Bloggers are a rough-and-tumble lot. They are the publishing cowboys of the media frontier. And like the untamed West, the blogosphere is full of mavericks who fail to think before they write.
Even worse is that some of these cowboys refuse to adhere to a set of ethical rules.
But this could change, as many notable bloggers push for a code ethics. Like town pastors, these bloggers are preaching the virtue and benefit of being honest, truthful and transparent with readers.
Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t seem to sit well with a largely nonprofessional lot that began writing as a means to vent dissatisfaction with traditional media.
“Codes are good in articulating the principles that guide us, principles that give us moral compass and moral gyroscope for our behavior,” said Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute’s ethics program. “Professional codes set the boundaries, but they are not the end all, be all.”
Steele co-authored the paper “Earn your own trust, roll your own ethics: Transparency and beyond” with Bill Mitchell, Poynter director of publishing and online editor. The two created the piece for a blogging conference at Harvard. Steele said bloggers and journalists share a common aim with ethics – credibility with their audiences. He said a blogger’s credibility is built on a number of ethical values, which can be shaped by the individual blogger.
“This forces us to grapple in the gray area, rather than accept absolutes,” Steele said.
It’s also about respect.
“There’s an obligation for fairness to others in any circumstance in which we’re writing,” he said. “We should not be disrespectful in how we go about that expression.
“Disrespect erodes relationships … it’s anti-ethical to the spirit of blogging.”
Code or no code?
It’s what these ethical values are that is generating controversy with bloggers, including longtime blogger Rebecca Blood. Her blog “Rebecca’s Pocket” has archives dating to the early days of blogging in April 1999. She devoted an entire chapter of her 2002 book “The Weblog handbook: Practical advise on creating and maintaining your blog” to blogging ethics.
Blood disagrees with a formalized code of ethics for bloggers, such as that proposed by Jonathan Dube, MSNBC.com Managing Producer and Publisher of Cyberjournalist.net. Instead, she includes in her book a list of ethical standards for nonjournalist bloggers.
“I think it’s unrealistic for the blogger to uphold journalistic standards,” she said. “Most of us aren’t interested in being a journalist.”
But for those who are, Blood said it’s reasonable to expect them to be transparent with sources, biases and behavior. She said bloggers must also be willing to publish corrections, which are “never as much fun.”
Dube’s “Blogger’s Code of Ethics” – posted on the media convergence and technology Web site Cyberjournalist.net – was created by modifying the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics for the blogosphere.
“Responsible bloggers should recognize that they are publishing words publicly, and therefore have certain ethical obligations to their readers, the people they write about and society in general,” Dube writes in the Code’s preface. He also suggests bloggers choose their own best practices and use his code as a guideline.
Blood and Dube’s differing ideas intertwine in thought but have split backing from media critics.
J.D. Lasica, a former Sacramento Bee editor and supporter of grass-roots media, said he agrees with Blood. He said bloggers sometimes act as journalists, but not always. But in those instances, he believes they should be held to a stricter standard.
“I think an ‘ethics code’ is something that bloggers will never accept,” he said. “While journalism has decades of tradition as a craft, during which certain norms and practices came into being before being codified into a code, blogs aren’t at that point yet.”
However, Lasica does believe certain customs and norms are beginning to emerge: transparency, passionate blogging, honesty, trust in readers and integrity in one’s reputation. He said for bloggers to “write the truth” is always the most difficult ethical imperative to follow.
Lasica said bloggers are more honest than news organizations in admitting when they’re wrong. He said they also are more forthcoming about biases and motives.
“Being honest and truthful – and writing with your readers uppermost in mind – should be the aim of every blogger and journalist,” Lasica said.
Ethics from the mainstream
Blood said another ethical situation bloggers must recognize is the difference between being popular and being credible.
“It’s the tabloid factor,” she said. “Just because it’s in print, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. You can’t always judge the accuracy of any medium by the size of its audience.”
However, The New York Times has a huge audience, and it’s starting to embrace blogging – with tender steps.
“We have not had any ethical problems with blogs, but our experience has been pretty modest,” said Len Apcar, editor in chief of NY Times.com.
The NY Times.com blogging exploits began in 2003 with op-ed columnist Nick Kristof’s “Kristof Responds.” That was followed by the more ambitious “Times on the Trail” news blog that chronicled the recent presidential race. There have been other blogs for special news events written by staff writers.
Apcar said he is more concerned with bloggers’ credibility, independence and the reliability of information on the Internet, than whether those bloggers are journalists.
“I would rather not see the Web overcome with rumors, half-truths and falsehoods,” he said.
To do this, Apcar said bloggers should be free of commercial or partisan interests, and should dispense information and opinion that is not influenced by any outside force. He hopes the recent revelations of bloggers’ taking payments for voicing a particular point of view, such as former Howard Dean staffer Zephyr Teachout’s report that the campaign had paid two bloggers for their positive praise, will not continue.
“I think bloggers or journalists taking money for promoting a point of view is a reckless practice and poisonous to the credibility of journalism in any form,” he said.
In fact, Apcar believes credibility is the most important asset anyone in the media has.
Sheila Lennon, features and interactive producer for the Providence Journal as well as its resident blogger, said blogging in the newsroom doesn’t involve different ethical concerns.
“I could theoretically announce some company policy on my blog before it was implemented,” she said, “but I’m not that stupid.”
Lennon said some newsroom habits that are also effective in blogging include: working for readers, checking the small things, posting corrections in all instances and using words such as “says” and “said” rather than colorful words for quotes.
“I think a lot of the bias in political blogs comes from little word choices such as these,” she said.
Transparency equals credibility
Nearly all media critics and bloggers agree that transparency can lead to credibility.
Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, said transparency in journalism means the reader or viewer can tell how a reporter got his or her information. She said blogs are sporadic in their use of transparency, with some very transparent and others not at all.
“Yes, I believe it (transparency) goes hand in hand with ethical decision making,” she said. “But it’s not the end all and be all.
“Ethics is much bigger than transparency.”
McBride said because transparency can’t be enforced with bloggers, it’s only an issue if they are concerned with their independence and credibility.
“It’s not an issue for the bloggers who really don’t care about those principles,” she said. “If you are a reader looking for transparency, blogs will let you down.”
Mitchell and Steele’s ethics paper contends that a bloggers’ disclosure in the areas of principles, processes and the personal, can help one move beyond transparency to accountability.
Steele said he champions the concept of transparency for everyone practicing some form of journalism, including bloggers.
“It’s valuable because it gives insight into why certain decisions are being made,” he said. “It helps readers understand a bit of the (journalism) process, and that’s good.”
Steele said transparency builds trust with readers, which could help create credibility. But he said it cannot be used independent of ethics.
“Transparency (by itself) is not enough,” Steele said. “You can be transparent, but unethical.”
Mitchell agrees. He said blogs must be transparent because they continue to be much more personal than mainstream media. Mitchell also said the personalized nature of blogs means bloggers’ faithfulness to ethics is determined on a more fundamental, moral level.
“If you have an intent in being a moral human being, there are issues at stake far more basic than journalism or blogging,” he said.
Mitchell said it’s this moral awareness that must be part of a bloggers’ adherence to the concept of transparency if they are to be ethical.
“The core issue is that when you publish something, that (action) carries responsibility,” he said. “There is an ethical responsibility whether you’re with an organization, or whether you’re standing on that soapbox in a blogging town square.”