“New Media” Brings a New Set of Problems

August 26, 2002
Category: Archive

By Fred Mann, Philadelphia Online

In the early spring of 1997, when El Nino was incubating and the Internet was only starting to crawl, The Poynter Institute and the American Society of Newspaper Editors gathered together a disparate group of journalism professionals to discuss an issue few had managed to consider before: How do traditional journalistic values and ethics apply to “New Media”?

“Who needs a conference for that?” one might ask. The issue is so simple: Whether the media is new, old, or somewhere in between, values are values. Ethics are ethics. They apply. If you are suddenly a web journalist instead of a print or broadcast journalist, you are still “a journalist.” You follow the same standards you always have. That’s what journalists do.

But the question is not as straightforward or as simple as it first appears. And now, a year later, with the Internet in full toddler stage, the need to impose the discipline of strong journalistic standards is greater than ever.

Journalists may, at their core, always be journalists, but the medium in which they toil does, indeed, make a difference in how they do their jobs. As different as the implementation of ethical standards can be for broadcast reporters and their print colleagues, the application of traditional journalistic ethics is an even more unique challenge for reporters on the Internet.

For those working at newspapers or magazines, and in radio or TV, there are some well-established rules to follow when making ethical decisions. There are traditional approaches to addressing questions of accuracy in print or balance on the air.

But the Internet is brand new. There are no guideposts, no traditions. The medium makes the mess when it comes to ethical dilemmas on the web. Obvious print rules like separating advertising from editorial don’t just fall into place on the Internet, where news and advertising content can look almost indistinguishable. Clearly correcting mistakes may be a duty-bound tradition in established media, but do you really need to point out errors online when you can simply wipe them out and set the record straight by publishing a new version of a story any moment you want to? Journalists want to be balanced and fair and whole. If you simply publish everything you can get your hands on in your bottomless online news hole, does that take care of the fairness issue?

For the 38 editors, publishers, news directors, professors, and online managers gathered at Poynter last year, the challenge was clear. If journalistic organizations were to become serious players online, then the journalistic core values they held dear were going to have to move onto the web with them. To allow a diminution of values online such as accuracy, credibility, balance, accessibility, news judgment, and leadership would be to risk undermining the good name–and the economic value–of the mother ship. Print and broadcast properties were getting on the Internet to enhance their good names, not to lose them.

Would the “old” values and “new” medium be a smooth fit? Not necessarily. As dedicated to principle as journalists might be, the Internet provided so many opportunities to do things differently that any adherence to traditional approaches would be called into question. In a medium built for speed, for instance, should the old standards of completeness and accuracy be exactly the same as they were for a print world? Even if the answer were yes, how those standards could be imposed and lived up to was open to debate.

The most practical question of all quickly became clear: How can any standards and values be effectively attached to a moving target–particularly one moving as fast as the Internet? The commitment to exercising rigorous news judgment is a fixed commandment for journalists, be they ink-stained wretches or cyberstylists. But on the web, defining what news is, let alone judging it critically, is no clear matter.

The answer for those gathered at Poynter last year was not to try to dictate policy or standards to news-related websites. Rather, it was the creation of a series of protocols that those websites could use as models in creating their own policies, their own guidelines for development. These protocols dealt with five areas of concern:

  • Content Reliability
  • Database Information
  • Linking
  • Potentially Offensive or Harmful Content
  • Journalistic Integrity and Commercial Pressure

(Also see a summary of the Poynter/ASNE conference proceedings)

The protocols dealt with what seemed at the time to be the most pressing ethical and value-laden problems facing news-oriented websites–issues such as how thoroughly content on the web should be checked and edited (just as thoroughly as news content in print), and should users be alerted when linked content might be of a less-reliable or possibly offensive nature (yes).

A sampling of opinion from conference participants one year later establishes two important points:

  • The protocols have been quite useful. Many of those web leaders who were a part of creating the protocols have either used them actively or have incorporated their principles into the daily decision making at their websites. And,
  • It’s time for more protocols.

In just a year’s time, other issues have arisen that demand the same sort of thoughtful concern. Chief among them are the issues of privacy; advertising/business relationships; immediacy; manipulation of data and graphic images; plagiarism; posting supplemental materials online; and community publishing. To create workable, well thought out proposals on these difficult topics will take at least as much time and energy as was devoted to last year’s protocols. But the effort will be worth it. Providing a journalistically strong and ethically centered blueprint for news-oriented websites is a powerful gift. The temptation can be great to cut corners or fall off track in this new world of few restraints. The pressures can be intense to build audience and grow revenue. But failing to live up to our print or broadcast standards ultimately shreds credibility–and makes future growth even harder.

Of the ethical dilemmas facing websites today, probably the most troubling is privacy. The web is loaded with sites that have made a business out of compiling publicly available information about private citizens. Businesses, private investigators, police departments, and journalists can go to sites such as Dig Dirt or WeSpy4U and, for a price, build a dossier on virtually any individual. Newspapers have traditionally been a major compiler of such information. Should news-related websites get into this lucrative game? Should journalists be discouraged from using these invasive sorts of reporting tools?

Other web services such as the wildly popular Dejanews.com allow anyone to see every posting any named individual has made to Internet Usenet groups. A casual comment made years ago to fellow conspiracy buffs or a politically questionable statement perhaps made in jest to online discussion partners can be found and used by employment officers, college admission directors, and others. Clearly what was one’s private life is private no longer on the Internet. Where do news-oriented sites fit in? Will forums and chat rooms on our sites be next to be swept up in the dossier-building business? Are there lines that should be drawn consistent with our long-standing belief in the right to personal privacy?

Cookies, those electronic markers that track when someone comes to your site and indicates what he or she has visited, are becoming omnipresent. Technology is already passing cookies by and new ways of tracking individual usage patterns and interests are coming into vogue. Should our sites be up front with our users and announce how we are tracking their movements and why? Not many sites do, but as Dianne Lynch, chair of the department of journalism at Vermont’s St. Michael’s College, editor of Virtual Ethics, a forthcoming book on online ethical issues, and a participant in last year’s protocol writing puts it, “Don’t fool your readers has always been the best standard. People now are doing things on the web that they’d never have the nerve to do in print. (Journalistically-based) websites need to adapt ethical thinking –fast.”

Other areas of growing concern for web journalists include:

  • Electronic Commerce. A strong and effective protocol governing journalistic integrity and commercial pressures was written last year. But no area of web life deserves more attention from the ethics and values crowd than does the confusing editorial/advertising relationship. The two sides have separate looks and separate territories in print and on the air (at least most of the time.) But on the net, they slither together like snakes. It’s hard to tell where one stops and another begins. With the growing emergence of e-commerce, the lines of distinction are becoming even more blurred. Transactional business may end up being many a website’s saving grace economically. And you can make a strong case that it is a public service to give users a chance to buy a book online right next to the book review, or purchase an airline ticket right next to the travel story. But what happens if users find out that your website is making revenue on every book sold and every flight taken? Does credibility–the ultimate key to web survival and web revenue–diminish? Shouldn’t some standards be suggested?
  • Immediacy. What should news sites be doing about things like corrections? Is it enough just to repost a corrected version of the story? What about the original that ends up–uncorrected–in the archives? Should online sites have a “corrections” column the way print papers do? (It is certainly not a common practice today.) What should new protocols say about verifying information? “As we saw in the Monica Lewinsky debacle,” says Lynch, “it rapidly became sufficient to announce that another site had posted a story–never mind whether it was accurate or not.” And what is the impact of a person like Matt Drudge, who says an 80 percent accuracy rate “suffices”? What happens to the mainstream media’s ethical principles when anybody can–and does–publish, thereby scooping others who stop for a minute to check the facts?
  • Photo Manipulation. It’s an issue that is not often addressed well in print, let alone online. Should news websites use the icon proposed by New York Times photographer Fred Ritchin, which indicates when a photo has been digitally altered? Opponents argue that the icon doesn’t indicate the degree to which the image has been changed. Therefore, users can become suspicious of images that are accurate depictions of real life but that have been cleaned up for technical reasons.
  • Plagiarism. Again, Dianne Lynch puts the issue succinctly: “It used to be pretty straightforward: if you copied somebody else’s work, you were a bad journalist. Simple. But that’s not necessarily how the Internet works; it’s designed to allow you to download anything you want, including images and design (in the form of code). Is that sharing or is it plagiarism?” And what about framing? When TotalNews frames the content of The New York Times website or Philadelphia Online and sells banner advertising around the content, is that just using the capabilities of the web, or is it stealing someone else’s product?
  • Posting Supplementary Material. On the web, you can post endless amounts of background information and source data to compliment a news article or investigative series. It is a tremendous public service, giving users access to documents so that they can draw their own conclusions. It is all a part of putting more control in the hands of the web user. But raw data doesn’t tell its own story. In fact, it can be quite misleading. Besides, nobody can post everything, which means that sites have to be selective in the primary documentation they present. (And chances are good that the supplemental data posted will be the material that supports the perspective of the story in question.) So what’s the ethical way to do this? Post everything? Post nothing? Train readers somehow to understand what’s what?

  • Community Publishing. It’s the hottest thing on the web today–building community (and traffic) through self-publishing software. With little or no oversight, Little League managers and elementary school cooks and local symphony directors can post intensly local information on your website and keep it fresh and meaningful to your audience. It is detail that most traditional media staffs, old or new, don’t have the manpower to maintain. But how much oversight is “little or no oversight”? Who takes responsibility when something goes up that is wrong? Should any outside content be posted without thorough review from web editors?

There are certainly other ethical issues surrounding news websites that cry out for consideration by journalists today. And as the Internet quickly grows up, there will be many more to come. If we do our job correctly now, by next spring this year’s new protocols will seem useful – but, without a doubt, woefully incomplete.