

No matter what the platform, the primary mission of journalism is to provide information that gives meaning and context to the events that shape our lives, our communities, our world. In doing so, we hold powerful interests accountable and remain true to our mission of public service through fair and accurate reporting.

But in an age in which new forms of communication are emerging, we must adapt and grow to meet this challenge if we are to remain relevant. Our journalistic mission carries with it the responsibility to reach audiences in formats that extend beyond the printed word. We must capitalize on emerging technologies to provide an even deeper news experience through multimedia and interactivity. We must embrace the fact that the public wants to choose the ways in which they are informed and to sculpt the conversations of the day. By failing to accept this new reality, we run the risk of losing our credibility and vital role in creating an informed populace.

Professional journalism requires resources to execute its mission, meaning that the enterprise has to make money to sustain itself. As the nature of journalism is changing, so too are the economic models that finance the work. As a result, the old conflicts between news and advertising have been magnified and new ones created. That requires more conversations between news and advertising about whether and how new boundaries should be created and how they should be communicated to the audience and advertisers.

Principles

  • Editorial integrity is crucial in maintaining the trust of the public and the credibility of the brand.
  • The editorial and business sides of the operation need to communicate openly about how best to capitalize on the growing
    economic opportunities online.
  • Market research and metrics are important tools to help guide content decisions but shouldn’t be the only criteria. There must be a balance between revenue-driven content and public service work.
  • The consumer’s experience is paramount. Advertising models and sponsorships should be evaluated closely to determine their impact on consumer experience. The consumer should be clear about content produced by editorial or commercial interests. Advertising and sponsorships should be labeled.

Protocols

How do you balance content certain to drive traffic to your site against content that serves the public interest? Where does public-service journalism fit in?

Building audience and serving the public interest are both essential to relevant journalism. News and advertising each should establish standards and communicate those standards to each other.

How do you resolve conflict and disputes between news and advertising?

Every organization should have a defined process for decision-making, with the resolution based upon the principles above.

How should metrics and market research influence news judgment?

Staff should be trained in how to interpret metrics and traffic measurements as they apply to the whole product and the new discipline. Statistics can be misleading. Data analysis requires training and expertise. Leaders have a responsibility to interpret metrics and apply them in the context of the journalistic mission.

How do journalists stay abreast of the changes in emerging technologies and consumer habits?

Newsrooms must invest in training so staff has the skills to meet the needs of the audience. We must use technology in a meaningful way — in a way that is truly valuable to stakeholders. We must be flexible in the way we produce and present content for new patterns of consumption.

(This section composed by: Bruce Koon, Theresa Moore, Joe Michaud, Dennis Ryerson, Joel Sappell and Kelly McBride)

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Credibility & Accuracy, Transparency and Multimedia

In a world with multiple sources of information, much of it indistinguishable one from another, credibility is our most precious asset. Credibility is earned over time by continually delivering on promises of accuracy, transparency and fairness. We consider listening and participating essential tools to achieve credibility. We intend this document to be useful to anyone publishing — or consuming — information in any medium.

Issues

  • How do we handle corrections?
  • How do we handle links?
  • How do we make sure we provide adequate context, including the presentation of conflicting views?
  • How do we decide when to edit and when not to? Before publishing, afterwards, never?
  • How much do readers and viewers care about the values of the people producing the content?
  • What value do anonymity and pseudonyms have in emerging media?
  • What standards should be applied to multimedia content? What levels of authentication should be required before posting raw video? To what extent should professional journalistic production standards be applied to multimedia?

Principles & Values

We commit to presenting as accurate and as complete a picture of our world as possible. This means taking full advantage of emerging media and technology. In order to do that, we will:

  • Use multimedia to show dimensions of our world that words alone cannot convey.
  • Be clear about the nature of the content presented, its sourcing and the extent of verification.
  • Correct what we get wrong as promptly and as clearly as possible. Establish systems to enable readers to alert us to mistakes and hold us accountable.
  • Explain our decision making in terms of our process and our relationships, both institutional and personal.
  • Maintain open channels of communication with our audience.


Protocols

We will never knowingly publish or air falsehoods.

The quality of publishing decisions — from how to report a story, to what elements to include, to issues of linking — can be significantly improved by responding to a set of questions. These questions include:

  • 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?

Decisions about how much editing should be applied to various content should be guided by such considerations as:

  • The nature and context of the content
  • The author(s) of the content (staff, users, etc.)
  • The editors’ level of trust in the author(s)

When we discover that we’ve distributed an error, we will consider the following:

  • What has been the likely impact of the error and how can we most effectively address that?
  • How appropriate is it to retain a record of the error for readers who return to the story or bloggers who have linked to it in its original form?
  • What publishing conventions might work best (for example: strikethroughs, appended corrections, corrective posts by readers, an editor’s note)?

We will seek to display as much transparency as possible in regard to our processes and our relationships, both institutional and personal. Before publishing, we will consider a series of questions regarding transparency:

  • What might the consumer want to know?
  • What publishing conventions might address these questions (for example, online personal pages for journalists revealing as much about themselves as they are willing to share, links to previously published or aired work, etc.)?
  • How much detail might be provided about the sources pursued in the course of reporting and dimensions of the story still unknown?
  • How might the audience be enlisted to fill in some of the story’s gaps?
  • How might such devices as transparency buttons be employed as links to stories behind the story that explain controversial or difficult decisions and provide details that readers might find relevant.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How do you decide what to link to in the work you publish online?

We start by asking the questions listed in the publishing protocol above. The linking decision requires more specific considerations, including the relevance and reliability of the material that might be linked. The decision to link or not — especially to controversial content that the audience could find on its own — creates an opportunity for explanation and discussion. Linking decisions should be based on serving the audience with as accurate and as complete a picture of the world as possible. Such decisions should not be limited by commercial concerns about sending customers to others’ sites.

When is it appropriate to publish material that has not been reviewed or edited?

Decisions about when to edit — and how much — are best made along a risk/benefit scale that includes such considerations as the nature of the information, the relative importance of speed versus accuracy, the relative importance of quantity vs. quality of the material to be published, the availability of resources, and the skill, experience and track record of the person producing the content. Just as live shots increased the likelihood of unedited content appearing on television news broadcasts, various digital formats now emerging will create platforms for content subjected to a range of editing – from none to rigorous. Whatever level of editing is applied, the variety of new platforms underscores how important it is for publishers to communicate clearly just what level of editing has been applied.

Why would you ever allow people to publish something without their real identity attached to what they say?

There are times when withholding the full name of an author could serve a useful purpose. A news organization might publish unsigned editorials in an effort to express a view meant to represent that of an entire editorial board. A civil servant adding a comment to a blog might sign only as Ticked Off in Tallahassee in order to add useful information to a political debate without jeopardizing his or her job. Even more significant is the need to provide protected anonymity to whistle blowers whose information can be independently verified. For the most part, though, it’s difficult to make the case that the credibility of anonymous content can ever match that of material whose author is known. As journalists, our default position is to publish material only with full names attached. We make exceptions only in rare cases, only for compelling reasons, and only with explanations attached explaining the reason for the anonymity. (2/5/07 update: There is significant disagreement among participants about the topic of anonymity, including sharp disagreement with the paragraph above. See, in particular, Steve Yelvington’s thoughtful essay on anonymity in a recent issue of Nieman Reports. We hope revisions to the accompanying Wiki will reflect additional perspectives on the issue.)

How do you decide when a user should be banned from publishing on your site?

This question raises a fundamental tension for journalists working in digital media: the need for a news organization to accommodate conflicting views at the same time it creates and maintains a community of civil discourse and debate. News organizations should create terms of service for users contributing content to the news organization’s digital editions. Such terms cover such issues as the use of obscenity, personal attacks, etc. in material published by non-staffers. Publishers should also be clear about the consequences for violating terms of service, e.g. immediate banning from further posting, suspension, etc.

How do you decide when the editorial significance of an event overrides the limited quality of the video or audio?

Journalists should be guided by three main principles: telling the story as fully and truthfully as possible, acting as independently as possible, and causing as little harm as possible. Low production quality — whether video or audio or something else — diminishes the credibility of the material presented. Journalists need to weigh that consideration against the importance and interest level of the event that’s being reported. The greater the importance and interest level, the greater allowance for limited quality production values.

(This section composed by: Sharon Rosenhause, Rich Murphy, Neil Budde, Steve Yelvington, Vanessa Goodrum and Bill Mitchell.)

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Workplace Issues: Speed, Thoroughness & Capacity

Issues | Principles & Values | Protocols

There is an inherent tension between the value of speed in the online world and journalism’s obligation for thorough, accurate, ethical work.

A set of standards that creates a conscious, deliberate process helps balance these sometimes conflicting values. In addition, leadership needs to be committed to applying tools, time and training to meet these standards. This is especially important in a new medium.

We know that the online universe offers endless opportunities for innovation, timeliness and freedom. These standards are intended to improve the work of journalists as they explore the medium’s potential.

Issues

  • We’re in an environment with exponentially expanding material (including user-generated content) and limited resources; can we vet everything that appears online?
  • Job functions are changing, requiring different skill sets and attitudes.
  • The online environment requires news be produced quickly as possible.
  • Institutions may not value online platforms as much as they should.
  • Notifying users of changes and corrections is difficult.
  • Editors and staffers no longer have total control of the online product, by design.
  • The process for publishing material online is often ad hoc, without deliberation.
  • Online platforms are often detached from the legacy products which give them their imprimatur.
  • Linking to outside material is a strength of the Web, but also raises a host of ethical issues.

 

Principles & Values

  • Online platforms should be valued by the institution as much as any other platform.
  • There is a role for editing in producing online content. If areas of the online environment receive less editing or vetting, it should be by design, not as a result of accident, reflex or lack of resources.
  • The distinction between levels of editing and vetting across different areas of the online product should be made clear to users.
  • The obligation to correct mistakes and be transparent about the error is not diminished in the online environment.
  • Links can provide thoroughness, which adds to good journalism. Online platforms should strive to communicate the nature of linked material as thoroughly as possible, while acknowledging that such material can change quickly and substantially.
  • Speed is a core advantage of the medium, but should not compromise accuracy, fairness or other journalism values.
  • Online platforms should value contributions from users and create practical, efficient systems for enabling submission. But such submissions should be clearly labeled and evaluated to help safeguard the institution’s journalistic credibility.

Protocols

1.) Do we have a clearly defined system for editing/vetting material before posting online? Are the roles of each participant clearly outlined? Have we decided how much editing/vetting different types of material should receive?

2.) Do the resources and regard for the online operation match the performance expected by top administrators? Is the online product a part of significant planning efforts at the institution? To what extent are all staffers involved in online efforts? Is the online platform held to the same ethical standards as the rest of the newsroom?

3.) Are users adequately informed of the differences among various forms of material on the site? How do you treat user-generated content, and how should it be distinguished from staff-generated material and submissions from trusted sources?

4.) How do you notify users of a correction? Does it follow the material through various updates and revisions?

5.) If you provide links in material, have you looked at the link? Have you placed the link in proper context, considered fairness issues and ensured it matches your description?

6.) Have you articulated how to balance the need for speed with the obligation to serve other ethical values? When material is posted quickly, how are you communicating to users the limitations of your information?

 

(This section composed by: Tom Brew, Sharon Prill, Michael Arietta-Walden, Eric Deggans, Meg Martin and Howard Finberg.)

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User-Generated Content

Principles & Values | Protocols | Frequently Asked Questions

User-generated content has the potential to serve good journalism, which at its core seeks to broaden the marketplace of ideas, deepen our understanding of issues and events, and connect people with like interests.

Done well, user-generated content adds diverse voices and opinions to an organization’s journalism, contributes to journalists’ credibility and enhances our mission as trusted guides. Realizing the potential of user-generated content requires care and tending and a level of trust between the publisher and the contributor.

User-generated content is an essential component for building community and realizing the interactive potential of the Internet.

Generally speaking, user-generated content falls into two broad categories:

  • Self-published user-generated content, which often looks like opinion and comments, generally is posted on a publisher’s Web site without vetting or editing.
  • Editorially vetted user-generated content is directly solicited — “Tell us your story” or “Send us a news photo” — and may be checked for accuracy, relevance or taste before publication.

 

Principles & Values

Publishers who adopt clear standards for the publication of user-generated content help ensure that such content will enhance their organization’s journalism. Consider the following:

1.) Terms and conditions for the publication of user-generated content, spelling out the rules of engagement, must be publicized and consistently enforced in order to be effective.

2.) The standards should make clear the publisher’s policy on user-generated content and issues such as:

  • Taste and judgment
  • Anonymous posting
  • Linking from user-generated content to external sources
  • Moderating

3.) Publishers of user-generated content must establish and clearly communicate the consequences for members of the user community whose actions violate the publisher’s terms and conditions. Such consequences must be enforced consistently in order to be fair.

4.) Those who choose to publish user-generated content should identify and reconcile any deviations between the standards developed for user-generated content and those which exist for the journalists inside the organization. For example:

  • Do the benefits associated with permitting anonymously posted user-generated content justify a departure from the internal policies that govern my organization’s use of anonymous sourcing?
  • Will my existing guidelines on the use of profanity apply to user-generated content, or does a different standard exist online?

Protocols

1.) Do my standards for taste and judgment clearly address the following categories?

  • Obscenity
  • Personal attacks
  • Witch hunts
  • Privacy violations
  • Ethnic or racial slurs
  • Copyright and trademark infringements

2.) Are my standards supported with an easy and clear way for other users to flag objectionable content?

3.) In weighing the value of anonymously posted user-generated content against my existing policies for internal posting, use questions such as these to guide the conversation:

  • Does the content contributor face personal safety and/or privacy issues?
  • Will anonymous posting of user-generated content increase the flow and exchange of ideas? Will it enhance the diversity of the conversation?
  • Will anonymity damage the credibility of the information or debate?
  • Do I have the capacity to moderate or clean up anonymous posts that violate other standards?
  • Are some categories of anonymous user-generated content essential, and others unacceptable?
  • Is the community clear on the conditions under which the anonymity is granted and/or limited?

4.) Linking to external sources has been established on the Web as a key element of user-generated content. Publishers who choose to permit linking should ask:

  • Are all links required to conform to my organization’s online editorial standards for taste and judgment?
  • Are contributors required to include in their user-generated content a description or explanation of the material to which they are linking?
  • Do I, as publisher, assume any responsibility for the content of a site to which a content contributor has linked?
  • Have I posted a statement that explains whether or not I assume any responsibility for the content of linked sites?
  • Is my policy for linking clearly stated and posted?

5.) Moderating is an essential element for determining the desired level of civility created by user-generated content. Moderating has two levels: active and passive.

Active moderating is preemptive in nature and involves:

  • Registration
  • Reading content before or shortly after publication
  • Foul-language filter
  • Spam filter

Passive moderating relies on users and involves:

  • Self-policing by users
  • User flags
  • Reader complaints
  • Jaw-boning (users police each other directly)

Questions to consider when deciding whether to moderate user-generated content, and if yes, whether to actively or passively moderate:

  • What is my capacity to actively or passively moderate?
  • What commitment to staffing will active moderating require?
  • If I choose to actively moderate (pre-approving user-generated content), will the quality of the community’s conversation be affected adversely by delays in the posting of comments?
  • If I do not pre-approve user-generated content, how will the level of un-moderated discussion affect my brand?
  • What impact can I expect my choice of active or passive moderation to have?
  • Should I use a language filter?
  • Will my decision on moderating lead to charges of unwarranted censorship?
  • How will I respond to such charges?

6.) In order for our standards to be effective and to minimize charges of unwarranted censorship, contributors must know and understand the consequences for any actions that violate our terms and conditions for user-generated content. Again, consistently enforcing consequences is important to being fair. Consequences may include:

  • Deleting links
  • Deleting entire comments
  • Blocking/banning users

7.) Standards for editorially vetted user-generated content — work that is submitted by users at the request or invitation of the news organization — generally should conform to those applied to the work of the organization’s journalists:

  • Users who submit photos, breaking news reporting or commissioned blogs should expect to be edited, held to the same terms and standards as the organization’s journalists or regular freelancers and face the same consequences for work that violates those standards.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some of the methods by which users can generate content?

Adding comments on staff blogs and stories; responding to invitations to submit photos, review restaurants and movies, or send descriptions of events they have participated in or witnessed; blogging on areas of expertise or about local issues.

How effective are dirty-word filters?

Not very. Users find all kinds of ways to get around the filters — putting asterisks between letters, replacing letters such as “o” with “0,” “s” with “$,” etc.

Who in the organization should monitor user-generated content?

There are several methods. If user-generated content appears on a staff blog, you can hold the staff blogger responsible for monitoring.You can create a centralized monitoring group on your Web site. Or you can outsource the monitoring; several companies now offer this service for a fee.

Am I liable for user-generated content which violates copyright laws or is libelous?

At this point, the courts have generally held that the individual posting the material in question is legally responsible and not the owner/operator of the Web site on which it appears. You also will want to consider, however, the impact of such material on the Web site’s brand.

Can I use user-generated material in the newspaper?

Yes, if your online user agreement states that you have the right to publish user-generated content on other platforms. Again, this illustrates why the Web site’s terms and conditions should be posted in a way most likely to be seen by users.

(This section composed by: Lea Donosky, Pat Stiegman, Robert Cox, Christine Montgomery, Mark Hinojosa and Butch Ward)

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Linking

Principles & Values | Protocols | Questions & Answers

This section was composed after the conference by an ad-hoc group of conference participants: Jim Brady, Tom Brew, Lea Donosky, Robert Cox, Eric Deggans and Dennis Ryerson. They built these guidelines and protocols via their own wiki, which is why this section is formatted differently than the rest of the online ethics guidelines.

Linking is at the core of the Web experience, tying together content that allows readers to discover unexpected treasures and contextual information that can’t comfortably fit into print and broadcast paradigms. But linking also comes with challenges for media organizations. Until now, content was easily classified — it was in the paper or it wasn’t; it was broadcast on the air or it wasn’t. Linking has created a netherworld in which media companies can point to sites without assuming responsibility for their veracity or standards. It has also provided media sites with ways to expose their readers to content that falls outside of their own standards — such as with the Nick Berg beheading and the Muslim cartoons run by Jyllands-Posten — while still claiming that they didn’t “run” the content themselves. So how do media sites embrace linking without compromising their core values?

Principles & Values

  • A link to an external site does not signify an endorsement of that site or its point of view. It is merely a signal to the reader that there may be content of interest on the destination site.
  • Despite this, media sites should make it clear to their readers — in the user agreement, site guidelines or via some other method — that there’s a difference in standards between the content that resides on their own site and the content they link to.
  • Because of the spider-like nature of the Web, media sites can’t be expected to apply even these relaxed standards to the content of sites that are linked to from sites we link to (the two-click rule).
  • When readers put their own links to content in message boards, blog posts, etc., those links should be considered user-generated content and subject to the same controls.
  • We encourage all media sites to link to external sites. Linking off-site is an extension of your site’s user experience and fosters a feeling of openness that’s conducive to repeat visits. Trying to keep readers within just your site is a losing proposition.
  • When linking, sites should not be forced into including links that support all sides of an issue. While news articles themselves should adhere to the traditional standards of fairness and accuracy, assuring balance in links run counters to the concept of providing only useful links to the reader.

Protocols

When deciding whether to links to other parts of your own site, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this content being linked to relevant to someone who would be reading/viewing this content?

When choosing whether to include a link to another site, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the linked content relevant for someone who would be reading/viewing this content?
  • Does the content being linked include content that could potentially fall within the realm of libel or slander?
  • If the content being linked to falls outside the standards of your site, should you include notification of that fact (i.e., notify users of profanity, nudity, etc.)?

Questions & Answers

What does a link represent on the Web site? Does it represent an endorsement of the content behind the link? Does it represent an endorsement of the media outlet or blogger who is being linked to? Does the site that is doing the linking feel that link should adhere to the standards of its own site?

Tom Brew: No, a link does not represent an endorsement of the targeted site, nor would I require that it adhere to our own standards. Such a policy would strip our news site of any real color. We’d be linking to CNN and The Washington Post, which would link to The New York Times, PBS and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, etc. It would rob the Internet of its glory — the great sea of reporting, opinion, pictures and video.

Lea Donosky: It depends on who’s doing the linking. If a news Web site staffer (producers, bloggers, reporters) makes a link, that would seem to say “This is a site we think you may want to visit for information related to the material we have posted.” It doesn’t mean an endorsement or verification of the contents of the site. For instance, it could be a link to a government site, an education site. The site may misrepresent facts, but then we quote people who sometimes lie.

The content of the link, though, should generally conform to the standards of what we post on a Web site. However, there may be stories of overriding importance that may be cause for an exception. In the same way that newspapers occasionally made exceptions on the use of language in stories of overriding importance (think: Clinton-Lewinsky, Earl Butts ‘joke’, etc.) and of graphic, violent photos.

If a user is linking, it should be treated as other user-generated content. But it does not have to be subject to the same screening process as comments or photos which are immediately visible to visitors to the site. Linking by users is now an accepted part of the Web, particularly with the rise of the blogosphere. Linking is part of the commenting process. And users have to take an extra step to go to the link so they should be prepared to be their own filters. This should be spelled out in the user agreement.

Eric Deggans: I think a link represents a new standard for publishing. We are, in essence, saying this is something worth checking out, but we aren’t presenting it as material we would necessarily publish. In my own experience, that means I try referring people to sites that offer something extra, some new context. I try to make sure the site is what it purports to be and that the material is what it claims to be. But I don’t offer the same assurances that I would something I present in a story I’ve written myself.

I think we should offer context in the text of links to explain to userswhy we’re linking to something and, if necessary, how much confidence we have in the material displayed there.

Robert Cox: There are different kinds of links. If I am writing about possible federal legislation and link to the bill on thomas.loc.gov, that is like a “supporting documention/for further info” type of link. If I am passing along a rumor reported on Drudge, that is a “don’t blame me if it’s not true; it is true that Drudge is reporting this” kind of “not assuming responsibility” link. I imagine Dennis Ryerson would not agree with this statement based on his experience with Romenesko. … In short, there is a link and the context in which the link is provided, including the text surrounding the link. A link is not a link by any other name.

Do Web sites have it too easy because of their ability to “point to” something controversial but not actually host it on their own servers (for instance, the Mohammed cartoons, graphic videos, etc.)?

Brew: I’d say no, because while I wouldn’t require us to hold every linked site to our editorial standards of fairness, etc., there are limits. I’ve no interest in linking to hate speech, pornography or libelous stories.

Donosky: This is one of the thorniest issues. The argument for linking is that if it is something the user can find on their own — for instance, by Googling the Mohammed cartoon — then we should link to it. It’s a service/utility for the reader.

But I think there is a limit to the service/utility we provide. For instance, I think that, on highly controversial content which the majority of our readers would object to, it is sufficient to describe the organization or site where it can be found so they can go there on their own. Same applies to a site which is libelous. No need to link or to provide specific URL.

Deggans: I think providing a URL and no link is a distinction without a difference. Either the site meets your standards for referral, or it doesn’t. We have to accept the new standard for linking, which is lower than material we might feature on our own Web sites, but higher than non-existent.

Are there any philosophical issues with linking off site in the first place? Does anyone feel that keeping readers on your site overrides any positives that come from linking?

Brew: I’m sure the biz-dev guys would prefer that we keep all the traffic. But I don’t believe that such a policy would serve our users well.

Donosky: I think blogs and their culture of linking have wiped out whatever lingering resistance there might have been about not linking in order to keep people on a site. It’s now so common that to not allow linking or to not link ourselves would be silly. Linking adds to our credibility and to our users’ experiences.

Deggans: I think part of attracting readers for most blogs is developing a reputation as a clearinghouse for interesting information. Refusing to link to other sites simply increases the chances you won’t feature the most interesting information. And if readers want to drill deeper into your story, they will leave your site anyway. If you make it easier for readers to jump on and off your site, you will garner more page views, anyway.

Cox: The philosophical issue may be whether news organizations want to remain separate or aloof from the broader information ecosystem on the Web, which includes corporate and government Web sites, blogs, forums, etc. A core value of blogging is that, when in doubt, link. If you mention something that is on the Web (a news story or a press release or a piece of legislation or a video or podcast or whatever), you should link it. Do news organizations want to embrace that attitude? I hope they do. I have come to expect that when I read online that a writer is referencing something that can be linked they are going to provide that link. I interpret it as lazy or unfair or irresponible when a link is NOT provided.

As the “outsider” to this issue of wanting to keep readers on my company’s site, let me suggest that outbound links are not only a good thing in general but a smart marketing thing as well. There was some discussion about the role of “branded” news organizations (as opposed to legacy, traditional or mainstream news organizations) in the current/evolving landscape. My belief is that brand becomes more important — not less — but if branded news organizations abdicate their role as “trusted guide” by refusing to “play” by linking, then they will lose that status. At the end of the day, traditional news organizations that fail to adapt to this new “linking” ethos will just open the door to competitors whether that means other news organizations, bloggers or new hybrid quasi-news outlets.

When linking off-site, should readers be warned that they are about to leave your site?

Brew: Yes — there’s no harm in it — though I suspect that most users have understood the concept since May 1995.

Donosky: Not obtrusively. Certainly not with those awful pop-ups some sites use as a warning.

Deggans: My sense is that savvy Web surfers know this stuff already. If you set up a system where you click a link, then a warning pops up, then you click something else to actually travel to the site, it will only anger users. I would recommend including in the text of the link a warning about excessive pop-ups or required registrations.

Cox: In general, I believe this is uncessary. There might be exceptions where you would want to be exceptionally clear about a particular link (for instance, if it contains potentially offensive or controversial content).

Do the traditional standards of fairness apply to linking? That is, if you are linking to a blog/article criticizing the Bush Administration, should there be a link to a pro-Bush blog/article?

Brew: No — that seems implausible as such a policy would bleed our sites of any real color. If, say, you’re writing about the intelligence report on the Iraq War, inevitably many of the most compelling and popular links will be critical of the administration. To ‘counter’ that with an equal number of sites arguing on behalf of the White House would just waste valuable time. However, I do think we should keep in mind that readers might want to read both sides of a debate and, in such cases, we’d be doing them a favor by finding the best sites. But to keep score seems inane.

Donosky: I think the standard should be overall fairness on the site, not within each individual article. So, every story doesn’t have to be “balanced” with an opposing link. In many cases, though, we’ll want to give links that allow/help users to flesh out a debate.

Deggans: Depends on the point of your blog and the reason for your link. If your blog is more like an opinion column, you really only need to provide the links that present a fair discussion of the topic at hand. If you have a newsy blog, it makes more sense to be more evenhanded, if only to capture more sides of the story and over a more comprehensive account.

Cox: In general, no — but it would depend on the context. If I am linking to a blogger in lieu of quoting him or her on some controversial topic but not providing the other side of an issue in any form (an actual quote or a similar link), then I would say you do need some balance. Again, context is key.

Should we allow readers to post links in comment areas, blogs provided to readers by the site, live discussions, etc.?

Brew: Yes, it’s a crucial part of the debate. To allow a Web debate but then forbid participants from citing the Web seems weird. If someone abuses such a policy (or any policy), delete him/her.

Deggans: Yes, because anything that gives users the ability to help make media on your site will probably attract users. That does mean a moderator or someone will have to check the links to make sure they don’t refer people to porn sites or something. You can also encourage users to police themselves by reporting broken or troublesome links to you.

Cox: Do you mean actual hyperlinks? In that case, I would not recommend allowing commenters to post links. The same code used to display a hyperlink can be used to display audio, video or images. My experience is that allowing commenters to place links into a site is an invitation to finding vile, outrageous images and video on your site.

If you mean text indicating how to get to a particular page, I am not sure how you are going to stop that. If readers can comment, they can describe a URL. I think you just address this under “terms and conditions.” You treat the Web page they have “linked” as if the commenters wrote it themselves.

What I do know from personal experience is that there are two kinds of Web sites: those that have been infested with vile, foul-mouthed, disgusting trolls and those that will be. If you don’t address this up front, you are guaranteed to have a problem.

I was on a panel this week at RTNDA. A woman from Pappas Telecasting was there talking about how they have never had a problem with their users uploading problematic content to any of their television stations’ Web sites. I just had to laugh when she said it. Talk about naive. What worries me about things like that goes back to what happened at Tribune. After their wiki debacle, they did not just take down the Los Angeles Times wiki but “froze” all citizen journalism initiatives at all of their newspapers and TV stations. That has since been lifted, but just shows that the real risk here, from my perspective with the Media Bloggers Association, is that big media outlets will try blogging and CJ, not put in proper safeguards, have it blow up in their faces and give up, saying, “Well, we tried that and it did not work.”

 

Do we tell posters they must provide an explanation or description of material linked to as warning to other users?

Donosky: I think we can ask users to characterize the material they are linking to as a warning. In restrospect, I probably should not have made the decision recently to take down a link a commenter posted of an Iraqi with his head blown apart. The photo was germane to the discussion about the war, and the commenter warned it was a “graphic photo.”

Deggans: Sure. You can also warn other users that links provided by commentors may not be reviewed as carefully as the ones provided by the blog. Caveat emptor is the rule in such cases.

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