: On today’s Times editorial page, Adam Cohen questions the ethics of bloggers.
What he’s really doing is trying to fit round-peg individual bloggers into his square-hole institution of journalism.
For there’s nothing journalists like better, it sometimes seems, than dissecting their professional ethics. Of course, it’s right and necessary for them to examine themselves and their ethics, practices, standards, and credibility — especially today, when all are being questioned. But what they can lose sight of the fact that it’s quite simple, really: Do people trust you to tell the truth?
But they overcomplicate the discussion and that raises problems:
First, the discussion of journalistic ethics is so obsessively self-centered. I often hear newspaper editors talk about online interactivity only as a way to get readers to talk about newspapers and the issues they raise: ‘Enough about you, how about us?’ Instead, the internet should be opening up new ways for them to listen to the public they serve.
Second, the discussion gets so nitpicky it can easily miss the larger picture: all trees, no forest. Take the case of USA Today ousting respected correspondent Tom Squitieri over use of quotes. He didn’t steal them. The quotes appeared in another paper’s story; he called the sources and asked them for quotes and they said the quotes that had appeared already were best, so he used them. His mortal sin was not mentioning that the quotes had appeared in another paper as well. Absurd. So the paper set itself another rule and precedent and lost a respected journalist who, in fact, had held the paper’s feet to the fire over ethical issues involving another reporter. This is about ethical appearances more than credible reality.
Third, journalists and their conventioneering organizations like to make many lists of rules about ethics, which make some lose sight of the more fundamental notion that ethics are really a matter of individual conscience and trust: You can follow every rule in the book but still slant a story or a paper’s coverage by the news you select and how you write it; you can still squander your trust.
Fourth, in all of this, journalists come to believe that what’s good for journalism is good for America, that what applies to them applies to everyone.
So now I take you Cohen’s column:
But more bloggers, and blog readers, are starting to ask whether at least the most prominent blogs with the highest traffic shouldn’t hold themselves to the same high standards to which they hold other media.
Which assumes that they don’t. Who says they don’t? Who are these bloggers and what are their alleged lapses? And why do you think the behavior of any one blogger reflects on the ethics of all bloggers? Why do you think that all bloggers have to act the same?
In this, Cohen is saying a lot:
He is, again, trying to turn blogs into an institution, like journalism. But they are not. Blogs are all individual. At the end of my email exchange with Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, that became, I think, the distillation of our difference in worldviews: Journalism is institutional, blogs are personal. Journalism has become dispassionate, blogs are passionate. Bloggers are just people, citizens, readers. But Cohen is viewing them through the journalist’s green eyeshade and he expects these people he sees — the same ones who’ve always been out there complaining, only now they have the means to speak and he is forced to listen — to operate as he is supposed to operate.
Next, he’s saying that readers need a code of ethics before they can hold journalists accountable for theirs. But readers are bringing their own individual sense of ethics and credibility to the discussion. Listen to what some of them are saying, Mr. Cohen: ‘We are (or were) your readers and we don’t trust you.’ That’s what young people told the Carnegie Foundation. Clearly, they have their own ethical standards and they are saying that journalists don’t meet them.
Then he’s implying that without a code of ethics you don’t have ethics. That, of course, is wrong and grossly insulting to these people, these citizens, these readers. Every one of those readers has a sense of ethics, whether or not it is codified as a group. Every blogger has an ethic, but you may disagree with it.
Do bloggers need a corporate code of ethics? I don’t think so, because, once more, bloggers are not an institution. Wonkette is not Buzzmachine is not Fark is not Drudge is not Instapundit is not Kos is not Powerline is not…..
But that’s not to say that bloggers cannot lapse as journalists do. The difference as I see it is that bloggers are quicker to admit it or get caught. I remember one blogger — whose name I now forget — who was caught copying posts without credit. He was called out and dismissed by the blogosphere in short order and his traffic died. If I make a mistake, I often say, readers descend upon me like white blood cells on a germ to make me correct it. If a blogger is found to be on the take to a campaign (well, a few have), that sets off a discussion of ethnics and standards as robust as any J-school seminar.
For bloggers, just like journalists and their institutions, our key asset is trust. Break that trust and you may never repair it. That, again, is the essence of journalistic and blogging ethics.
I do believe that some education can be in order. The useful thing for Cohen or me, as journalists, to do might be to share what we’ve learned about professional ethics and let bloggers decide whether they accept those standards. Cohen makes a start:
Information should be verified before it is printed, and people who are involved in a story should be given a chance to air their viewpoints, especially if they are under attack. Reporters should avoid conflicts of interest, even significant appearances of conflicts, and disclose any significant ones. Often, a conflict means being disqualified to cover a story or a subject. When errors are discovered or pointed out by internal or external sources, they must be corrected. And there should be a clear wall between editorial content and advertising.
I’d say that most bloggers I read and trust follow such rules. Or I trust them to.
This is also why, when I first wrote a new-media curriculum for the City University of New York’s new Graduate School of Journalism, I included the notion that the courses should be webcast so learning could travel two ways: If they wished, citizen journalists could learn the standards presented in class and could also challenge those standards and teach the class their own view. Out of that, better standards will evolve.
Cohen goes on to — with no sense of irony — accuse bloggers of not reporting on their accusations even as he does not report on his accusations. My notes in brackets:
Many bloggers make little effort to check their information [name two, please], and think nothing of posting a personal attack without calling the target first – or calling the target at all. [And how many bloggers did you call before you made this blanket attack? How many did you allow to respond in your column? Does your paper call everyone who is criticized on its editorial and op-ed pages? I doubt it.] They rarely have procedures for running a correction. [Who says? Glenn Reynolds, for one, has set forth a very clear statement that many follow.] The wall between their editorial content and advertising is often nonexistent. (Wonkette, a witty and well-read Washington blog, posts a weekly shout-out inside its editorial text to its advertisers, including partisan ones like Democrats.org.) [See the business section of your very own paper for an explanation of that, which you are free to chose not to accept, but it is a policy.] And bloggers rarely disclose whether they are receiving money from the people or causes they write about. [Rarely? How do you know? Again, name two.]
He hints that bloggers don’t reveal when they are on campaign staffs when, in fact, at every opportunity, such bloggers are outed by other bloggers and there have been very heated exchanges about this issue in the blogosphere (which I choose not to reignite right now).
Many bloggers who criticize the MSM’s ethics, however, are in the anomalous position of holding themselves to lower standards, or no standards at all.
Or higher standards: not the borrowed standards of an industry committee, but their own standards, their own conscience. That, in the end, is the only standard that matters.
: ALSO: At the same time, I’m not saying that journalistic institutions should not have codes of ethics. Of course, they should. And in today’s column by Times public editor Dan Okrent, you see the wrangling over such a code continue as the paper and the industry grapples with the opaque habit of newsmakers and news reporters to rely on unnamed sources.
: AND: You want to see the ethic of blogs?
Try this post out of the Nashville confab: Transparency, accountability, creativity, passion , personality, disagreement (without being disagreeable), listen, link, forgive, and more.
And here’s my list of the ethics of blogging prior to a Harvard confab:
: The ethic of transparency: We believe that our public deserves to know about us and our perspective to better judge what we say.
: The ethic of conversation: We do not believe in one-sided lectures. We believe conversation leads to better understanding.
: The ethic of humanity: We believe this medium lives at a human level while old media lives at an institutional level.
: The ethic of the link: We believe one of our key jobs is to link our public to other voices and to source material so they may judge themselves.
: The ethic of correction: We believe it is vital to correct errors quickly and openly.
: The ethic of immediacy: We believe that the fast spread of information is will yield better information.
: Ann Althouse adds:
Please. The journalistic code didn’t keep Jordan and Rather in line. It was the bloggers, invoking their own standards — not a code but an evolving culture — that called them to account. Any bloggers with any kind of high profile will be similarly called to account if they violate the blogosphere’s cultural norms. And Jordan and Rather can take up blogging any minute they want. Our practice is open to anyone who wants to join.
: Now James Wolcott piles on.