Review: Online Journalism Ethics (Friend & Singer)

Book coverOnline Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions
Cecilia Friend and Jane B. Singer
ME Sharpe, 2007, 245 pp., ISBN 0765615738

On April 16, 2007, a 23-year-old man shot and killed 32 people at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. As the shootings were taking place students reported what was taking place on blogs, mobile phones, instant messaging, Flickr, Wikipedia, and social networks.

As they did so, journalists started arriving in search of information and reaction. Some “lurked”, taking what they found and publishing it elsewhere; others engaged in “digital doorstepping” – asking students for their experiences and feelings, or if they’d be willing to be interviewed on camera.

While traditional journalists saw the material as being ‘in the public domain’, many students reacted angrily to the invasion of what they saw as ‘their’ space. It was an example of worlds colliding, highlighting the new ethical challenges facing journalists as new media technologies enabled the distinction between public and private, and between publisher and audience, to collapse.

In this context, Friend and Singer’s book on the ethics of online journalism is hugely welcome.

Over eight chapters Friend and Singer attempt to summarise how journalism ethics are being changed by the ways new media technologies are being used. They begin by highlighting the culturally-specific and indeed technologically-influenced nature of ethics – how that the emergence of objectivity as an idea, for instance, was derived in part from the development of the telegraph, while new media technologies are reshaping these ethics once again.

They then look at questions around ‘Who is a journalist?’ and whether they should have different rights to non-journalists, before looking at sourcing practices – the importance of credibility, transparency, and the ethics of lurking. In a global publishing environment legal issues are tackled – privacy, deception, data protection, and even online corrections.

In a separate chapter Singer deals with the ethics of bloggers as being distinct from mainstream journalists. “Journalists hold an Enlightenment view of truth as something rationally arrived at through well-tested methods,” she argues. “Bloggers see truth as emerging from shared, collective knowledge – from an electronically enabled marketplace of ideas.” A further chapter looks at citizen journalism, polling, and email: how does a news organisation maintain ethical principles with user-generated content? Where does personal opinion expressed via email sit?

The final two chapters address commercial issues such as the separation of advertising and news online – particularly issues around design and contextual ad links, external linking, and aggregating – and partnerships and ownership: what ethical issues raise their head when journalists are asked to produce for multiple platforms, or cross-promote?

Each chapter contains a useful ‘Case Study’ which asks the reader to put themselves in a journalistic situation where the ethically ‘right’ decision is not crystal clear: would you publish video of a beheading (and it’s already on your competitor’s site)? Or allegations made on a sports blog? Would you pretend to be someone else online to expose a public figure? What would you do if libellous comments were published on your blog?

These in particular highlight just how difficult the choices are, as, with new technologies, we are being forced us to reevaluate many things we take for granted: concepts of privacy, copyright, social relationships, publishing models, and communication.

For the 21st century journalist, with a virtual world at their fingertips, and the ability to publish globally, instantly, across legal and cultural boundaries, and to audiences of both ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’, it’s easy to make an error of judgement that will cost you. Ethical issues have become central, and this book is an essential starting point for considering them. Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions Disclosure: this link earns me a commission.


4 thoughts on “Review: Online Journalism Ethics (Friend & Singer)

  1. billy sinclair

    Helen Thomas was a legendary White House correspondent, a stalwart in the nation’s news media whose public persona and journalistic reputation was beyond reproach. That’s why Miami Herald syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts was so honored this past April when he received the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award.

    There was one problem: Thomas was—and perhaps still is—a bigot who harbored festering anti-semitic feelings. Pitts was not aware of Thomas’ racially prejudiced views when he attended the Spirit of Diversity Award ceremonies at the White House correspondent’s alma mater, Wayne State University.

    Then the dean of the aged Thomas made off the cuff comments to Rabbi David Nesenoff. Those comments went viral over the Internet and there’s no need to rehash them here. The only thing that has to be repeated here is that many prominent media people quickly, and almost uniformly, called her an “anti-Semitic bigot.”

    Pitts pretty much drew the same conclusion, but what interesting about the Herald columnist’s June 12, 2010 column, titled “Age Is No Excuse For Bigotry,” was his observations that “Thomas’ peers in the White House press corps [said] there is nothing new about the anti-Semitism she displayed. To the contrary, it was apparently well known to colleagues.”

    Oh, really? One of the tenets from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is that journalist should expose unethical practices of other journalists and the news media.

    But, of course, there is that unspoken, unwritten “wink-wink” tenet among journalists to give their “professional colleagues” a free pass on ethics issues. In the Thomas case that translated into what Pitts called an “old-person pass.”

    I have been sort of “preaching to the choir” about this very “wink-wink” tenet among journalists who have reviewed the recently released memoir of famed prison journalist Wilbert Rideau, In The Place of Justice (Random House 2010). The ethical issue in the Rideau case is quite simple:

    Do journalists reviewing books have a responsibility to (1) read the books they review, (2) and, if so, report significant factual errors in those books, and (3) to truly analyze what the author says in relation to fact and experience?
    Rideau’s prison memoir is littered with serious factual errors and factual contradictions.
    And memoir has been reviewed by The New York Times and Associated Press, and Rideau has been featured on CBS’ Sunday Morning, NPR’s Fresh Air, and the Tom Joyner Morning Show to promote the memoir.
    And not one journalist has recognized the factual errors/contradictions, and if they did, failed to report them. I have recorded these factual errors and factual contradictions at – they are reported here, and here, and here, and here, and here.
    The Rideau memoir raises serious ethical issues about the nation’s media. The New York Times and other national media outlets devoted a great of coverage to transform Rideau from a convicted murderer into a celebrated convict editor during his incarceration in the Louisiana prison system. The famed prison journalist is now a free “journalist” who published his prison memoir with a $75,000 grant from The Open Society Institute of the George Soros Foundation who hailed him as a “visionary” in criminal justice. Ted Koppel endorsed In The Place of Justice as an “extraordinary book.”
    But in the face of so many irrefutable factual errors and misrepresentations is the memoir truly “extraordinary?” And is Wilbert Rideau really the “visionary” in criminal justice The Open Society Institute touted him as to the media?
    All media outlets, especially those who have provided Rideau with a forum to promote his memoir, should be aware of these ethical questions about the memoir. More to the point, like Helen Thomas’ longstanding anti-Semitic bigotry, Rideau’s ethical lapses should be in the public forum and subject to free debate. And central to that debate is the issue of whether the national media are giving In The Place of Justice a “free pass” (the wink-wink treatment as they gave Thomas for years) because they are the ones who created “the famed prison journalist” in the first place.

  2. Song Shanshong

    Mr. Sinclair, I do not see Mr. Rideau mentioned in the abstract.

    Is he in the document at all? If he’s not mentioned in the document at all, then wouldn’t your post be off topic? This isn’t about Rideau.

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