Ethics debate: It’s time to move on

Electronic commerce is here to stay – deal with it

This column appeared March 12, 1999, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

The following column is based on remarks made by the author at the Online Journalism Conference held March 10, 1999, in Berkeley, co-sponsored by Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Lasica appeared on the panel “Reestablishing Credibility.”

Last year I appeared at this conference as a panelist addressing online ethics, so it was a little ironic that at the time I was employed by Microsoft.

Since that time I’ve taken a job as senior editor at BabyCenter, a Webby Award-winning startup in San Francisco that is a very rare creature: a new media company committed to traditional journalism values. Our 10-person editorial team is committed to providing high-quality news and information about pregnancy, babies, and parenting. I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying it is to come into work each day and read the latest batch of gushing e-mails from readers telling us how much they love us. That didn’t happen every day at Microsoft.

There’s a second component of our site, the BabyCenter Store, which sells maternity clothes, strollers, toddler outfits and the like, and every day we wrestle with issues over the intersection of retail and editorial credibility. So far, we’ve found the right balance. We’ve built a high level of trust, and we won’t do anything to jeopardize that trust. One of the top priorities on our agenda is to draft a company policy on privacy and editorial ethics, and on Sunday I took a first crack at it, and I think it says something about our philosophy that this is starting with a journalist rather than a marketing person or a lawyer.

Privacy and disclosure statements

We’re beginning to see some good privacy statements on the Web, thanks to advocacy groups like TRUSTe. Sites like Amazon, CNET and Yahoo have praiseworthy policies posted on their sites. But I don’t see much in the way of disclosure statements about internal ethics or conflict of interest policies. TheStreet.com has a good policy, as does the San Antonio Express News. Other sites, like CBS Marketwatch and the Chicago Tribune, have model corrections page policies. All these things speak to a publication’s credibility, and I encourage all publications on the Web to adopt privacy policies and disclosure statements.

But what’s more telling is how a company operates. Does your publication rush a story onto the Web before it’s nailed down because of deadline pressures? Does your site blur editorial and advertising content in a way that makes it unclear to readers, as many of the portals do? Can an advertiser influence your editorial product?

Conferences

You know, there’s a group of us who come to these conferences and bemoan the blurring of the lines on the Web between church and state, and everybody nods their heads in agreement, and we solemnly go our separate ways until the next conference comes along. And then there’s a second group, the people who run most of these new media companies, and they generally don’t attend these conferences. Their company line goes like this: Church and state is an Old Media concept, the Net is a new medium where all the old rules are off, and the only thing that matters is what users find useful.

And so you have these two sides talking past each other. Nothing gets done. The problem gets worse every year. And the lines get blurrier.

It doesn’t help our cause when well-meaning idealists propose unworkable solutions. The March 22 issue of Forbes magazine tackles the subject of new media ethics, and they rounded up several esteemed journalism academics who criticized the New York Times on the Web for lowering itself into the muck of electronic commerce by including links to barnes&noble.com.

So I’d like to say to these well-meaning professors: Please don’t ignore the real world. Electronic commerce is here to stay. Every study shows that users want to act on the information they find on the Web. Other business models have largely failed. The evidence suggests that online advertising doesn’t work: Industry-wide, there’s less than a 1 percent click-through rate on banner ads. Subscriptions don’t work, except for special-interest niches like financial news, sports and sex. E-commerce may well be the only long-term business model to sustain quality journalism on the Web. So I hope we can move on and stop viewing e-commerce as a scourge and instead embrace it as a promise and opportunity to serve our readers.

How do we stop the two sides from talking past each other? I’d like to suggest that we frame the question a bit differently. The question should not be: Do you sell things on your site, because if you do you have a vested interest in commerce and thus you have a conflict of interest.

I’d frame the question this way: Are you being honest with your users? Are you giving us enough information so we can make our own judgment of whether we should trust the content on your site? Do you have editorial safeguards in place so ensure that business interests don’t override the interests of your users? Do you disclose when money changes hands? Disclosure is such a large part of keeping faith with your readers.

Enlisting the entire community

Understand, these matters are too important to be left just to the editors and managers who run these Web sites. The users need to participate in a deep and meaningful way. Each of us in this room, whenever you see something on a news and information site that betrays your trust, whenever your gut tells you something’s doesn’t seem right, I hope you’ll do something about it. Fire off an e-mail to the site, or to a mailing list. E-mail me or other journalists who write about the industry. Alert some of the watchdog groups out there, like the Online News Association or Society of Professional Journalists. Don’t say, Well, it’s the Web, so there’s a lower ethical threshold.

Our challenge is to figure out how to shape and tame this amazing intersection of content and commerce so that we maintain the kinds of divisions between editorial and business interests that have served old media so well for generations. The church-state walls have come down, and lo and behold, we’ve discovered that the army on the other side is not the enemy. But it’s an army that sometimes needs educating, just as we, too, are getting educated every day in this new medium.

The Web is a young medium, and new forms and conventions will emerge. But we need to help bring those blurred ethical lines into focus. We need to move the discussion beyond the tired cliches of whether media sites ought to be engaged in electronic commerce. Of course they should.

We ought to be talking about the kinds of lines we need to draw.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT