Ethics, online and journalism

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What follows is the text from a lecture on Ethics and online I delivered to third year journalism students a few weeks back.  I’m putting it online for a few reasons. It’s here to be pulled to pieces, it’s nice to be transparent and  it’s also here to force me to write something new next year! The tone is deliberately challenging, I hope, to stimulate debate.

The title of this lecture is virtual ethics in the era of wikileaks. It may be hard to see what the wikileaks saga has to offer us outside of the rarefied atmosphere of political journalism or easy to write it off as an internal debate. But it makes a good example for what I’m more interested in – does the web change the way we behave as journalists?

In thinking a little broader, I have a few key words that relate to journalism and I want to think about how they might relate to the web.

Let’s start where your reader does with a word that goes to the heart of any debate concerning anything starting with wiki(pedia,leaks) is TRUST

Can you trust what you read? Can you trust people to tell you the truth? Can you trust that people are who they say they are? Can you trust where the information comes from?What are their motivations?

Trust is one of those things goes to the very heart of our identity and role as a journalist.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, as Journalists, we claim that you can, in fact should, ʻtrust us’. But why? Why trust journalism rather than a free agent like Assange? What can we offer?

Well, one reason you will hear,  is that the information that journalists provide you with has gone through a rigorous ʻprocessʼ. A process that journalists have been trained for: Trust us, we are professionals.

That ʻrigorous processʼ is the mechanical reflection of our commitment to accuracy, balance and fairness – The way we report, the use of sub-editors and editors, are built in to the structures of journalism organisations.

But I would argue that it’s the structure (and longevity) of the industry more than its value that has helped consolidate this as a defining feature. Rather than reflect any consistent, measurable commitment, it has become self-defining. Its also become self-defending.

It seems that any challenge or or attempt to qualify this definition of a journalist is taken as a challenge to the whole industry. So we have journalism defined and defended by journalists.

This is (one of the many areas) where the web throws a spanner in the works.

The web is place where the mechanical processes of finding, reporting and presenting information are available to anyone. You know the score; everyone can be a publisher! Something that was once the preserve of media organisations alone.

That process is no longer unique to journalism.

A key part of that carefully constructed and refined definition of what makes a journalist is unpicked. Which gives rise to a question:

Are those people who publish on the web journalists?

It seems that when we talk about the web and journalism we can’t avoid getting in to the argument of what a journalist is. In my experience it often starts (and ends) by trying to explain why everyone else is not a journalist.

Regardless of the motivations, many this is a pretty tired debate. But I do think it has some resonance with our topic. So let me rephrase it as:

Should those people who publish on the web have the same privileges and protection journalists?

There obviously are protections and benefits to being a journalist. Wikileaks claims it’s a journalistic organisation with all the protection that offers. But the US have declared Assange a ‘political actor’ rather than a journalist. An attempt to circumnavigate those protections?

You only need to read  Vanity Fair on ‘The man who spilled the secrets’ to see that many in the industry are happy to point out why Assange and wikileaks isn’t journalism.

Maybe I need to change that question round and make it more and direct.

What makes you a journalist?

I donʼt think we can argue that it is the process. It canʼt be about how we do it. Even at their most arch (and pompous) it seems that journalists are prepared to accept that even though it’s not journalism “it works under the same rubric” In other words, many ʻnone-journalistsʼ on the web follow exactly the same processes to create content as journalists do. But they aren’t real journalists…

Call them…Citizen journalism; UGC; amateur journalists.

All terms that have been used to define the difference between ʻthem and usʼ. Without, it has to be said, consensus or success. But that last one, amateur, is interesting to me. It suggests that a person may do everything a journalist does but not professionally.

So something other than the process then, sets journalists apart; Makes them professional.

Perhaps it’s a commitment to TRUTH.

Jane Singer identifies a commitment to truth as one of the ʻcentral normative aspects of professional journalismʼ. But, as Singer points out, even the idea of what constitutes truth is dynamic.

If we were to argue that truth is represented at all,the best we could say is it is represented by the individual journalists view of what is true. Not for example, what a government or individual may tell them is true.

A journalist, as Walter Williams said in 1908 in his Journalist’s Creed, is compelled to

“write only what he holds in his heart to be true”.

A bizarre throwback to virtue ethics in a profession where where the regulation suggests journalism is much more about consiquentialism.

In less prosaic terms a journalist:

“Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (NUJ code)

Accurate. That’s truth, right?

But couldn’t it be argued that the ʻamateurʼ also does this?

Anyone can write a blog post and claim that they believe ʻin their heart that it is trueʼ. You can dump thousands of pages of top secret memos on to the web because it’s true. Can’t you?

In striving to tell us the truth anyone could provide us with a huge array of quotes and sources of information to support their view.  Just as a journalist might. Right?

Now you could argue that they may also choose not to strive as hard as they could. They could choose to ignore some facts and not apply any balance or fairness. But so could a journalist.

In their defense , we might say, is that the journalist has a level of responsibility for what they produce.

As professionals, not only is it their responsibility to admit if something is wrong but they will have to explain why – they are accountable for their work. This is often presented as a stark contrast to the online world where responsibility and accountability could be seen to be in short supply.

Critics dismiss the pyjama clad,self obsessives, who answer to no one. Their content, the ‘spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night‘! People who publish without a thought to the risk  – An accusation levelled at wikileaks.

But those who embrace online will claim that the network will decide. The responsibility and accountability  lies in the collective. Nothing can be hidden. Everything is explored.

But is that really accountability?

There would seem to be no punitive impact on those who do not tell the truth; who donʼt
act responsibly. Not like journalists…?

By agreeing to codes of conduct (in principle, if not in practice) – the professional ideals -by being accountable, journalists are compelled to be responsible. Aren’t they…?

The structures and hierarchies of media organisations mean that accountability comes with the ultimate sanction – get it wrong, get sacked. Don’t they…?

Taking those codes at face value could lead to an underlying belief that professional journalists only reside in media organisations (and by extension, not online). Not simply because you are paid (the most common reasoning  in the ‘why am I a journalist and your’e not debate) but because, within that organisation, there is a professional and structural oversight that holds individuals accountable. The ‘establishment’ polices itself.

This form of internal-accountability is often underlined and amplified with the claim that journalists have a social responsibility as a profession to serve the public good. The fourth estate argument. It’s a position that is often used to defend a higher status for journalism, justify the light touch legislation it is subject to and enable that self-policing.

But the lack of legal requirements to obey the codes of conduct and the punishment for failing to meet the standard is often less than obvious. (see page 94!)

Whilst most journalists agree that they must take responsibility for their actions, as an industry, journalism seems reluctant to answer for their mistakes. (Sanders p150) whoever is asking. They claim the internal system is enough.  I would go a step further and say seems that they will actively avoid any effort at outside regulation.

This is where the lines of a corporate responsibility (the self-regulation of the industry) and a more personal responsibility blur.  Any attempt at external regulation challenges the autonomy of the journalist – As I suggested before, the journalist should not (in fact canʼt be) answerable to anyone in their pursuit of truth.

It’s a position that is easy to maintain, if, at challenging times, responsibility is interchangeable between journalist and journalism and accountability rests in such a ʻlight touchʼ form of self-regulation that is essentially internal.

But the internal nature of that ‘regulation’ means it lacks transparency and that’s where journalism begins to butt heads with the online world.

Transparency is a presiding watch word for those who work on the web. Jane Singer argues that is to bloggers (our ‘anti-journalist’) what truth is to Journalists. In fact ʻtransparencyʼ is a standard by which the ʻqualityʼ of work online is often measured and made accountable.

The links and sources used to support an article online – the “huge array of quotes and sources of information to support their view” that I mentioned earlier- are there for people to check.  Online, we lay out all of our ‘working out’ and people can hold us to account by questioning which sources we pick and how we use them.

That’s something more than the bland reading of transparency as a “fealty to dumping material in to the public realm” But it raises some interesting questions around fairness and balance. Interesting debates about Objectivity.

Those who practice ‘online’ are often accused of bias and seen to lack any of the recognisable elements of balance claimed by journalists. But, in their defense,  they are almost brazen in their desire to tell you that.

This is in stark contrast with the traditional media. Where the gatekeeper model is still held to be the norm. Somewhere, behind closed doors, one person decides what is news and we rarely, if ever, get to question their actions or motivations. In fact it’s an industry that seems to pride itself on secret connections, unnamed sources and off the record dealings

Consumers can only infer balance and objectivity.

We have to piece together the motivations of a newspaper owner from a broader context. Detect the bias from the omission of content rather than the content presented. Just as critiques would claim we must do with wikileaks. Yet objectivity is often cited as a central tenant of journalism.

But even the industry is having problems with the idea objectivity. Increasingly the traditional commitment to Objectivity is questioned.

Some will ‘blame’ the web for leading journalism astray

“wikileaks sets the bar. Tempting [journalism] to shock. And awe through more intimate revelation”

Objectivity  has been described as the ‘bastard child’ of journalism; an unobtainable ideal which (in this web world) is at odds with our audiences demands and a barrier to successful business models.

The name Fox News has become synonymous with a move towards subjective journalism – the ‘foxification’ of news.  An organisation that claims to practice journalism but seems to ignore one of its core tenants. The argument is that, in a multi-platform world, this would be offset with a ‘free market capitalist ’ approach to objectivity – the market becomes responsible for objectivity through competition.

And here is where the industry and the world of the web really start to kick-off.

An increasing lack of objectivity and apparent lack of accountability (or visible evidence of accountability working) is bound to attract those who place so much value on transparency.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the mainstream media finds itself the target of scrutiny from a myriad of online sources. Tracking, testing and challenging its output everyday. Self-appointed watchdogs (or watchblogs) will take it upon themselves to hold the journalists and journalism to account.

And true to form the media response is to ask who watches the watchblogs? If they are unaccountable, is this fair?

If one of the defining features of journalism is its accountability to the public – by virtue of the professional practice it claims- then the answer has to be yes.

Journalists are no different than other ʻprofessionsʼ that claim service in the public good – the public interest. Medics, politicians, police, all have their work analysed to within an inch of itʼs life by journalists, more often than not, the gloves are well and truly off. So why not journalists?

For an industry nervous of accountability and committed to individual autonomy this is a strange, painful and sometimes, very personal exercise. Many resist it. But the web makes that impossible.

Like it or not, the medium means that content and the discussion around it is public and uncontrollable. People will talk about you if you are listening or not.

Resistance is there. Indeed the normal mode of engagement is one of threat. Some journalists are very public in their disgust at the apparent compulsion to invite readers to ‘tell me what you think of what I’ve written’. Perhaps they believe that journalism is not about listening to people but listening to what the journalist thinks. But it shows that journalism is more than capable of resisting the re-drawing of the lines of accountability and the emphasis on transparency – even in the face of what can seem like staggering inconsistency.

So what does this say about the definition of journalism.

Essentially it suggests that journalism is a recursive definition:

Who is a journalist? Someone who does journalism.What is journalism? Something done by a journalist…

It’s journalists who get to decide what journalism is. And because large media organisations have lots of journalists, they are the ones who exert most influence in defining it’s norms. They are the ones who play the biggest part on defining the practice, and the moral and ethical constraints.

So it isn’t the web changes things. It has neither the power (or, collectively, the will or desire) to do that. It’s the journalists reaction to it that shapes journalism

So, as a journalist:

  • Is using information from wikileaks any different than using information from ‘hacked’ mobile phones?
  • Is pretending to be someone you are not on Facebook or a chatroom any different than pretending to be a constituent of Vince Cable?
  • Is saying something outrageous on Twitter worse because you are journalist just like it is because you are a civil servant?
  • Does it matter what party you voted for in the election or what your political beliefs are if you are journalist?

Now try and answer those questions without resorting to examples of when others have done it.

When it comes to ethics, virtual or otherwise, we (journalists) make the rules.

But, we should remember that public will hold us to our own rules – rules that we are very good at applying to others- using the whole range of new tools available to them. Journalist may feel they are best equipped to judge public interest but the truth is that the public is now interested in us.

So if the web means anything for journalism ethics it means that we have to stick to our rules regardless of the situation, in spirit and in action. As much as we may feel that is unfair or a loss of control. That’s not their fault; we makes the rules. We police them. We decide who is and who isn’t a journalist.

If we donʼt, regardless of what we may feel is an entirely appropriate level of accountability, we will lose our credibility.

When you are the only game in town credibility can be seen as a right not something that is earned. But the changing media landscape has pushed it the fore. The web means we now need to pay more than just lip-service to Trust and credibility in what we do. We need to be seen to practice what we preach. I think that will turn out to be the most valuable and defining feature of a journalist in an online world.

Many think that sticking to the journalistic rules will hold us back. That whilst we ʻplay by the rulesʼ (if we ever did) the ‘web’ will ride roughshod over us. And what they hell, they are our rules aren’t they? (The argument for our fox news approach to objectivity) But is that really what we want?

The Wikileaks saga tells us that there is a place for journalists and media organisations. Even Assange recognised that. He needed that credibility. But when the exclusive was threatened (for all parties) the result is hardly a shining example of working together.

Assange would have you believe journalists will happily invite you in to the tent but just as quickly stab you in the back and throw you out when they have what they want. Journalism would have you believe that this is what happens when you work with people who don’t understand journalism!

Are we really happy to leave our professional standards to the worst of ego-journalism and let the market decide? Is that really what the web has forced journalism to become?

Of course not.

We need to maintain our independence, focus on our social responsibility (take that fourth estate role seriously) and embrace the transparency of the medium. If we do that our journalistic processes and codes will be a massively valuable asset. A credible journalist as something separate and meaningful from a credible blogger. But we have to learn to measure that by what we do, not by what we do to others or others might get away with.

Journalism needs to do that because I think that journalists are best placed to be a much needed credible source of information in a world where information is plentiful but trust, it seems, is in short supply.

Note: The inclusion of  wikileaks to the title and content was at the request of the module leader to fit with the seminar reading and topics. I think, it does raise some interesting issues but as I (hopefully) argued in the lecture, it doesn’t really matter what example I’d picked. It’s how journalist behave with respect to their own definition that counts.

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