Saturday, May 05, 2007

The shifting ethics of journalism in a digital landscape

“… look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”

- From Time Magazine’s Person of the Year Article of 2006

Journalism has grown up in an era where there were reporters, there were editors, and a continual checking of facts before the type was set and words were permanent. Today, Time Magazine’s editorial gatekeepers are facing massive layoffs[1], and a new concept of news is starting up through the internet. Perhaps Time Magazine is most in touch with reality by considering layoffs, and dubbing the person of the year in 2006 to be: “you.”

But what happens when the editors disappear, to be replaced by superstar columnists? According to some, like a writer for Market Watch of Dow Jones, “in order to compete, the monolithic traditional magazine, newspaper and television networks appear to be relying on reporters to move up the value chain and become brands themselves to attract the audience.[2]

When this happens, the issue of ethics comes directly into play. This paper looks into the consequences of online news and the new trends in media ethics. Some new media bloggers are actually rediscovering the value of ethics, while other bloggers are simply left ranting on their own webpage. Nonetheless, things are beginning to change online. This is an untraditional paper, since many of the sources for the paper are actually bloggers, internet columnists, and webpages. Though official scholarly work is included in this paper, a study of internet journalism is barely as prevalent as the flood of information online, as evidenced by only 99 results from a Proquest internet search[3]. In order to understand this shift away from traditional media study, and regular media gatekeepers – one must first understand the new media landscape.

The People Web

Nielsen Net Ratings provide context to the rise in blogging. According to an early 2007 press release, Nielsen’s Net Ratings showed online newspaper blog traffic grew 210 percent from last year[4].

A chart is on personal Weblog[5] of the founder of Technorati, the web’s largest blog tracker. The data shows that since March of 2003, roughly 55 million blogs have been created in the world. David Sifry, the founder, further explains that the doubling rate is getting larger, but is currently set at around every seven months. This could mean roughly 100 million blogs by 2008. Of these blogs, roughly 50 percent are continually active.

Sifry, breaks the data down further, and looks at the media landscape. Surprisingly, mainstream media is still in the lead in terms of page views – but blogs tend to take over the media landscape once one looks beyond the top 5,000 media outlets. As an example, Think Progress, a popular Weblog, beats out as a source of information according to Technorati research. Sifry explains it as, “This is partially because of the nature of the medium - that is, the traffic of sites further down the curve make significant staffing and revenue difficult. However, lower cost structures make individual or small group blogs operating at little cost quite efficient at these revenue levels.” As a side note, it should be said that Technorati ranks pages based on their “authority” or, the number of distinct blogs that link to it over the past six months.

That ranking used is significant. In comparison, sites like, the biggest webpage indexer on the web, simply search based on the number of hits a site receives. From there, it ranks sites in order. By browsing the top sites in the United States on, five of the top ten websites are founded on some kind of social networking or net participation idea. For example, Wikipedia is ranked eighth and Myspace and The Facebook are ranked third and seventh respectively., the site allowing the free automated posting of Weblogs, is ranked as the twelfth most popular site in the United States. In other words, it seems that the top sites in America are those which essentially combine thousands of blogs into one main webpage. In comparison, comes in as number 16 by itself – meaning its content alone competes against millions of tinier webpages that are banded together through one major website unifier. It is reasonable to expect then, that CNN also, may cave to the demands of Weblogs as a way to compete. And being the media giant it is – CNN has responded. One example can be the I-Report function on CNN, and the Exchange program, found at In these programs, citizens can create a blog, share a story, or submit pictures.

All of this is dubbed part of the “Web 2.0.” According to Wikipedia, Web 2.0 refers to “a perceived second generation of Web-based services—such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies—that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users.”

Therefore, weblogs by themselves, combined inside larger parent groups like Myspace, make up a fairly large presence on the internet today. As a result, there is not nearly one week that goes by without a major story bubbling up from the internet. Recently, an anonymous poster shocked the political world with a posting of a political ad connected to Barak Obama. Ironically, it was not a newspaper that eventually tracked down the source of the video, but it was the Huffington Post – an internet blog of massive popularity with connections in the tech community[6].

As the Barak Obama example shows, new grounds are being tried constantly with the internet and the various forms of action individual citizens can take through it in relation to journalism. Http:// is a new citizens website started up to build on the strength of the web – allowing users to post anonymous “leaks” exposing corruption, or hidden problems similar to what Enron was involved in. A similar site,, already exists, and has been responsible for posting a number of major videos to break nationally – including a recent video of Haliburton trucks being ambushed in Iraq, due to lack of defenses and a U.S. Military escort driving away when shooting started. Wikipedia, the starter of the “anybody can edit” policy of information, is currently the third most popular information source, beating out CNN, and Yahoo News according to Nielsen Net Ratings[7]. However, that statistic only counts if you consider Wikipedia a trustworthy source – much like the other websites I have mentioned. In the world of rising and falling media moguls and ideas of media in general, this is where the discussion of ethics comes in handy.


What happens when a public relations firm, posing as a journalist online, “leaks” false information via, for example? Or when a political party edits the Wikipedia entries for opposing political clients? These are real world questions, and the websites mentioned previously, push the ethical limit because these new innovations provide vast possibilities for misuse. In addition, blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies, have already pushed the limits of ethical theory.

To look at Web 2.0 first with traditional Teleological theories and Deontological ethical theories in mind, one can see that there is no right or wrong answer.

John Suart Mill first came up with the principal of utility, to basically seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Along with this theory, he believed certain values possess worth, like friendship, knowledge, and health. To many who believe in Mill’s principal of ethics, they would argue that blogs and websites such as the ones above provide opportunities for the greater good since blogs spread knowledge – though probably not every blog.

Deontologically, theororists like Immanuel Kant, contend that one must look at the action first and decide whether or not one would will the same action for everyone else as well. If not, the action should not be taken. In other words, Kant would likely say that since not everyone will always provide accurate and true information, there is a dangerous risk to society by allowing everyone to post blogs. Though not absolute on ruling against blogs, deontological theory would likely be stricter towards sites like since there is a greater chance that people will abuse the system. In effect, Wikileaks, for example, poses the same ethical question to a deontologist as saying one willed everyone in society to wear a mask and talk about each other behind their backs.

What then, is the real world reaction to Web 2.0 technology, ethically? It is best to look at some case studies, starting with the most untested and more extreme examples first.

Case Study: Wikileaks, the web’s wild west, and the need for an ethical defense.

All current staff, developers, or employees of Wikileaks are thought to be secret and unidentified as of January 2007 according to the New Scientist[8]. Their advisory board includes Russian and Tibetan refugees, reporters, a former US intelligence analyst, and cryptographers. According to their website, they have already gathered over one million documents to release when the website officially starts. An anonymous worker for the website has stated to CBC News[9], that the site will be, "an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis," adding that there will be checks in place to keep the "completely anonymous" system from being flooded with false documents, spam and unrelated things.

However, as the BBC News reports, “There is, of course, [a] problem. Everyone who leaks a document to the site will have their own agenda, and it may not be the obvious one.[10]” According to the same reporter, John Young, a Cryptographer and webmaster of a public disclosure website, even backed out of the project after being approached by Wikileaks. He was suspicious of the real motives of the organizers, as well as their ability to truly protect leaks.

“Historically the most resilient form of open government is one where leaking and publication is easy,” the wikileaks website says. “Public leaking, being an act of ethical defection to the majority, is by nature a democratizing force. Hence a system [that] enables everyone to leak safely to a ready audience is the most cost effective means of promoting good government.”

However, Steven Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy wrote in his online blog that, “there’s a difference in unauthorized disclosure from an authoritarian state versus disclosure from a democracy,” he said. “In a democratic system, people have the opportunity to define their own disclosure standards. If you violate those standards or encourage others to do so then you are in effect undermining the democratic process.[11]” In effect then, Aftergood could also turn his point around into arguing that through a lack of ethical codes, Wikileaks is bringing down the moral standards of developed countries in order to supposedly “bring up” the ethical standards of other countries by establishing the concept of leaking freely.

Ethically, in this case then, a good regulator would be a clearly defined ethical code is needed as well as someone to at least hold accountable for fact checking. This helps establish Wikileaks as a trusted brand. In the case of journalism, editors are there to take the fall if a leak is not correct. Editors also have a code of ethics they must be responsible to.

So far Wikileaks has failed to provide this code, or a person to take the fall for inaccurate information. True, authoritarian governments may deny everything happened – but the point of a leak is to provide enough information so that a claim can be verified by a reasonable person. Therefore, without providing accountability and employing enough people to confirm these leaks, this Web 2.0 technology is at danger of inciting violence for the wrong reasons, or publishing a government’s damaging attempt to ruin another country’s reputation. Governments or other parties, will likely see this lack of ethics, and immediately attempt to flood Wikileaks with false information – immediately showing a lack of verification procedures by Wikileaks, and inherently destroying this model.

Wikipedia has already dealt with issues like this, and in the end, Wikipedia has caved a bit on it’s entirely free model of “anybody can post.” However, Wikipedia is also one of the most visited websites in the world. In actuality on Wikipedia, anybody cannot post. In some instances Wikipedia has banned internet addresses from modifying posts, and on controversial topics, like “Israel,” Wikipedia has sought to limit postings only to accounts posting accurately on other subjects for at least four days. Wikipedia also has an advanced editing policy, which has, “wide acceptance among editors and is considered a standard that all users should follow.[12]” They also have a staff actively tracking posts on the website, and they are ready to respond if needed, to potential abuses. This staff is far larger than the 30 devoted to Wikileaks.

Nonetheless, even though Wikileaks may fail ethically, the website also serves to show that the concept of ethics online is essentially in the form of what the wild west was decades ago – with a lack of order and real regulations. The burden is up to the individual citizen to execute his or her own wild form of justice at will. This shows that the concept of ethics online is just developing and is a very new issue – especially among new web ideas. Therefore, looking at blogging, an already established online concept, should be the next focus this paper takes. As this paper has concluded earlier, blogs are not going to disappear soon – and even the strongest news website is looking to integrate their content into their webpages. Perhaps weblogs can offer us a better ethical example.

Case Study: Blogging, the web’s newest settlements, and the establishment of order.

One ethical issue established news groups may face when integrating with blogs – is how one may best integrate a blog credibly. One answer may be employment of print journalists. However, if a community connection is desired, the only other option is if willing bloggers are forced into agreement to the media outlet’s code of ethics in order to post. Otherwise, the media outlet is limited in control, since unlike an editorial, editors are typically not allowed to edit content of postings or engage in fact checking with blogs[13]. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee’s Editor, David Holwerk explains (about his paper’s blog section) that the paper has, “not tried to force [bloggers] into our idea of more ‘responsible’ commentary.” He added, “that is what we’ve forced the letter writers into … [but] we’re not trying to change the blog tradition.” Part of this idea is that blogs are entirely a form of expression in themselves.

So how does one address credibility and ethical standards in the blog world?

“Let me propose a radical notion,” said Rebecca Blood, on her personal blog[14]. “The weblog's greatest strength — its uncensored, unmediated, uncontrolled voice — is also its greatest weakness.” Blood is an average person with a BA in English, who decided one day to write a book on blogging and propose a code of ethics for blogging. This code has caught on with many. Since she sees weblogs as having minor costs, she thinks they should not be subject to as many ethics codes as journalists working for major publications. Her ethical points are as follows:

  1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true.
  2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.
  3. Publicly correct any misinformation
  4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
  5. Disclose any conflict of interest
  6. Note questionable and biased sources

But fellow blogger Martin, at, feels these ethics are too grounded in function of blogs rather than in their form. Martin believes there are an “endless variety of bloggers with an endless variety of purposes for blogging or functions for blogs[15].” Martin is a winner of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s 2005 Professional Relevance Award. His main points are as follows (each point comes with sub-points that would make this summary too large to copy here):

  1. Promote Interactivity
  2. Promote Free Expression
  3. Strive for Factual Truth
  4. Be as Transparent as Possible
  5. Promote the Human Element in Blogging

Despite the more lax language used in this code of ethics, even posters to Martins page, such as Jessamyn West from, argued that there should be no code since blogging is simply a medium and not an “avocation or even a type of writing.[16]” Others, outright disagree and suggest a high level of accountability. has posted their own stricter form of blogging ethics, which by admittance on their site, is essentially the same as a journalist’s code of ethics, changed slightly for the sake of the web[17]. Their explanation for the code is as follows: “Since not all bloggers are journalists and the Weblog form is more casual, [bloggers] argue they shouldn't be expected to follow the same ethics codes journalists are. But responsible bloggers should recognize that they are publishing words publicly, and therefore have certain ethical obligations to their readers, the people they write about, and society in general.”

Still, despite’s authority and post on the matter, some commenting on their ethics post were not satisfied. Patricia Abbatoy, for example, said, “At most I see your list as 'Blogger's Etiquette'. Most readers can decide for themselves whether a blogger is reliable or not, and whether it matters. Many blogs are intentionally biased or slanted in one way or another; it's the constituency of a blog that decides whether the writer passes a reliability test.”

Some, like the “Portland Communique,” use both Blood’s ethical guide, as well as’s code of ethics. In differentiating between which to use, the site’s “about” page says that a purposive difference must be made between writing intended to be journalistic and writing intended to be less than journalistic. In the journalistic case, the more involved ethical code is required to be used. Portland Communique is a print and web publication intended to empower the citizen of Portland, Oregon by allowing them to publish their views online. Oddly enough however, the Portland Communique is actually hosted online by the City of Portland. Are ethics in place for that media outlet by choice? Or by necessity to hold participants accountable on a government site then? The reason this is called into question is that there are still very few blogs to have ethical coded posted.

Unlike Paypal’s verification system, a system where online bidders are able to check and see if their auction sellers are verified by the giant money transferring company – bloggers do not seem to be adapting a universal code of verification. There are no stamps on the blogs, like with paypal, to show willing cooperation with an ethical standard. There are no buttons either, linking to an ethical code for the most part. As a result, even despite blogs existing for quite some time and some progress occurring in terms of the discussion about them – there appears to be no major move forward in the ethical region. Blood herself even admits in an AP article, that she only knew of about 10 other blogs in 2005 which adhered to an ethical standard[18].

Perhaps blogging then is developing, though are still only in the same position print journalism was in the 20th Century. Jay Rosen, a blogger and professor of journalism at New York University thinks so. He took his thoughts a step farther by saying creating a new medium in today’s culture requires even more: “in some sense, bloggers already have informally adopted norms that go beyond what traditional journalists do,” Rosen said. “For instance, bloggers who don't link to source materials aren't taken seriously, while traditional news organizations have no such policies.[19]

The Ethical Solution

Though blogging and Web 2.0 technologies offer the ability to participate in a discussion, rather than performing a monologue with readers – this paper has contended that some ethical code is needed in blogs. An example of why can be provided in a conversation with close friends. In the conversation, friends may poke fun of another group of friends. Their justification for this? It could be something as simple as parts of a conversation heard, or even a guess made by someone, causing the words to be said. Either way, friends may be comfortable doing this because their words will not go far from their circle. However, when that conversation is transported to an auditorium, on a stage in front of hundreds of people – suddenly an insulter may bite their tongue. Suddenly, the burden of proof has jumped. Hundreds of people are demanding evidence, and now, the talker realizes that they could even damage the reputation of someone with hundreds of people, or establish themselves as a liar. All blogs are technically seen by millions if a searcher typed in the correct specifics in a webpage – and because of this, it is a blogger’s duty to subject every statement to a careful process of determining fairness. This is the very beginning of ethics.

An ethical wrench can be thrown in here however – since one can say the nature of blogging is simply to be a conversation. The contention though, is that the conversation is taking place on a stage to begin with – meaning not only should bloggers be aware of ethics, but commentors should be aware of a lesser form of ethics as well.

This borders on etiquette, but it is only the first step. Establishing some kind of loose ethic on both sides of participation spectrum however, should only be the bare minimum. Unfortunately this is currently the step many blogs are at now – starting to develop commenting editing processes, and content policies in the blog. It remains to be seen when and if blogs will advance further, ethically, as this paper has demonstrated.

There are incentives though to practicing better ethics, and posting a list of ethics, and alerting readers to your attempt to follow the ethics. As journalists have found out – credibility is the key issue. Credibility becomes more necessary as blogs rise in popularity and attract more traffic. Credibility also comes in handy when delineating an honest blog from a promotional blog like Engadget, and the Weblogs Inc. group[20]. Weblogs Inc. actually pays people to blog on topics of their choice, like cars, games, and other consumer goods. Basically, in a blog world that is just starting to be tapped by commercial interests -- credibility is key.

By separating oneself from commercial interests, biased reporting, and other ethical flaws – one is able to develop a stronger community of trust with the reader. A mission statement is also part of establishing an ethical form of trust with the reader, so one is able to tell what the website is about before getting involved and perhaps becoming disappointed or feeling tricked when a true bias is discovered in a blog. In the end, this trust and ethical responsibility, should drive more readers to a reputable blog. More comments will be generated, and in general a sense of community will develop on truth and factual statements. In the long run, this trust may attract credible advertisers through a larger community size, or a trustworthy platform of information sharing.

It is notable, that perhaps blogs are not really reinventing the wheel, but creating a new community which will be subject to the same developments already existing communities have gone through. For example – on many blogs, it is hard to tell advertising apart from non-biased editorial content. Today, groups like BzzAgent, which pays people to create blogs promoting products, are on the rise[21]. News journalism progressed in the same way though. Many early newspapers, like James Rivington’s famous New York paper, openly promoted obscure and blatant advertisements and editorials in the paper, which blended with news. In time though, print journalism started to separate editorial space from content. Eventually, the personal attack ads between columnists in newspapers disappeared, the libelous editorials started to disappear, and the 20th century saw a start to ethics based reporting. Time will only tell what will happen, but a start of ethical inclusion into the blog world is certainly a step in the right direction, which could help turn many blogs into reputable alternative media sources. A mission statement, and/or few sentences on commenting policies and posting policies on blogs is all it could take to gain a dozen more readers and perhaps the start of a new online community if one is truly interested in doing so.

[1] Iacono, Erica. “Time Inc. feels new media world's impact.” PR Week. New York: Jan 29, 2007. Vol.10, Iss. 4; pg. 12, 1 pgs

[2] Francisco, Bambi. “Inside out: Commentary: How consumers hijacked the media model.” Marketwatch.

[3] Proquest Internet Search. “Weblogs and Journalism: 99 results”

[4] “Online Newspaper Blog Traffic Grows 210 Percent Year Over Year, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.” Jan. 16, 2007.

[5] November 6, 2006. “State of Blogosphere, October, 2006.” Sifry’s Alerts: David Sifry’s musings.

[6]Marinucci, Carla. “Obama supporter owns up to video.” SanFrancisco Chronicle. March 22, 2007.

[7] Hafner, Katie. “Growing Wikipedia Refines its ‘anyone can edit’ policy.” New York Times. June 17, 2006.

[8] Paul Marks. “How to leak a secret and not get caught” New Scientist, January 13, 2007.

[9] CBC News “Website wants to take whistleblowing online” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, January 11, 2007.

[10] Bill Thomposn “Who stands to gain from Wikileaks?” BBC News, March 13, 2007.

[11] Daniel Friedman “Web site aims to post government secrets” Federal Times, January 4, 2007.

[12] Wikipedia: Policies and guidelines. Accessed: 3/25/2007

[13] Acuna, Armando. “Public Editor: Worlds collide – and so do journalistic standards.” Sacramento Bee. March 25, 2007.

[14] Blood, Rebecca. “Weblog Ethics.” Accessed March 25, 2007.

[15] Martin. “C.O.B.E Revised: Form-Based Duties in Blog Ethics” March 27, 2005.

[16]West, Jessamyn. “Jessamyn West on Revised Code of Blogging Ethics”

[17] “A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics.” Accessed 3/25/2007

[18] Jesdanun, Anick. “Influence of bloggers raises ethical questions.” Associated Press, as published in: USA Today. January 22, 2005.

[19] Ibid.


[21] Lasica, J.D. “The cost of ethics: Influence peddling in the blogosphere.” Online Journalism Review.

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