On September 17, 2009, Kent State University hosted the Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop. In addition to Leach, the event featured several Nieman Reports contriubtors: Dan Gillmor (Fall ’09), Kelly Niknejad (Summer ’09) and Bob Steele (Winter ’08). If all content consumed will be digital within 10 years, as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told an international advertising audience in late June, then it’s time to embrace our roles as “digital doers,” and figure out how best to connect digital consumers to reliable news and information. Improving credibility will be high among our strategies, and this means more attention must be paid to ethics.

As Ballmer put it, “Static content won’t cut it for the consumer in the future.” Neither will static ethics; as media evolve so, too, will ethical guidelines.

Digital media—and the emerging use of social media—are exponentially expanding the reach of journalism, and this presents us, its practitioners (and those whom we hope to reach) with opportunities and dilemmas. Among those who gather news, publish it and consume it, ethical questions will be raised by the demands and possibilities of this new media environment—one that now embraces social engagement as a core function. Views on ethics will intersect and overlap among players, and there doubtless will be places where opinions diverge. It’s unlikely that agreement will be easy to find across the wide range of ethical issues, but unity ought to be expressed in ways that let digital consumers know we are thinking hard about these emerging ethical issues.

Here is a sample of some of the ethical issues rising to the surface:

  • How will journalists and/or news organizations approach the issue of posting stories on personal or company Web sites or blogs? If a reporter covering a local business posts negative information or complaints about the business on his news organization’s site, does that compromise the reporter’s objectivity?
  • Is it appropriate for reporters to publish on a personal blog their opinion about a source, an event, or a story?
  • Does the posting of personal opinion compromise a reporter’s fairness? If opinion is discouraged, does that infringe on free expression? Does it “dehumanize” the reporter?
  • In an environment where anonymity rules, how is the accuracy of user-generated content such as tips, articles, photos and video, to be determined? And how are consumers to be alerted?
  • When news organizations invite and feature citizen contributions, does publishing these stories on their site transfer “authority” to information that may be biased or incomplete?
  • Posted without any moderation, comments about articles often stray off topic or, worse, devolve into name calling and ugly slurs. Does the anonymity of the Web culture encourage animosity? If so, is moderating essential for a news organization? Or is churlish online debate simply the price to be paid for increased online traffic?

“The Newsroom’s Disdain for Revealing Reporters’ Political Leanings”
– Reed Richardson
Journalism’s reliance on the tools of social media is evident already. What this means for a battered journalism industry is significant. Consider the coverage of the post-election protests in Iran. With journalists banished or silenced by the Iranian government, news organizations and Web sites relied on showing random snippets of video or text messages or tweets sent from people witnessing the protests on the streets of Tehran. Having access to these images and words, but not being certain of what was being shown or who was sending the information, troubled many journalists on this end of the story. News organizations were confronted with what seemed their only choice: publish unconfirmed, yet compelling pictures and information or be left behind and considered uncompetitive in breaking and updating news accounts of this global story. A New York Times story well captured this dilemma: After acknowledging the difficulty in substantiating some of the citizen-witness information, news managers admitted that texts and cell phone video were the only way they had to cover the protests.

The Iran protest coverage illuminates how legacy media’s goals now intersect with social media’s tools. Accuracy and credibility are still seen as worthy goals, but do traditional reporting rules—among them the attempt to reach all sides before publishing a story and verification of information—take too long? Should posting of unverified information as news raise questions about accuracy and bias?

It’s possible that as various news gathering and social media efforts intersect with greater frequency, they might also find themselves moving in very different directions in terms of their goals and purpose. Even as they do, credibility and ethical concerns should continue to be points of intersection and overlap.

Areas of overlap are likely to be found, for example, in the emerging voices of diverse communities and in feedback from users. A great strength of the Internet is its ability to encourage the formation of community while giving voice to anyone digitally connected. In journalism, recognizing diversity and inviting feedback adds depth and human interest. Those who are overlooked in mainstream media coverage, including people espousing unpopular causes, will use the Internet to gather and share information and use it to stitch online communities together.

Yet, some are expressing concerns related to the nature of the Web-user’s experience. In digital media, people self-select information and news to read or view. Often what they search for is biased toward affirming what they already know and believe. Then, by using social media tools, they share links with an online community of self-selected friends. The notion of reaching more diverse and broader communities with information and news all but evaporates in the fragmentation that characterizes digital media.

Ethical Issues

Areas of disconnect between the practices of journalists and the emerging conventions of digital/social media demonstrate the need for ethical guidelines. Among the issues are:

  • Authenticating sources of information, especially when they are provided by an anonymous source
  • Assuring the reliability of information on linked sites
  • Dealing with conflicts of interest
  • Concerns involving lack of oversight or accountability.

These ethical issues, and many others, have been discussed in journalism organizations for years. And numerous industry and news organization policies have been created to address them, even if ethical lapses still occur with worrisome regularity. But even this organized step of establishing guidelines hasn’t happened yet within digital/social media. Some news organizations have drawn up policies regarding ethical reporting conduct when using social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and on occasion one hears stirrings among bloggers to urge the development of standards to address ethics. Still, however, what appears on Web sites and on blogs is not generally regarded as adhering to standards that govern legacy news organizations.

When it comes to news reporting via social media, conversations about ethical standards and guidelines ought to be taking place in more news organizations. Right now, digital consumers are right to feel confused by what they read and watch online. When they see user-generated content on a news outlet such as CNN (and CNN.com), they might believe it has been verified as any other news story on CNN would be, even if the iReports page is labeled “Unedited. Unfiltered.” And as they travel around the Web and link to and read blog posts and information on other Web sites, what gets blurred is the line separating personal opinion and unverified information from what journalists are reporting.

In his keynote talk at the Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop in the fall of 2008, PressThink blogger Jay Rosen described online media as an “open system” that offers anyone with access to the Web the opportunity to contribute news and commentary. For digital doers the challenge will be to find ways to embrace this open system without sacrificing what it takes to sustain credibility.

Here are two recommendations: transparency and education. Though many ethical tenets are contained within these suggestions, maintaining a focus on journalistic transparency and on passing along reliable news and information to consumers will give credibility to digital/social media. Explain to consumers what is being covered, how it’s been reported, and what information might be missing. Avoid sensationalism and offer context. Invite feedback and provide cautionary warnings to readers when feedback is not moderated. Explain conflicts, even potential conflicts of interest. Prominently label Web pages that contain user-generated content and, provide signals to point out discrepancies between user-generated and reporter-generated information. Strive for accuracy, and make sure that information about transparency is visible.

Educating online users about journalistic ethics—what they are and why they matter—will require effort and commitment. And journalists will not be—nor should they be—the only ones raising ethical questions and figuring out ways in this digital territory to find a place for standards that speak to the credibility of the content we read and watch.

Jan Leach is an assistant professor of journalism at Kent State University and director of Kent’s Media Law Center for Ethics and Access. She is the former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal and a 2004 Ethics Fellow at The Poynter Institute.

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