How the Net is shaping journalism ethics

A look at the current state of online news’ credibility

July 2001

By J.D. Lasica

When the Web first blasted onto the public’s radar screen back in 1994, 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?

Things have settled down a bit since the Web’s Kitty Hawk days. Now that the high-tech bubble has burst and we’re moving into a period of retrenchment and reassessment, it seems appropriate to pause and consider how the Internet is shaping journalism ethics, and how the Internet ethic is steering journalism in new directions.

Every day we read about ethical lapses fostered in cyberspace: the stealth drug company site masquerading as a health information center, misleading stock tips made in financial chat rooms, electronic shopping bots whose results are skewed to favor retail clients, e-commerce sites’ egregious violations of users’ privacy. Compared to this sorry track record, online news sites have performed admirably.

That’s not to say that journalism on the Web has been flawless. Both traditional news operations and newcomers like Slate and Salon have encountered their fair share of ethical controversies. It strikes me that online journalism ethics might be grouped 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.

•   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. While print publications have long been governed by an implicit separation of church and state, the line between editorial and business interests is often blurred in a Web universe where the No. 1 rule is to survive. 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 examine each area briefly.

News gathering on the Net

Thus far, it strikes me 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 the Microsoft antitrust trial or Florida vote recount, 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 college 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 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, 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 hew to a lower standard.)

You might recall one dubious news-gathering incident that received press coverage: 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 editor 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 a statement on the site June 25, 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.

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.

Excessive speed kills credibility

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-sized 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.

As Dave Kansas, former editor in chief of TheStreet.com, wrote in the New York Times last month: “People want information faster than they did ever before. The ‘news cycle’ seems a quaint idea when stories can erupt, spread and die in a matter of hours.”

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 here 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.

Church and state online

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.

The state of online ethics in perspective

Online journalists have taken some hard knocks and learned some tough lessons over the past few years. While press coverage has cast blame on “the Internet” for many of journalism’s sins and shortcomings, perhaps a little perspective is in order.

Only three years ago, the journalism world shuddered at the prospect that Matt Drudge was chiseling the new rules of the road 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.

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, balance, even-handedness — also matter to them in the online medium.

In April, MSNBC appointed the first ombudsman of an online news organization: Dan Fisher, a respected former editor and foreign bureau chief at the Los Angeles Times. Fisher told me: “The thing that has surprised me most is that the kinds of concerns readers have on the Web track pretty closely with their concerns in traditional media.” The top concerns expressed by online users? They want to hold the news site accountable by hewing to the high standards of mainstream journalism: balanced reporting, accuracy, fairness, keeping political bias out of the news pages.

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? Because these news operations have transferred their greatest assets — their credibility and trustworthiness — to the online medium, while at the same time taking advantage of some of the Net’s key assets: its nonlinear nature (we like to call up stories, or drill down to related stories, on our 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 generally limited to users interacting with each other rather than journalists and readers having a two-way dialogue).

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.

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 of fairness, balance and trustworthiness that have served us so well.

In the end, journalists — both print and online — must never forget that, ultimately, 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.

J.D. Lasica is senior columnist for the Online Journalism Review and served as editorial director of two Internet startups.

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