USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





On the Wild, Woolly Internet,
Old Ethics Rules Do Apply

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We convene another virtual roundtable, this time looking at the anything-goes nature of online news and rumor dissemination. Our panel agrees that online or offline, all media should pay attention to ethics and standards of accuracy in a time of media concentration and sensationalism.

When covering online media over the past couple years, there have been times when I have felt dirty, disgusted and thoroughly dispirited about the human condition. And that was just from going through my anti-spam filter.

But seriously, I have always been a believer in the First Amendment and the freedom of speech and expression it affords. And in theory, it's a lot easier to espouse when you're not staring at a streaming video of a person being beheaded in Iraq. Or when you start digging into the defenders and attackers of basketball star Kobe Bryant online. Or when you follow the trail of a nasty political rumor online.

To some extent, the horrors of the online world are just the horrors of the offline world in another format. But how many times per day does the average TV watcher come across pitches for bestiality pornography vs. the average person opening up their daily e-mail? The freedom of expression online has opened up global distribution for every human thought or deed, good or bad, whether it's providing virtual support groups for people suffering from diseases or providing a platform for people to spew venomous hate against entire racial and religious classes.

True, this freedom online is slowly being reined in, either by the courts of one nation or by cybercrime units of another. But the ability of one person to publish their thoughts to a global audience remains a unique online activity, difficult or impossible in broadcasting or print. And with that power comes a wide range of possibilities, from the mundanities of people living their lives on Webcams to the amazing narratives from bloggers in war-torn Iraq.

So where does the traditional work of journalists fit into this new world order online? When rumors run rampant on gossip sites, do newspaper sites and wire services report that? If videos of beheadings are some of the most popular content online -- or represent the most searched-for sites -- does that mean that broadcasters need to consider showing them to their audiences? And what happens when someone fakes a beheading and it spreads online as authentic, fooling even AP and Reuters?

The next generation of journalists will be wired from childhood, more used to this wild and woolly frontier, and more exposed to a multimedia landscape that shocks and amazes them at every turn. So we convened a panel for another virtual roundtable to discuss the challenges of online ethics and the spread of disturbing images and words across the globe.

Mindy McAdams teaches online journalism at the University of Florida. She has worked at Time magazine and the Washington Post, where the ethical standards are high, comparatively speaking. Her book, "Flash Journalism: How to Create Multimedia News Packages," will be published in spring 2005.

Kelly McBride teaches journalists from around the world how to do their jobs better. She is a faculty member for The Poynter Institute, where she trains reporters, photographers and editors in the skills of ethical decision-making, critical thinking and reporting and writing. Prior to coming to Poynter, Kelly was a reporter for 15 years, spending most of that time at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Simon Waldman started life as a journalist, and was launch editor of Guardian Unlimited in January 1999. In March 2001 he became Guardian Newspaper's first director of digital publishing. Guardian Unlimited is the most popular UK newspaper site on the Net. Simon also writes a music Weblog called 50 Quid Bloke.

Stephen Ward is associate professor of journalism ethics at the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia. His research area is the history and evolution of journalism ethics, and the new ethical issues surrounding global media. His book, "Invention of Journalism Ethics," will be published by McGill-Queen's University Press in November.

As with past roundtables, each participant answered the same questions via e-mail. The following is an edited transcript of their responses (with their own chosen hyperlinks).

OJR: The Internet offers a freedom of expression and distribution of that expression to a global audience as never before. How is that good and/or bad?

Mindy McAdams: What's still great about the Internet: It allows the possibility that if someone finds evidence of a misdeed or injustice, the information can be published, shared and quickly replicated. Even if the original site is censored or shut down, others might pass it on. The best example of this is an old one: When Radio B92 in Belgrade was shut down by the Milosevic government in 1999, the audio reports from the station were copied and passed along via the Internet to other radio stations, which then broadcast them.

In the same way, we can see video showing what is really happening today in Sudan; we can read reports from other countries where the viewpoints differ from our own. There is no downside that seriously overshadows this benefit. In this era of global media monopolies, the Internet is the only place left where the voice of the people might be heard.

Kelly McBride: By itself the proliferation of expression on the Internet is neither good nor bad, it just is. On the plus side, almost anybody can get his opinion out these days. On the bad side, in the same way that money can become worthless, so can information. There's so much crap out now that most of it is worthless. Information has two forms of value. First, information that is new is valuable, but in a limited sort of a way. More valuable is information that has been vetted and organized in a way that gives the user meaning. That kind of information starts out in the first category, then it is verified and categorized by a credible organization, which elevates the information to the second category. Anyone can achieve the first level of value. It takes a bit of skill and intelligence and knowledge and hard work to get to the next level.

Another negative effect of the proliferation of information is that folks gravitate toward opinion that mirrors their own, rather than a variety of opinion. Sometimes I think as information and opinion become more available, as virtual communities form, real communities become more divided.

Simon Waldman: There are benefits for organizations both large and small. In five years the Guardian has gone from being a UK newspaper to suddenly having an audience in pretty much every country in the world. Given we have a purpose beyond simply creating shareholder value, it is a seismic shift for us to be able to bring our values and view on the world to a global audience without the traditional costs of printing and distribution. It is the sort of transformation that you sense will happen once in a newspaper's lifetime and is a tremendous opportunity to be seized.

Away from our experience: The Internet has given thousands of individuals and interest groups a platform to communicate without the intermediation of media organizations. Whether you think this is good or bad depends on your view on the individual or groups concerned.

Personally, I don't believe that freedom of expression is an absolute right -- online or otherwise -- particularly when it comes to incitement of hatred or violence. And, I find the views expressed on many organizations' sites repellent. But one of the greatest achievements of the Internet has been to create the greatest gallery of human opinion in history, and that is something we should marvel at, rather than shake our heads in dismay.

Stephen Ward: The freedom of expression is, overall, a good thing. Any new vehicles for the exchange of comment and news in today's global media environment and ownership concentration in mainstream media should be welcomed. Yet, freedom of expression, albeit important, is not sufficient for the development of a more democratic, informed public sphere.

Everything depends on whether the Internet will develop to encourage not just an exchange of views on news already gathered by the mainstream press, but whether it will also become a serious news provider, and news investigator. If it does, it will increase the diversity of our news sources. As well, much depends on whether the Internet is used to foster the rational deliberation of views and issues, among cultures and within countries -- not just settle for the pleasures of ranting and tossing off opinions.

Finally, the Internet needs to develop in a way that allows a core group of responsible online journalists to emerge which follow basic journalistic standards of truthfulness, integrity and verification. We need some part of the wild world of the Internet to do real journalism -- to help our societies develop diverse but responsible sources of public journalism.

OJR: Terrorists are using the TV media and Internet to release and distribute videos of hostages being beheaded. What does the popularity of these videos online tell you?

McAdams: Many people are drawn to things that are unusual or strange or disturbing -- that's nothing new. We even call it "newsworthiness." People are curious, so they read or click or look. The popularity of sensationalistic images or stories has been evident since the first newspapers -- and even before that, in the myths and legends of every human culture. It's not pleasant that people want to see these things (let alone that people want to commit violence on other people), but it's not an effect of the Internet or even the news media.

McBride: We are sicker than we thought. And I mean that in a pathological sense. I'd love to see a story on who is watching these videos, why individuals seek them out and what the impact is on an individual and what the impact is on our society. There is a voyeuristic impulse behind the desire to see this kind of gore that seems insatiable.

Waldman: It tells you exactly the same as the gangs of people who gather around an accident scene on the street, or the people who stop outside houses with an ambulance outside: Many people are irresistably drawn towards the ugliest of situations.

Ward: The popularity of these images confirms what we know from the history of journalism: that dramatic, even gruesome images, attract people, for better or for ill. There is no mystery here. In addition, I think it also tells me that a certain percentage of these people are also motivated by a desire to access information on such major events from non-mainstream sources. It may also indicate a frustration with and a suspicion of the gatekeepers of mainstream media.

Finally, this popularity reflects the values of a culture that increasingly expects and demands "access" to any and all information at breakneck speed. That said, I believe that media organizations online or offline have a serious duty to reflect on whether it is in the public interest to use such videos, and to think carefully about the possibility of manipulation by the providers. The ethic of "just show everything" is no ethic at all. It is an abandonment of ethics. It is a trendy-sounding ethic that conveniently excuses the journalist (and news organization) from the difficult ethical decisions in deciding what to publish.

OJR: Major media have used their Web sites to post borderline material that would never have passed muster in print or on TV. Will this practice continue or should it change?

McAdams: I disagree that Web sites suffer from looser standards. Most of the borderline material I have seen or heard about is on TV, usually cable channels, or non-mainstream Web sites. The mainstream journalism Web sites are managed pretty much the same as their associated print and broadcast products. The differences are quite small.

Just look at any set of journalism ethics cases and you'll see that most of the questions raised about online journalism ethics can be found in earlier cases that involve broadcast or print media.

McBride: Frankly, we've never been that sharp in the entire journalism industry on ethical-decision making. We tend toward rule-obedience because it promotes efficiency, rather than true critical thinking. But we could hide our weakness behind the fact the we only came out once a day or a couple times a day. Now that the news cycle is eternal, we are finding it's not enough to have one or two assistant managing editors who can think through critical decisions and make the right call. Everyone at every level has to be versed in the foundations of values and principles of good journalism. Is that happening? Slowly.

Waldman: If this happens, it can only be excused as a temporary lapse in both process and quality control. In which case, the media organization concerned should sort it out. Immediately. If it is happening systematically, then the company involved has completely failed to understand how their consumers see the Internet. The potential damage to your reputation is now equally bad whether you mess up in print or online. You might well adopt a different tone in some online content: But if you start to skimp on the basics of accuracy, decency and reliability you are on the road to ruin as a media organization. If you lose your reader's trust, you have very little left: editorially and commercially.

Ward: The practice will continue and it will grow. We inhabit a hot media climate with many competitors. The pressure to use some material that someone else does not have, or may use, will persuade increasing numbers of editors to use borderline material. What was once the exception -- "use borderline material only under certain restricted conditions and with suitable warnings" -- will unfortunately become less an exception and more the common practice in news media. I expect that, in some areas of the media, the aforementioned stress on "suitable warnings" to the public will decline, also.

The issue here is not: Should online media adopt print standards? Obviously, the practices of online media will have to adopt practices that are different, for their media. The issue is how online journalism can adopt reasonable and responsible practices and standards that make sense for their media. In many cases, the ethical principles across forms of media are the same, but we also have to recognize that different media need different methods for dealing with troublesome cases or questionable material.

OJR: Tell me something you experienced online recently -- in e-mail or on a Web site -- that disgusted you. Is this happening more often or less often now and what's the long-term effect?

McAdams: I don't often encounter unexpected horrors online, because almost everything that loads in my browser comes from a Google search, a Weblog link, or a link sent to me by a friend in e-mail. I don't click links to beheading videos and the like, because I don't want to know what that looks like. On a much, much lesser level of offensiveness, what I have run into recently is blog-comment spammers. I had to disable comments on my Movable Type blog because automatic spammers were leaving daily comments about their numerous remedies for male sexual dysfunction. I also see many disgusting subject lines in my e-mail in-box, and that has certainly increased a lot just in the past year.

The long-term effect of the whole commercial spam deluge has been that most of us just don't send as much e-mail as we used to. That also means I don't check e-mail as often as I used to -- it is no longer an all-day, immediate communication medium for me.

McBride: I was shopping online for backpacks with my son and turned up a hardcore porn site. Does that count? That happens all the time. I wonder what the effects of inadvertent or casual exposure to porn and violence are?

Ward: I am frequently disgusted by the racist and intolerant Web sites that I encounter. Or I am disgusted by Web sites that demean women and other groups. But I would not argue, therefore, that all such material be censored. Rather, much of this offensive material is part of what a free society must put up with, although there are limits such as when material violates hate speech laws, etc.

OJR: Do you think that the freedom of the Internet will loosen standards of offline media, or will offline media's more stringent standards come online? Why?

McAdams: The Internet is less and less free each year. More covert surveillance occurs. More personal data are collected. More mergers take place, limiting access choices for both consumers and businesses. If you have a personal Web site and you post some kind of forbidden material, your hosting company may delete it, or even shut down your account, by order of a government authority. This is hardly freedom.

Offline media appear to be influenced by online media mostly in relation to design, gross popularity, and profit. If something online is pretty, or gets a lot of page impressions, or makes money, the offline media will try to imitate it. It's not so much a question of standards, as in standards of truth, or ethics. The standards go straight across all media, whether they are journalistic standards, standards for accuracy or fairness, or aesthetic standards. There is no "offline" and "online" when it comes to standards -- only a little time lag, because online is faster.

Waldman: You're assuming that adopting the freedom of the Internet means you have to loosen your standards. Embracing the new doesn't mean you have to ditch the old. Smart organizations are taking the opportunities that the Net offers them for immediacy and interactivity and combining them with their traditional standards. Similarly, smart bloggers are realizing that accuracy, reliability, good grammar, spelling and punctuation are all important if they want to be taken seriously.

OJR: Has the scoop-per-nanosecond cycle of the Net, with blogs and news sites updating continuously, eroded the standards of accuracy and the trust of the audience?

McAdams: That "cycle" has contributed to a laxness in fact-checking coupled with an overeagerness to get any "new" (not necessarly news) item online as quickly as possible. The effects are amplified by the perverse habit of online addicts to replicate every juicy morsel the instant they can -- which in some ways can be really stupid, because then you just have everyone copying everyone else. There's a silly sense of "Oo! Oo! I had it first this time!" that certainly reflects back on traditional journalism and the ego-stroking thrill of getting a real scoop -- for which hardly any of these online "revelations" qualify.

I'm not about to lay blame for declining audience trust on the online folks, though. That blame belongs to the journalism organizations that repeatedly failed to investigate and halt plagiarism and fabrication in their print newsrooms; to TV pundit shows that play at being journalistic when in fact their talking heads spew slippery facts and imprudent opinions; and to local TV news anchors who repeat the same provocative teases six times between 9 and 11 p.m., only to deliver a complete letdown at 11:17 ("And then the grandmother found her little dog, unharmed!").

The standards of accuracy have not changed. A "true fact" (ahem) is, in fact, true. There's a process of verification that any trained journalist understands and knows how to perform. But the commitment of some journalists (and some news organizations) to that standard appears to be less strong that it once was, or than we once thought it was.

McBride: I've been at Poynter two years and I'm finding the standard of accuracy throughout the traditional media is lower than we like to admit as an industry and probably closer to the level the public claims it to be. It's probably worse on the Net, but it's also easier to fix mistakes and update stories. As a result, I hope the audience will become more savvy about judging the accuracy and reliability of news sources. Ultimately, we could create a more informed, more educated news consumer. If the consumers demand accuracy and reward news providers for their accuracy, then the quality of information will rise to a higher level.

Waldman: Get the story right. Get it out there as quickly as possible. Do it in that order, and you will have no problems. Do it the other way round, and after a while you won't be taken seriously. It doesn't matter if you're a blogger with a dozen readers a day, or a major news organization with a million or more.

And, just as importantly, it doesn't matter if you're working in print or online. I don't think Jayson Blair was the result of the Net's nanosecond pressure: Just as important is any media organization's desperation to carry excitement or sensation on their pages (digital or print) that will help them stand out in what is often a remarkably homogenous and flat media landscape.

Ward: The credibility of the media has suffered from all forms of news media lowering their standards -- not just the bad behavior of some people online. Studies show that reduced accuracy does damage public trust in their media. But they also indicate there are other factors at play -- e.g., sensationalism and a distrust of the independence of newsrooms and journalists in an age of profit-driven media and global media corporations. Another problem is that the growth of many types of media has blurred the distinction between serious news and info-tainment, and between journalists and celebrities (or entertainers).

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Related Links
50 Quid Bloke Weblog
Backcountry Conservative: Nick Berg Beheading Video
CyberCollege: Twelve Factors in Newsworthiness
Flash Journalism book
Guardian Unlimited
Guerilla Tactics Against Blog Comment Spammers
Indiana University: Journalism Ethics Cases Online
Journalism.org: Making Stories More Accurate
Lycos 50: Nick Berg Video
Radio Netherlands: The B92 Story
SFGate: Web hoax fools news services
The Future of Ideas, by Lawrence Lessig
The Poynter Institute
The State of the News Media 2004
University of British Columbia
University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication
Related Stories on OJR
Glaser Online: A Tale of Two Rumors: How Reagan, Kerry News Spread Online
Glaser Online: Releasing Name of Bryant's Accuser Stirs Debate on Online Standards
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Mindy McAdams

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Kelly McBride

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Simon Waldman

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Stephen Ward

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