FAQ: The changing ethics of 21st century journalism

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Image: Alexander Henning Drachmann

The latest frequently asked questions post focuses on questions from a Masters student interested in the effect of the rise of online news on journalism ethics.

Do you think that the ethical codes of journalism have changed in the transition from traditional journalism to digital?

I think the ethics of journalism have changed, yes, for a range of reasons, and in both negative and positive ways. For example, transparency has become much more highly valued as a journalistic value: journalists are expected to earn the trust of readers much more than was previously the case, and I would argue that is a positive development. Linking to sources, sharing methodologies, etc. forces journalists to hold themselves to higher standards.

On the more negative side, the ‘Chinese wall’ between editorial and advertising has been eroded in various ways in the last decade, partly due to commercial pressures  and changing business models (e.g. the rise of native advertising) but also less obviously due to technological developments: the growth of analytics has made it possible to more closely monitor what stories successfully attract and retain subscribers (or audiences attractive to advertisers) and this commercial consideration is having a larger influence on editorial than perhaps was the case when advertising was easier to sell and impact was harder to measure (and perhaps skewed by editors’ own perception of the value of content).

Similarly the growth of SEO and SMO has steered editorial focus in a way that is influenced by the commercial consideration of maximising audiences. Newspapers have always been accused of chasing audiences but the shift from generic ‘sensationalism’ to content that is informed by consumer behaviour is a qualitative shift that’s worth remarking on.

There’s a positive side to that as well, however, in that editors do now at least have a closer understanding of their audiences and ‘serve’ those more consciously rather than, for example, assuming that they know what their audience wants. (A good example would be simple content which answers a question, that wouldn’t have been published in a pre-internet era because it wasn’t “a story”).

There’s a more collaborative ethic as the power of the audience (to contribute, to produce, to distribute) has grown.

And there’s a growing awareness of the ethics of diversity in all sorts of aspects of reporting, from the language that’s used to the make-up of the newsroom, and sourcing (the book Everybody In, edited by my colleagues at Birmingham City University, is a guide to this very topic).

As for differences between “traditional” and “internet” journalism I don’t think you can say that traditional journalism has a single code of ethics, and for the same reason I don’t think you can say that internet news has a single code either, or is different.

All news organisations have been subject to similar commercial pressures and that affects the ethics they can afford. Print newspapers have arguably blurred the commercial/editorial boundaries more, and become more polarised, but less attention is paid to that because it’s easier to tell and sell stories about new websites doing that.

So while I think ethics have evolved in the last couple decades, I don’t think that’s especially about a difference between print and online.

Online news is raising new ethical issues, however — the most obvious ones being around the role of personalisation and to what extent publishers have a responsibility to ensure that there is a shared public sphere of stories which all audiences are exposed to.

Do you believe that the role of journalism will change in the online media? In other words, will it be dominated by those who know such as coding, video editing, social media sharing experts? Or will traditional journalism somehow continue?

“The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed” as the quote has it. The bar has been raised in terms of how stories are reported – with audiences having direct access to those in power, and vice versa, journalists have moved to add more ‘value’ beyond merely reporting what has been said by a newsworthy figure.

Conversely, curation has taken on a greater role in journalism as we adjust to a world of information overload.

Coding has become important because of the role it can play in finding stories we couldn’t otherwise find (e.g. megaleaks, holding algorithms to account, tracing people’s movements and actions, and advanced verification) and in telling stories in new ways (interactives, news games, personalisation, simulators, calculators). But many of those actions are “traditional” and the scarcity of people with those skills (and the high pay offered elsewhere) means I don’t think it will “dominate”.

Video has obviously taken on more importance, in much the same way that photos became an increasingly integrated part of news reporting in the early 20th century, but again this is a relatively “traditional” skill anyway – it’s just expected more widely in the industry beyond broadcast journalists.

What do you think are the conditions for success in digital journalism? 

The same as those in non-digital journalism: an eye for a story lead, the ability to gather the information needed, and to tell that story succinctly and accurately for a specific audience with an awareness of the ethical and legal considerations in doing so.

Or, I’d say the 7 habits of successful journalists that I wrote about this year: curiosityscepticismpersistence and tenacityempathycreativity, discipline, and passion.

Perhaps the one addition to those conditions above would be an ability to get your story to a specific audience, because we don’t control the means of distribution when it comes to online journalism: our audiences distribute our stories, not paperboys or airwaves, and search engine and social media algorithms facilitate that, not schedulers or newsagents.

The focus on subscriptions is one attempt to address that shift in power, so you might also add “…or an ability to identify stories that a specific audience is willing to pay, and continue paying, for.”

According to the former CEO of the NYT, after 20 years, there may not be any print newspaper. To what extent do you agree?

20 years is a long time in technology, but I generally don’t believe extreme statements and it’s very rare for an establish technology to disappear entirely. Newspapers weren’t replaced by magazines or radio, and radio wasn’t replaced by TV. (Likewise books were not replaced by cinema, and cinema wasn’t replaced by TV, which wasn’t replaced by video games.)

History suggests that old technologies tend to adjust to the arrival of new ones, and newspapers have evolved when the media landscape has changed in the past (and indeed have already evolved in response to the rise of online news).

That doesn’t mean some won’t close – and many already have – but I am very sceptical that they would disappear entirely unless there was another factor such as environmental concerns and/or political moves to restrict or reduce the use of paper.

It may well be that newspapers become a niche platform in the way that vinyl has become, for example, or used more for particular communities where offline access is important.

What impact do you think the New York Times’s digital subscription success in digital publishing will have on internet journalism?

Do you think that some unethical online news tactics such as clickbait will end in internet journalism? Or dependence on internet giant companies for advertising revenues will change? 

It’s important to emphasise that its impact will be significantly limited by the fact that most news organisations are not like the New York Times. There are many different business models in news and each organisation will be most interested in those organisations most similar to themselves in terms of audience, market and resources.

So it may influence other national broadsheet newspapers with affluent readerships, and those whose analysis suggests that subscriptions may be sustainable in their field, but with so many failed attempts to build subscription-based business models already in the past many organisations will have already learned their lessons on that front.

More broadly, the term “clickbait” is broadly overused and misused: it refers to content that promises more than it can deliver, but is often used to simply refer to content which sells itself aggressively. I am not sure I would agree with the assumption that such a practice is unethical (as long as it sells itself accurately).

Conversely, there’s an implicit suggestion in the question that a subscription-based model is more ethical, but it brings its own ethical challenges which I mentioned earlier.

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