FAQ: Online journalism ethics, accuracy, transparency and objectivity

Answers to another set of questions around ethics and online journalism, posed by a UK student, and reproduced here as part of the FAQ series:

Do you believe online journalism presents new ethical dilemmas and should have standards of its own?

Yes, I think any changing situation – whether technological or cultural – presents new ethical dilemmas.

But should ‘online journalism’ have a separate code? I don’t see how it can. Where would you draw the line when most journalists work online? Ethical standards are relatively platform-agnostic, but journalists do have to revisit those when they’re working in new environments.

How far do you agree with the notion that immediacy is now being prioritised over accuracy?

Whether I agree or disagree doesn’t matter – that notion can only be proved or disproved based on evidence, not opinion. You could make arguments on both sides: the internet allows for faster news (immediacy), and also for more fact-checked news (interactivity), but ultimately it comes down to evidence (and remembering that correlation is not causation – even if you discover a decrease in fact-checking that might be down to institutional and commercial factors rather than technological ones)

Do you agree that the increase in competition in online news has the potential to glorify rumour and hearsay?

Again, whether I agree or disagree doesn’t matter – especially when there are terms here that need further definition, such as “glorify”. News consumers have always been interested in rumour and hearsay, regardless of the technology. The question is, are news media providing more of that, and if so is it because of technology, commercial pressures, or other factors?

You’d need quantitative research to get the numbers and qualitative research (e.g. ethnography) to get the motivations.

Do you think it is now harder for the reader to recognise news from a reliable source?

No. I think people are more critical news consumers. Partly because of the spread of media education, partly because more people have become media producers in their own right, and partly because new media allows people to seek out the sources of news and/or competing versions of events.

But again, you need research to prove this, not just my opinion.

How is online news affecting traditional values of objectivity?

The factors that gave rise to objectivity in news (a relatively modern idea) are to some extent challenged by new media: there is no limitation on ‘channels’, so no need to control who has access to those to ensure equal voice. The need for a mass market and to appeal to advertisers is reduced, so publishers can be less ‘neutral’.

There’s also cross-cultural and market competition influence here: UK publications (less objective) entering the US market (where objectivity and neutrality is a strong value).

There’s a lot of literature on the weaknesses and limitations of objectivity as a news value – it’s worth reading that if you haven’t already.

How is online journalism affecting the notion of transparency?

I’m not sure how the notion of transparency is affected. Certainly it is being used more widely, not just in journalism but in politics too. Essentially internet technologies make it possible to be more transparent, and gives less reason not to be.

Do you think that online journalism has threatened the role of ‘gate-keeping’?

See the answer on objectivity above – there are still gatekeepers, but these have multiplied to such an extent that the term is almost meaningless and it is more useful to talk of those without access to publishing and distribution technology, or of unequal access/literacy.

Journalists always have to respond to the information environment their audience (now users) live in, in all sorts of ways from the language and jargon that they can use, to the assumptions they can make about prior knowledge and understanding.

They are still gatekeepers in the sense that they must make editorial judgements on what to report, but they are now more likely to assume that their users have access to various other pieces of information, that the story has already broken elsewhere, etc.

There are debates concerning whether some content available online is entirely ethical; e.g. the execution video of Saddam Hussein.  Do you think there is a need for some form of gate-keeping?

Firstly, we need to remember that ethics are culturally dependent: what appears offensive to some cultures will be acceptable in others, including some images that UK users might find quite upsetting.

This become problematic when we move to a global pubishing environment in two ways: firstly, we have access to information from cultures with different ethical frameworks and tastes; and secondly, we are open to accusations of censorship from members of those cultures if we refuse to publish footage which they are aware of.

With that established, you then have to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of establishing some sort of gatekeeping structure on the internet to somehow ‘protect’ people from information that may be offensive.

This gatekeeping already exists – for example, nazi memorabilia online in France, or Holocaust denial sites in Germany. But any level of gatekeeping is open to abuse and that should be recognised: proposals to allow sites to be shut down based on accusations of copyright abuse, for example, may sidestep due process and have potentially damaging implications for free speech (imagine a shop being closed down because ‘someone’ says it is illegal, or because the shop next door is illegal, i.e. shares hosting).

Your own example is a good one: to find that video, you have to seek it out. Therefore, you are taking on responsibility for that. If a media organisation shows you it, then they take on some responsibility.

But should they decide whether you are allowed to seek it out at all? And who decides who ‘they’ are?

How would you define a professional journalist in an age where anyone is able to publish online? Would you class a blogger as an online journalist?

A blogger is someone who uses a blog to publish content. The term is based on platform, not the content itself, so you can’t say a blogger is or isn’t a journalist. As I’ve written before, it’s like asking “Is ice cream strawberry?”

A journalist is someone who practises journalism – it’s as simple as that. Being employed by a media organisation is not enough alone (otherwise ad sales, marketing, distribution and other staff would also be ‘journalists’).

So you then look at definitions like Stuart Adams’s. I think it’s pretty broad, but also you have to ask: why does it matter what we call someone? Is it ego?

Do you believe that bloggers and other citizen journalists should be expected to work under the same codes of practice as professional journalists?

No, for the simple reason that professional journalists don’t all work under the same codes of practice.

A journalist chooses to work under a code of practice in two ways: through joining the NUJ or similar professional body, and by doing so signing up to their code of conduct; and through becoming an employee of a publisher who has signed up to a code of conduct (that might be the PCC, Ofcom, or neither) and may have their own internal one too.

Bloggers and CJs have the same choice. As publishers themselves, they can write their own code of conduct. They can join the NUJ or another body which has a code. Or they can abide by a personal code of conduct which is implicit in their work. But that’s their choice, just as it is the choice of journalists and publishers.


4 thoughts on “FAQ: Online journalism ethics, accuracy, transparency and objectivity

  1. Pingback: Mack the Flack » Blog Archive » Who do you believe: Digital journalists must be careful who they trust online

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