September 20, 2001

A scorecard for Net news ethics after 9/11

Despite a lapse related to the terrorist attack, online media deserve high marks

This column appeared Sept. 20, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review.  Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

Are journalism’s ethical rules of the road different in the online medium? This week, once again, the editor of an online publication received a powerful reminder that the answer is: Not really.

Rising Tide Studios, a small New York media company that publishes the Silicon Alley Daily and Digital Coast Daily e-mail newsletters (60,000 subscribers between them) and tech news sites, published a first-person account last Thursday by someone who visited the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

Oh, just one thing. The author, Robert Galinsky, co-founder of the defunct entertainment site, outlined in his dispatch how he dressed in a hard hat and workman’s clothes the morning after the terrorist attack and lied to get through nine police checkpoints to reach the rescue operation.

The reaction was swift and furious. “We got 12 or 15 e-mails from people who were clearly upset, asking whether we advocated this kind of behavior,” said editor Jason McCabe Calacanis. “Almost immediately, I knew I’d made a mistake in running it. I thought this was something that would help inform our readers about what was going on. But it did send the wrong message that we may have condoned his actions. You don’t want to publish things that could hamper a rescue effort, even in the smallest, most minute way.”

On Monday, after “intense and considerable internal discussion” among the editorial staff, Calacanis published an Editor’s Note apologizing for running the piece. “The Internet is changing some of the rules, and a lot of the rules haven’t been written yet, but this should have been held back no matter the medium,” he said in a phone interview from New York.

Calacanis, in a bit of rueful reflection, observed that no one would have complained “if we had edited out the sentence about how he got down there.” (True, but then it would have been dishonest in addition to being reprehensible.) And he said the criticism may have been more muted had they run an editor’s note disavowing Galinsky’s actions but saying they decided to publish it because of intense reader interest in the subject.

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March 12, 1999

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.

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February 2, 1998

Marvin Kalb on journalism in the Internet age

The former CBS and NBC News correspondent decries the news media’s feeding frenzy over Clinton-Lewinsky — and the effect that Matt Drudge has had on news coverage

“Editors, anchors, producers and news executives can summon up the courage to say no to stories without proper credentials and sources.”

By J.D. Lasica

Marvin Kalb is director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He spoke by phone on Feb. 2, 1998, about 12 days after the White House sex scandal broke with a fury in the media.

How do you see the impact of the Internet and all the new forms of media on coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky story.

In the last year or two, the Internet has come on very strong, with a kind of compelling presence. More and more people are now dependent on the Internet for mass communication, even for narrow-banded communication, from one university to another, and across oceans. It’s become extremely convenient and it’s becoming more and more a part of the lives of an expanding elite.

I imagine in a year or two or three, the number of people using the Internet will grow dramatically. In this particular case, the very fact that Newsweek chose not to run with a story that then somehow found itself in Matt Drudge’s clutches, and he put it out on his Web page, and many reporters now find themselves looking at his Web page because the controversy itself obliges reporters to check it out, and lo and behold they find this information and have to decide what to do with it. He has no inhibition about posting the information because he doesn’t care about its accuracy, only about its attractiveness. And suddenly within 48 hours it becomes a major news story in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

That strikes me as a new and graphic power of the Internet to influence mainstream journalism. And I suspect that over the next couple of years that impact will grow to the point where it will damage journalism’s ability to do its job professionally, to check out information before publication, to be mindful of the necessity to publish and broadcast reliable, substantiated information. Those traditional impulses have already been damaged, and I fear that will only grow.

Michael Kinsley in this week’s Time magazine defended Drudge and said that it would be impossible for publications like the Washington Post to maintain a firewall that prevents this sort of information from seeping into the mainstream media. It seems you’re saying the same thing, that it’s almost impossible to maintain that firewall. Why?

The report we’re talking about has served as a match thrown into a barrel of gasoline. It served to ignite unreliable, unsubstantiated, gossipy information. The journalistic environment today is affected in a number of ways by the expanding new technologies and the new economic underpinnings — news organizations being owned by giant corporations where news is simply a commodity to be sold like any other products. And this new combination has led to a collapsing of journalistic standards of behavior.

The need to be competitive and to be mindful of the bottom line is so overwhelming that it becomes almost impossible for editors to say no. They’re now driven by such pressures that when they see the information is already out there in the mainstream press, they feel they have to go with it, even though, deep in their guts, they know it’s wrong.

I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking about the Lewinsky story nonstop, and I just wrote an op-ed piece for Newsday, and I’ve been wrestling with the question, Does that mean there’s no way out? I hope the editors prove all the skeptics and critics wrong, and that they can summon up the courage to say no to stories based on rumors and hearsay and innuendo, but I don’t think it will be done. I’m extremely pessimistic.

If you were running one of those major papers, what would you do? What prescriptions do you suggest to the mainstream press?

Let me read to you from the conclusion of my essay:

Can journalism resist the tide? Or is it too late? My analysis suggests that it may be too late, but journalists still have the power to improve their performance and prove the critics wrong. How?

Editors, anchors, producers and news executives can summon up the courage to say no to stories without proper credentials and sources. They can decide to publish or broadcast no fact simply because it’s “out there.” They can reverse James Baker’s sarcastic description of press practices: “report first, check later.” They can end the use of hidden cameras. They can remember that along with press freedom comes press responsibility.

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