What New Ethical Concerns Affect Online Journalism?
Online journalism has opened the door for non-traditional journalists to enter the industry. However, as more and more people trickle into the field, the ethical concerns inherent in journalism evolve as well. Digital media ethics of all kinds exist, they serve to streamline the practices of all sorts of online journalism: blogging, writing, photojournalism, and even social media journalism. Many discussions circle around how online journalists, and those with an audience equal to or even surpassing print journalists, should research, publish, and interact with the text. Read on to learn about how the internet is changing the field of journalism, the basics of journalistic ethics, and what new questions are arising for online journalists.
Changes in the Water
Journalism is transforming at an alarming rate–paper sales of newspapers and magazines are down, and online consumption is at an all-time high. No matter the topic–daily news, celebrity gossip, sports analysis, or even legal news–it’s online. Part of this is because of the turnaround time. No longer is there a need for multiple newspapers depending on the outcome of an event. Instead, a journalist can write, edit, post, and interact on a topic in just a few seconds on social media platforms within minutes on a blog or website.
Change can be difficult to circumvent, especially for those who are used to doing things “the old fashioned way.” Shrinking physical sales equate to shrinking profits from sales, advertising, and usage. Still, online journalism leads to experimentation, integration, and collaboration. Most of the principles taught in college classrooms up until only a few years ago centered on the mass production of newsprint, dating back to the late nineteenth century instead of the current age. Schools are picking up on the advent of digital journalism, teaching ethics, and discussing best practices. Without clear cut guidelines, however, it can be difficult to get everyone to agree on just what the online journalistic ethics actually are and how to implement them. But the question isn’t just how to come up with ethics and how to implement them, but rather: how do we create online journalistic ethics that will work for everyone creating content?
What exactly is online journalism?
Before setting any ethics, there are a few questions to answer. There is a distinct lack of clarity over what it means to be a journalist, mostly among those who actually write, but not as much among those who consume. But still, the questions remain: what is journalism and what is online journalism? Like print journalism, the online variation requires having the skills to investigate, research, work with technology, and write clearly. Ethics wise, all of these skills are used to verify truth and promote accuracy.
Types of Online Journalism
There are countless different types of online journalism. While this list isn’t exhaustive, some examples include: websites affiliated with major media companies, the websites that mesh articles and blogs, and those websites that are comprised of all blogs.
Traditional News Sites
The Washington Post has been a major American paper for more than a century. It has a completely separate print newspaper from its website and stories that originally premiered on the website rarely, if ever, end up going to the printer; however, stories that run in the newspaper do appear on the website. Some newspapers, such as The New York Times, require readers to subscribe to the service in order to read stories and access some content online. Today this type of journalism has a smaller staff of writers that may also dip into the print writing. As such, many of their ethical issues mirror those of print writers.
Hybrid News Sites
For websites that mix blogs and news articles like the Huffington Post, you will see a combination of ethics coming into play–including those surrounding images and the concerns of a 24-hour news cycle. These websites may pool from a greater number of writers with a varying amount of skills and knowledge. In addition, they may aggregate content in addition to or instead of creating original content more than traditional news sites.
Comment News Sites
Comment-based news sites, most commonly blogs, are another way to share news. Most often, editorial content that was produced by a variety of journalists is dissected and discussed by the blogger and then through audience participation. This content is often the shortest form of news, ranging up from the 140-character limits of Twitter into full blog postings. Whether or not this is truly journalism is up for debate–but there are definitely bloggers who follow journalistic principles, and those who focus entirely on opinion.
Journalism Code of Ethics
Print journalism has had a code of ethics for decades. As per the Society of Professional Journalists, there are four categories to the code:
Seek Truth and Report it
Whenever possible, journalists need to be able to ensure that what they are reporting is true and reported fairly and accurately, without bias. This includes providing appropriate context, following up on a story if facts evolve, reporting sources fairly, and avoiding stereotypes and assumptions.
Journalists are present to report, but must remain observers. That means that they need to be respectful of the subjects and take precautions such as the ability to “balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know.”
This principle is simple–a journalist shouldn’t report on a topic if he or she has a vested interest in it, such as a personal relationship with a subject.
Be Accountable and Transparent
Whenever possible, journalists should allow the public to understand the reasoning behind the information included, and the validity of that information. In addition, journalists have a responsibility to correct any errors they may have made.
While online journalists are still held to these standards, there are additional ethical concerns that online journalists have to take into account; however, many of these ethical concerns fit into the categories of the code.
New Concerns in Online Journalism
Online journalism gives people the chance to be anonymous, and not in a “Dear Abby” sort of way. Anonymity is a prominent facet of the internet. Today, someone can just create a name and start posting content–few would even know if that person isn’t who he or she says wrote the article. Some portals require identification, but it can be as easy as taking someone else’s photo, duping the program with a fake email, and turning off location services.
Anonymity takes away the risk of journalism and allows people to be honest and free with their thoughts; however, some worry it also creates an environment filled with irresponsibility and hurt. Even if online platforms take the extra steps to remove the anonymity of it all, comments and shares aren’t protected from “trolls” or those with ill will.
In addition, it makes many question the validity of online reporting from anonymous platforms. After all, it’s inherently not transparent. Whether or not anonymous journalists can truly be considered “journalists” is a hot topic for debate.
24-Hour News Cycle
The 24-hour news cycle that is possible because of online journalism is also one of the biggest things to cause concern in the online news market. Journalism ethics do require reporters to be accountable and seek to report truthfully, but that becomes more difficult when everything is moving so quickly. Reports, images, and opinions circulate the world faster than ever through Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, cell phones, and hashtag activism. This speed does not always promote quality, clarity, or accuracy. Instead, it is sometimes a gut reaction to the events at hand, leading to misunderstanding, and at times, fear. Major news sources like CNN often pick up rumors that are later found to be untrue, especially in situations where there is little other information. These reports can cause a “trickle down” effect where incorrect information gets reported once and then repeated, as recently seen in the Ferguson case.
Impartiality: Editors Wanted
When people write about things that they are very passionate about, which is often the case for online journalists, there is a tendency to not remain as impartial as one would wish. Online media sometimes encourages people to tell their opinion and back it up without ever posting the “flip side” of the argument. Many bloggers, in particular, take pride in this, seeing themselves as activists for particular causes or movements, rejecting neutrality; however, that doesn’t neatly fit into the ethical guidelines that require journalists to stay unbiased and truthful.
Of course there has always been an opinion sector in journalism. In fact, some even claim that we are seeing a return to the partisan journalism that colored the profession throughout the early 1900s. Some argue that the responsibility may just fall to the reader on this one: it’s important to search out people on both side of the argument.
Social Media + Reporting = Journalism?
News organizations often send their reporters “into the field” to use social media to pass on information to the general public, creating a brand and influencing traditional reports. Typically they use Twitter, but have been known to use Instagram and even Snapchat as well; however, the new world of online personas creates an ethical gray area.
Take, for example, a reporter who writes political think pieces. In her published articles, she remains impartial on the topic of Hillary Clinton’s presidential run; however, on her Twitter account, she follows @ReadyForHillary and constantly tweets about her desire for Clinton to run. Could these comments give a critic something to chew on regarding authenticity in reporting? In the past, the ability to figure out a writer’s political leanings was much harder because there was less information out there for public consumption.
The ethical challenge for news organizations that use online and offline reporting is to develop social media guidelines that allow reporters or staff members to explore the online media world while also having an online presence. That sometimes means requiring that journalists take on multiple personas, a private one and a public one, in the aims of keeping their public name neutral.
Photojournalism has only boomed in popularity relatively recently since the start of the internet. Photos and videos now make it easier than ever to capture historical events; however, those same programs that allow us to snap photos and share them in just a few minutes also allow for those photos to be altered and manipulated in a relatively short amount of time. If there was no one else at the event, manipulating an image could manipulate a whole event. Take for instance the latest video of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie falling off of a chair. Said to be punishment for him supporting an opposing football team, the Philadelphia radio station added music and doctored the video, making Christie seem like a clown.
Can news sources trust the images that come from regular citizens? In the past it wasn’t as confusing, as pictures were more difficult to manipulate unless you had intense training. Now, most people know how to use at least some of the tools on Photoshop. According to the Center for Journalism Ethics: “Photojournalists often talk about how it is permitted to change the ‘technical’ aspects of a picture such as altering slightly the tone or color of a photo. But they draw the line at any further changes. Changing the meaning or content of the image so as to mislead viewers is considered unethical.”
In the end, we are left with a lot of questions and very few answers. The problem is that we are currently in the midst of a huge change in journalism. Ten years ago no one would have predicted the rise of websites like Instagram and Twitter because we just didn’t have that technology yet.
Until we have the answers for those questions, and the thousands more that stem from them, the answers of ethics for online journalism is left up to the individual–company, blog, person, or website. Soon enough, we will start to see a convergence on topics like anonymity and image use–it’s already happening. Colleges are slowly rolling out courses only on online journalism. The best we can do, for now, is work with integrity and professionalism and try to hold our news sources to those same standards.
While the principles of journalistic ethics still do hold true, new questions are popping up every day. Journalists do still have an obligation to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. The internet may make it more difficult to parse out how those ethics apply in every situation, but they remain the standards of professional journalism.
Editor’s Note: This post has been revised to credit select information to the Center for Journalism Ethics.