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 Pseudo.com, 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.
But in the end, Calacanis said, “It would have been best not to run it at all.” While the article might have received wide readership through e-mail salvos or Weblogs, its publication in an established news publication gave it an imprimatur of respectability. “You do legitimize things by putting your brand on top of it,” he said.
While it’s easy to fault Silicon Alley Reporter for its stumble, the truth is that both old and new media are susceptible to these kinds of lapses. Last week’s police blotter included a television reporter who tried to obtain access to the rescue site by impersonating a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent.
With more people than ever following the news on computer screens, perhaps now is a propitious time to step back from the enormity of the past week’s events to take a longer view. Let’s pause to consider how the Internet is shaping journalism ethics, and how the Internet ethic is steering journalism in new directions. Because how we define our journalistic mission — how we perceive ourselves and our role in this new medium — will shape how we cover the still-unfolding drama of the biggest story of our lives.
A quick embrace of traditional values
It’s easy for us to forget how unsettled things seemed in the early days of the online medium. When the Web first commanded the public’s attention back in 1993 and ’94, the grand pooh-bahs of journalism wondered what it meant for the profession: Would journalists become obsolete in the new Net order? Would the Internet’s anything-goes dynamic dilute journalism’s core values and standards? What were the rules, and who would write them?
Online publishers need to do more work to ensure that users do not become confused by the intrusion of commercial content into the editorial space.
We now know the answers, pretty much. Online journalists are more indispensable than ever in a mouse-click society that craves authentication of fact, that thirsts for news that’s both reliable and instantaneous — something few people other than trained journalists can provide. Every survey shows that audiences continue to gravitate to the online news sites of trusted brands: MSNBC, CNN.com, nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com. But we’re also seeing that supplemented by the rise of grassroots community-news sites (Slashdot, Kuro5hin, Metafilter) and Weblogs that let amateur journalists provide first-person reportage.
Who’s chiseling the new rules of the road? Only three years ago, the journalism world shuddered at the prospect that Matt Drudge would become the role model for Internet reporting. At conferences, in newsrooms and at corner taverns, reporters bemoaned a world in which a celebrated purveyor of rumor and innuendo plied his trade without bothering to verify the allegations he zapped off into cyberspace each day. Others wondered whether traditional journalism had a home in a medium in which speed was often valued above verification, where first-person diatribes trumped balanced reporting, where noise crowded out signal.
The old guard — still largely ascendant in Old Media — have long resisted the central tenets of new media: interactivity, immediacy, community. The result has been a generalized, unspoken notion in some newsrooms that online journalism is the gangly, misfit cousin of “real” journalism, that the Internet is a breeding ground for kooks and charlatans, and that perhaps Web journalism operates at a level below the standards of traditional news media.
I believe a fair reading of online news publications’ track record over the years leads to the opposite conclusion: On the whole, despite occasional ethical lapses, online news sites have performed remarkably well. We’re pretty damn good, we’re getting better, and we know that the truth is what counts above all else.
The public seems to agree. Studies by the Pew Research Center and others find that Americans are increasingly turning to the Internet for their news, with more than one in three Americans using the Net to routinely get their news. In fact, the Pew’s most recent survey on the subject, released in June 2000, made this surprising discovery:
“As Americans grow more reliant on the Internet for news, they also have come to find online news outlets more credible. Despite the controversy over news-gathering techniques employed by some Internet sites, those who go online generally give Internet news operations high marks for believability. In fact, the online sites of such well-known news organizations as ABC News get better ratings from Internet users than the ratings accorded the traditional broadcast or print outlets.”
Why do Americans give somewhat greater credence to CNN.com than CNN, to MSNBC than NBC News, and to USAToday.com than USA Today? For two reasons, I believe:
• Because print journalists, by and large, have successfully transferred their greatest assets — their long-standing values and standards of accuracy, balance, credibility, fairness and trustworthiness — to the online medium.
• At the same time, online journalists are taking advantage of some of the Web’s key assets: its nonlinear nature (users like to call up stories, or drill down to related stories, on their own time frame); its instantaneity and convenience (breaking news lies only a mouse click away); its authentication value (reporters can point users to source documentation rather than tell readers to just trust us); and its interactivity (though this is still greatly underused). One could make a strong case that online journalism thus hews to an even higher standard than traditional news media, given that we link to original documentation to buttress our reports and that we can correct mistakes after publication.
None of this would have been possible had online journalism jettisoned the values of traditional journalism and embraced a Drudge-like mindset of looser standards in which a reporter is obligated to pass along any rumor or accusation that comes across his desk, without verifying its veracity.
Perhaps the largest ethical trap facing a new generation of journalists is learning when cut-and-paste research convenience turns into flat-out plagiarism.
As Calacanis noted, the Internet is changing some of the rules, and online journalists occasionally confront issues that their print and broadcast brethren may never have faced. But the underlying ethical considerations of journalism transcend the medium. In other words, journalism demands high standards, no matter the medium.
For online journalism today, the ethical bottom line is this: I don’t know of a single online news publication that believes a story unfit for print is fair game for the Web. That’s telling.
Ethical challenges come in different forms
Let’s dissect this beast by grouping online journalism ethics into three broad categories:
• Gathering the news. Journalists face a new host of ethical considerations related to the online medium, ranging from a reporter concealing her identity in a chat room to quoting from bulletin board postings to recording and streaming digital footage without the subject’s permission. But perhaps the largest ethical trap facing a new generation of journalists is learning when cut-and-paste research convenience turns into flat-out plagiarism.
• Reporting the news. Speed is one of the Internet’s greatest virtues — and vices. In the current saturated media environment, the Internet heightens the intense competitive pressures to be first while a story is still developing and key facts remain unknown. Is there a looser standard for reporting in a medium where information wants to be free and where speed reigns supreme?
• Presenting the news. The terrorist attacks last week again raised the question of whether Web news sites should publish images considered too graphic for the print edition. Another issue related to Web presentation involves separation of church and state online. Editorial staffers face questions about their Web sites’ ad placement, the influence of e-commerce on editorial decisions, and related questions that affect credibility and editorial independence. When is it permissible for corporations to sponsor editorial content? Do news organizations compromise their independence by partnering with companies that have a vested interest in gathering information about readers in ways that could compromise their privacy? Should news organizations post their ethics policy on an online disclosure page?
Let’s tackle these briefly.
News gathering on the Net
Thus far, it seems that online news gathering has enhanced rather than detracted from journalism’s credibility. The online medium gives journalists the powerful tools of context and authentication.
Reporters and editors use the Net’s links-based architecture to provide users with important background information, resources and archived articles that allow users to glimpse the trajectory of a news story over time. Consider coverage of President Clinton’s impeachment or the Microsoft antitrust trial, for example.
Equally important — and still underused, in my view — is the ability to link to source materials, transcripts, public records and other original documents to buttress an article’s reporting. In this age of public mistrust of the media, such steps enhance a news organization’s credibility. In my freshman year at Rutgers my journalism professor told us that the first rule of good journalism is: Show, don’t tell. So: Don’t tell readers to trust you. Show them the goods.
News gathering techniques on the Net do present some new challenges for journalists. If your gut tells you that you’re heading into ethically gray territory, consult with other journalists, but also touch bases with non-journalists who may be better steeped in the hallowed tradition of Netiquette, or acceptable behavior online.
Here’s my own take on a few of these: Is it OK for reporters to lurk in chat rooms without identifying themselves? (Rarely, and only when the subject is of significant public importance.) Can reporters quote from bulletin board postings or chat transcripts without asking the user’s permission? (Among the Net set, it’s considered bad form at best and unethical at worst, and it may violate some sites’ terms and conditions. In my experience, the great majority of users were flattered that I wanted to quote their postings and pleased that I had asked permission to quote from their postings, and they gave it.) Do news subjects have the right not to be subjected to ambushes by online journalists carrying camcorders, digital cameras or live Webcams? (Until broadband arrives, it falls into the realm of hypothetical, but “60 Minutes” largely abandoned the practice years ago and I see no reason why the online medium should embrace a lower standard.)
You might recall one dubious news-gathering incident that received press coverage last year: Salon published a first-person account by a writer who described licking office doorknobs in an effort to spread cold germs to derail the 2000 presidential campaign of GOP hopeful Gary Bauer. Salon’s editors defended the piece, saying it merely described events that took place before Salon was contacted by the author, but the decision drew criticism in mainstream media circles. (You’ll have to do your own ethical gut check on this one.)
Microsoft’s Slate ran into trouble, too, for being hoodwinked this summer by a free-lance writer who detailed a day of “monkeyfishing” — using baited fishing poles to catch rhesus monkeys — in the Florida Keys. After doubts were raised about the story’s veracity in online circles and a New York Times reporter uncovered facts that contradicted key elements of the account, Slate editor Michael Kinsley issued an apology, saying, “Slate … now acknowledges that it published falsehoods and we apologize to our readers.” The hoax could have been perpetrated online or in print, but the self-correcting machinery of the Internet makes it that much harder for fabricated accounts to stand unchallenged.
Business Week Online encountered charges of plagiarism last month from OJR columnist Ken Layne, who pointed out similarities between a profile he wrote of an Australian guerrilla news site and passages in a larger roundup of independent niche-news sites written by a Business Week Online reporter. Whether one believes the reporter crossed the line or had merely reported “independently verified facts that previously appeared elsewhere,” the lesson should be clear: Be rigorous in your research, don’t rely on second-hand accounts for key elements of your report, and don’t merely rewrite passages from source materials.
The Internet gives writers a powerful tool to find out if anyone has appropriated their words, and so journalists relying on the cut-and-paste keys need to be doubly mindful of the exacting strictures of copyright and plagiarism. We’ll likely see many more charges of plagiarism in the years ahead as copyright-protection software and Web tools like Plagiarism.org increase in popularity.
Until broadband arrives in a big way, we’re not likely to see many incidents involving Max Headroom-like news reports, with a camera spraying shots from a crime scene live onto the Web — a scenario that conjures up all sorts of issues involving privacy rights, age-appropriate images, etc. (In 1999, for purely practical reasons, the Houston Chronicle ditched its groundbreaking Virtual Voyager, which let readers e-mail a correspondent at a news event with questions and suggestions.)
Prediction: The decade ahead promises to thrust online news gathering techniques into the spotlight far more prominently as untold thousands of Net users take on the mantle of amateur reporters and begin lone-wolf operations to cover stories in their back yards and neighborhoods, complete with Weblogs and video footage online but absent the standards of professional newsrooms. Stay tuned.
Reporting the news
Much of the concern about the Internet’s impact on journalism centers on the new medium’s emphasis on speed and immediacy, which properly remain central tenets of online publishing. Not long ago, news sites were content to publish only stories from the morning paper. For most large and mid-size online newspapers, those days are thankfully gone, as users demand timely details about news events as they occur. Countless thousands of us have signed up for e-mail alerts whenever major news breaks. Millions of us flock to our computer screens for the latest developments whenever a big story hits.
The challenge facing online journalists is to balance the legitimate desires of the online audience for up-to-the-minute reports with the profession’s traditions of fairness, completeness, balance and accuracy. There’s an inherent tension built into such an equation, but instantaneous reporting is a skill set mastered long ago by wire service reporters and by television and radio news professionals covering live events.
The guidepost must always remain: What best serves the interests of the reader and the public while remaining fair to those named in the story? Not: Can we beat our competitors even though we haven’t nailed down this story?
Online news sites that continually update their breaking-news reports with new information have generally done a good job in bringing bulletins to the masses. But sometimes competitive pressures win out. Two of the more memorable examples came during the investigation of President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky:
• The Dallas Morning News’ Web site reported in January 1998 that a federal employee had seen Clinton and Lewinsky in a “compromising situation” in the White House and had agreed to testify as a government witness. The report proved to be false, but not before it flooded the airwaves and landed on the front pages of dozens of major newspapers. It appears the culprit in this case was not the online medium but a shaky source.
• A week later The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition published allegations that a White House steward had seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone together and had “disposed of tissues with lipstick and other stains.” The Journal published the story on its Web site without waiting for a response from the White House. The paper defended its actions by saying other news organizations were closing in on its exclusive. The account turned out to be false.
In his first interview on the subject of Internet reporting, Ted Koppel told me a few years ago that the primary responsibility of journalists in any medium is to separate truth from rumor. He said: “Reporting is not really about, `Let’s see who can get the first information to the public as quickly as possible.’ It should be about `Let’s see who can get the first information to the public as quickly as possible — as soon as we have had a chance to make sure the information is accurate, to weigh it against what we know, to put it in some sort of context.’ ”
There will be news sites that pay overly slavish attention to speed at the expense of accuracy. Those sites, in my judgment, will lose out in the end.
Presenting the news
While magazines, newspapers and broadcasters abide by traditions governing the separation of editorial and advertising, and trade association guidelines establish rules for the display of ads and advertorials, and publications have adopted standards covering conflicts of interest and the like, few such rules have very deep roots on the Web.
The New York Times was roundly criticized by journalism academics in 1998 when it began offering a link to barnesandnoble.com on its Web site’s books pages. But my sentiments lie with the ranks of Internet users who believe online news sites do us a disservice if they publish book reviews without offering the ability to click and buy the book. (Of course, offering links to several commerce sites is better than offering only one.) In recent years other online publications, such as washingtonpost.com, have entered the e-commerce marketplace, selling goods on its Web site. All these efforts bear close scrutiny to ensure that editorial decisions are not influenced by financial considerations, just as has long been the case in print newsrooms.
Other news sites, such as CNET’s News.com, earlier this year began running oversized ads smack in the middle of editorial copy in an effort to induce users to click on them. Other online news sites are expected to follow suit in the coming months. Visibility is fine; obfuscation is not. And online publishers need to do more work to ensure that users do not become confused by the intrusion of commercial content into the editorial space.
Sponsorships have the potential to become a trouble spot for financially struggling news sites. What happens to your site’s credibility when its Travel section is sponsored by United Airlines, its Autos section sponsored by Honda, and its Technology section sponsored by Intel? So far, online news sites by and large have resisted such direct conflicts of interest, but as online advertising continues to slump, Web business managers may take a harder look at sponsorships, tiered subscriptions that wall off premium content from non-paying readers, and other sources of income.
All these practices cry out for a disclosure page detailing the publication’s rules governing news coverage, employee behavior, acceptance of freebies and other ethical questions. But only a few news sites, such as the San Antonio Express-News, CNET and TheStreet.com, have done so, and the number of sites with ethics codes has barely budged from three years ago.
Newsworthy vs. exploitative images
Finally, a few words about one of the toughest jobs in journalism: deciding whether to publish news images that are disturbing, violent, sometimes even horrific. When is it newsworthy, and when is it exploitative? The issue came into sharp relief last week, as online news publications grappled with some horrifying images that have seared the nation’s soul.
On Steve Outing’s online-news list this week, several members suggested that graphic and violent images unsuitable for the print paper might well be suitable for the publication’s Web site, simply because of the nature of the medium — you choose to access a page or an image. Such images should be accompanied by an appropriate warning.
I agree with those sentiments. Web users are extremely sophisticated about such matters. While I’ve heard hundreds of readers complain about inappropriate images in their family newspaper, I’ve come across few complaints about clearly marked images appearing “on their family news site.”
One of the mailing list’s participants, former Los Angeles Times reporter Jonathan Gaw, recalled that the New York Times employed just such a dual standard two years ago: “In 1999, when ethnic clashes in Borneo led to the deaths of hundreds, the New York Times printed a photo of a man on a scooter dragging a body. Online, nytimes.com showed both the version of the picture that ran in print and, after warning the Web visitor of what was behind the click, a fuller version of the picture online that showed that the person being dragged had been decapitated.”
Phil Nesbitt, who has directed photo and graphics departments in the United States and Asia, wrote an insightful piece last week for the American Press Institute on the subject of publishing graphic images online. He wrote in part: “Have standards changed? No. Are the standards different across the country? Yes. Yet with the differences, there does seem to be a line that no one will cross. I can’t remember seeing or even hearing about any U.S. newspaper running the wire shot of Nicole Simpson lying dead in a pool of blood.” (Warning: graphic image.)
Perhaps this isn’t so much a question of ethics than of taste and cultural sensibilities. In any case, Web photojournalists have had plenty to think about in the past 10 days, and they’ll doubtless be confronted by many more tough calls if America goes to war.
The state of online ethics in perspective
One of the bright notes on the online news landscape this year came with word of the appointment of the first ombudsman in cyberspace. MSNBC’s Dan Fisher has tackled subjects ranging from intrusive pop-up ads to the media’s coverage of Rep. Gary Condit. (Remember him?)
Fisher said the most striking finding during his tenure has been that the concerns raised most often by online users have been the same ones raised by readers in print: concerns about mixing opinion and straight news, getting the facts right, even-handedness in political reporting. “I’ve been surprised that the issues so far haven’t been all that different,” he remarked.
Somehow, I find that reassuring.
As the Net has gone mainstream, so too has it matured. With well over 100 million American adults now online, compared with about half that number three years ago, the Internet now much more closely reflects society’s values. The principles and values that matter to Americans in print and broadcast news — fairness, accuracy, even-handedness — also matter to them in the online medium.
If they’re to remain relevant in our increasingly digital society, online news operations need to experiment with new communication forms, to abandon the sheltered mindset of newsroom professionals and embrace a culture of true interactivity, to break some rules and offer idiosyncratic, fresh voices (especially young voices) to the public. But they must not abandon the standards and values that have served us so well.
In the end, journalists — both print and online — must never forget that we’re in the business of truth-telling, that service to our community is an essential underpinning of our craft, that our guiding principle should be less about getting the story first than getting it right, and that no amount of advertising dollars will rescue a news site that abandons its credibility.
Some segments of this article appear in the current issue of The Quill, the print magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.