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Hypergene MediaBlog » A citizen's responsibility in media ethics
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A citizen's responsibility in media ethics

Taran Rampersad has an interesting post called The Role of Ethics In Weblogging on the Media Center’s morph weblog.

"Suddenly there is a simple process to interact with the media, to affect the media and to be a part of the media. Yet being a part of the media is not a responsibility we are used to we are products of a system which created a society that depended on journalistic ethics.

“Like it or not, now we’re all closer to being an active part of the media. We’re ultimately responsible not the individual weblogger. As a society, we’re now being required to clear the cobwebs from our minds and do something extraordinary: Think."

Taran is spot on here. However, many bloggers have ethics as fine as many MSM journalists, despite a lack of “ethics” training. The earliest bloggers and many of the top bloggers today have a code of conduct, an egalitarian spirit and a drive to contribute to the common good. That must be recognized, encouraged and developed by blogosphere and MSM leaders, if we do not want it to be diluted as the blogosphere grows.

In their book, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil talk about the public’s responsibliity and role in keeping journalists (this includes bloggers, not just mainstream gatekeepers), honest in fulfilling their role in keeping a democratic society informed.

”… if the principle that the journalist’s primary allegiance to the citizens is to have meaning. A new relationship between the journalist and the citizen must evolve. Journalists must invite their audience into the process by which they produce the news.”

“The elements of journalism belong to citizens as much as they do to journalists for the simple reason… that theses responsibilities grow out of the function news plays in people’s lives, not out of some professional ethos. In that sense, the elements of journalism are a citizen’s billl of rights as much as they are a journalist’s bill of responsibilities.”

“The citizen has an obligation to approach the news with an open mind and not just a desire that the news reinforce existing opinion,” they write.

from section “Journalists Have a Responsibility to Conscience,” pages 191-193

Professionally and personally, we’ve been in both camps and on both sides of the fence. And in the end, we’re more worried about MSM, because of economic and political interests, than we are about the blogosphere, because of the communal, social, transparent code that is almost built into the system.

What should we do
First, journalists and the media are all too infatuated by the blogosphere. All virtual communities, and the blogosphere is a one, albeit distributed and decentralized, have well-developed methods of establishing trust metrics, ethics and codes of conduct. We should be building on that knowledge, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

Another step toward change would be that books like Elements of Journalism, and the subject of media’s role in a democracy become topics of discussion for Social Studies class in high school or part of a mandatory class in getting a university degree.

Mainstream media journalists should “take pains to make themselves and their work as transparent as they insist on making the people and institutions of power they cover,” say Kovach and Rosenstiel. “This sort of approach is, in effect, the beginning of a new kind of connection between the journalist and the citizen. It is one which individuals in the audience are given a chance to judge the principles by which the journalists do their work.”

This is not happening enough right now. If we expect trickle-down ethics, mainstream media must take the lead. However, it’s more likely that a bottom-up movement such as participatory journalism, devoid of institutional obligation and politics, will lead and force a change in mainstream media ethics.

Also see
When it comes to blogging ethics, several smart folks have already weighed in: Weblog Ethics by Rebecca Blood; and A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics by Jonathan Dube.

In February article for OJR, The cost of ethics: Influence peddling in the blogosphere, J.D. Lasica provides a list of what has evolved as “a loose-knit set of general tenets” in the blogosphere.

Posted on Mar 23, 2005 | 6:13 am EST

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Well, part of the point is that the *reader* of weblogs is ultimately responsible for the ethics… Just as society helps maintain the responsibility of the traditional media for ethics.

It was about 50 years ago on television that showing a woman’s ankle was simply not done. Kissing was considered ‘passionate’.

Think of what the ethical equivalents are now. :-)

Posted by: Taran on Mar 23, 05 | 12:44 pm EST

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Much of this argument is based on the fashionable stance that mainstream media has a major problem right now with ethics. Sorry, but it just ain’t so.

There have been very high-profile ethical violations, but this points to a higher degree of scrutiny and publicization, not some sort of new pattern of misconduct.

Of course there’s not a lot of difference between a problem and a perception of a problem, but to argue that the mainstream media “must take the lead” in cleaning up journalistic ethics is a vacant argument. What would that look like? A crucifying of those in our ranks who sin? Well, we’ve been doing that to extremes. A series of policy statements on ethical conduct? That started long before bloggers opened their ISP accounts.

Fact is, there are going to be bloggers and MSM journalists who engage in bad ethics all the time. The answer isn’t some utopian sea change where all journalists raise their eyes to the skies and chant, “We see the light, we are now ethical.” The answer is to do good ethics and throw the book at those who don’t. As for perception, which is the real problem, making ourselves more transparent would certainly help. But part of me says a collective yawn from the average reader would be more of an impediment than resistance from MSM.

--Christopher Smith

Posted by: Smitty on Mar 26, 05 | 10:43 am EST

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smitty -

do you think your staff of journalists are well-versed and actively practice good ethics on every story they write?

If you think that they do, well, you might work at the only media company with standards and practices that clean.

At every paper I have ever worked at I witnessed Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair-like acts of unethical behavoir.

None of it was reported, nor did it make national headlines. Sure, people were fired, but these events did *not* change the behavior of how our newsrooms worked.

Fashionable stance or not, many mainstream news media outlets *do* have a problem with ethics. Just turn on your local TV news and prove me wrong.

Out of curiousity, do you believe that it’s bloggers/watchdogs, readers, or the media that should lead in ethics? Or do you truly believe that there is no problem *at all*?

Posted by: Shayne on Mar 29, 05 | 2:28 pm EST

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OK, so beyond firing folks who commit ethical offenses, what do you suggest?

I’ve caught and reported three plagiarists during my career—one a letter writer and two reporters. (All three were dealt with harshly.) So I know it happens. But there are also unscrupulous doctors, cops, lawyers, programmers, clerks, gardeners and priests. That doesn’t mean any of those particular fields has a systemic problem.

I can’t speak to TV news. The last time I watched more than 30 seconds of it I thought I was going to retch, so I’ll take your word for it that their ethics haven’t improved. So, taken in that sense, I can see your point. TV “news” never even corrects their errors. So I get kinda defensive when actual journalism is lumped in with that stuff.

But to get to your real point, about who should “take the lead,” I’m not sure what you’re getting at. What would it look like to “take the lead”? I think bloggers should and will continue to hold mainstream media to high standards and call them on it when they fail. I think mainstream media should make itself as open as feasible to critique and respond honestly to criticism. In Gannett newspapers at least, we have ethics policies that are expansive and detailed. I’ve used them more than once to fend off advertising sales reps looking for favors for their clients. So certain systems are working. What tangible other systems do you propose?

Posted by: Smitty on Mar 29, 05 | 11:52 pm EST

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I’M NOT SURE THAT JOURNALISM IS THE ONLY CULPRIT HERE.  Any one with enough of an audience can not only get a book (or tract or whacko theory) pubished, but also get on the tube to promote it.  Witness this afternoon’s After Words: with “religious judge” Roy Moore inteviewed by Bill Press.  I’m not saying you should not give Roy Moore some time, but he’s so far off the mark, putting him on CSPAN only gives credibility to his wacky interpretations of the Constitution.  Journalists, like Press, may think it’s all fun and games to poke holes in this guy, but putting him on national TV does give credence to his ideas.  It’s a problem.  Anyone on the tube is an expert.  No one is right; everyone has an opinion.

Posted by: MATTHEW ROSE on Apr 03, 05 | 7:50 pm EST

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My experience is that while journalists of all types generally wish to be ethical, cultures vary.  Newspaper journalists tend to be the most traditional, and are occasionally focused on ethics questions to the point of navel-gazing.  Television reporters are a little different, and Web-only reporters a little different still.  It remains to be seen what standards for blogging will emerge, but my hunch is that they will be considerably more relaxed than those for newspaper journalists.  This is not a criticism of bloggers; it’s just how I think the culture will probably develop.

Posted by: Scott Baradell on Apr 04, 05 | 10:31 pm EST


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