Not all bloggers do journalism. Most do not. But when they do, they should be ethical.
Does this mean they must subscribe to some kind of ethical code? Not necessarily.
The professional journalism world is awash in ethics codes. Some are longer than the United States Constitution, trying to anticipate every possible breach. Others are short and succinct, offering more positive guidance. The cyber-journalist Website has adapted for bloggers an ethics code from the Society of Professional Journalists, an American group. It is a solid and worthy effort.
All ethics codes are created for one essential purpose: to instill trust. If a reader (or viewer or listener) cannot trust the report, there is usually little reason to bother in the first place. The exception, of course, is looking at material that is known to be unethical, as much for instructional purposes — we can learn a great deal from watching unethical people’s behavior — as to gain true knowledge.
For me, ethics is about something quite simple: honor. Within that word, however, is a great deal of territory. But unless we act with honor we cannot expect people’s trust.
In American journalism, trust is often associated with a standard we call "objectivity" — the idea that an article should offer balance and nuance, giving the reader the chance to make up his or her own mind. I believe objectivity is a worthy but unattainable goal, because we all bring our own biases to everything we do.
In a world of new journalism, where we shift from a lecture to much more of a conversation, ethical journalism depends less on codes of ethics than the values and principles that are a foundation for honorable journalism.
There are pillars of good journalism: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, transparency and independence.
The lines separating them are not always clear. They are open to wide interpretation, and are therefore loaded with nuance in themselves. But I think they are a useful way to approach ethical journalism, and they are notably easier to achieve in an online setting. Let’s look at each.
When I was a reporter and, later, a columnist, my first goal was to learn as much as I could. After all, gathering facts and opinions is the foundation of reporting. I liked it best when I felt I had left 95 percent of what I’d learned out of the final piece. The best reporters I know always want to make one more call, check with one more source. (The last question I ask at all interviews is, "Who else should I talk with about this?"
Today, thoroughness means more than asking questions of the people in our address books, real or virtual. It means, whenever possible, asking our readers for their input, as I did when I wrote a book on grassroots journalism in 2004 (and as other authors are beginning to do in theirs). Competitive pressures tend to make this a rare request, but I’m convinced that more journalists will adopt it.
Say what you don’t know, not just what you do. (If the reader/listener/viewer does know what you don’t, you’ve just invited him/her to fill you in.)
Accuracy means correcting what you get wrong, and doing it promptly. This is much easier online, where we can mitigate or at least limit the damage from our errors for new readers.
This one is as difficult, in practice, as accuracy is simple. Fairness is often in the eye of the beholder. But even here I think a few principles may universally apply.
Fairness means, among other things, listening to different viewpoints, and incorporating them into the journalism. It does not mean parroting lies or distortions to achieve that lazy equivalence that leads some journalists to get opposing quotes when the facts overwhelmingly support one side.
Fairness is also about letting people respond when they believe you are wrong, even if you do not agree. Again, this is much easier online than in a print publication, much less a broadcast.
Ultimately, fairness emerges from a state of mind. We should be aware of what drives us, and always be willing to listen to those who disagree. The first rule of having a conversation is to listen — and I know I learn more from people who think I’m wrong than from those who agree with me.
Disclosure is gaining currency as an addition to journalism. It’s easier said than done, of course.
No one can plausibly argue with the idea that journalists need to disclose certain things, such as financial conflicts of interest. But to what extent? Should journalists of all kinds be expected to make their lives open books? How open?
Personal biases, even unconscious ones, affect the journalism as well. I’m an American, brought up in with certain beliefs that many folks in other lands (and some in the United States) flatly reject. I need to be aware of the things I take for granted, and periodically challenge some of them, as I do my work.
Another way to be transparent is how we present a story. We should link to source material as much as possible, bolstering what we tell people with close-to-the-ground facts and data. (Maybe this is part of accuracy or thoroughness, but it seems to fit here, too.)
Honorable journalism means following the story where it leads. When media are consolidated into a few big companies or are under the thumb of governments, this cannot happen.
It is simple to be independent online. Just start a blog. But no one should imagine that the same pressures from businesses and governments will not apply when a blogger tries to make a living at his or her new trade.
Jeff Jarvis, a prominent American blogger (buzzmachine.com), adds several other ideals. Bloggers must value the ethic of the conversation. He notes what for me is a bottom line of this new world: that conversation leads to understanding.
In a conversation, the first rule is to listen. Ethics requires listening, because it is how we learn.
Dan Gillmor is founder of Grassroots Media Inc., a company aimed at enabling grassroots journalism and expanding its reach. Its first site is Bayosphere.com in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is author of "We the Media:
Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People" (O’Reilly Media, 2004).
Photo credit: Elisabeth Fall, for O’Reilly Media