ScienceOnline 2011: Do old ethics apply to new media?

It’s been so long since ScienceOnline 2011 (started a week ago, ended Sunday) that I am almost embarrassed to post on it. (It was a long drive. I came back to monster deadlines. I’m moving. OK, enough sniveling.)

But as I mentioned last week, I was involved at the conference in a discussion about how — and whether — to bring the standards of journalism to blogging, in a session that veteran journalist Paul Raeburn kindly asked me to join. As a long-time journalist myself, I think this is an important question, so I’m tossing my thoughts and our materials up here to see if anyone reacts.

Here’s the program description of our session:

The web in many cases has undermined the wall that traditionally separated reporters from advertisers in 20th century offline journalism. One example is placing pop-up ads in blogs without the bloggers’ permission. With new models of web advertising and funding appearing daily, it seems, can we keep reporters independent? And what does it mean to be independent when a website is supported by a foundation, or a single advertiser or patron? Bloggers share responsibility for the credibility of their sites with their employers, advertisers, or other supporters. How do we make sure that the new financing models do not destroy our credibility?

Background: There’s an active ongoing debate over whether blogging is journalism and whether bloggers are journalists; both those links go to posts by Bora Zivkovic (editor of Scientific American’s blog network and co-founder of Science Online with Anton Zuiker).

So: Constant readers will remember that I spent most of my career to date within the mainstream media as a newspaper reporter, exiting 4 years ago to blog and write for magazines. Legacy journalism did many things badly, but one thing I’ve always felt it did well was to establish a shared ethical understanding. Whether or not your organization’s code was actually written down — most were by sometime in the 1990s, and many are collected here by the American Society of News Editors — everyone in newspapers, from their earliest days on the night cops beat, understood what the shared principles were.

If you asked a reporter about their ethics, you might have gotten something offhand like “Don’t have sex with someone you are writing about,” or “Don’t take money from an organization on your beat,” or “Always be sure the person you are interviewing understands you are a journalist and not just someone chatting them up while on line in the bank.” But laying flippancy aside, those rules would all have aspired to the same result, of attempting to ensure that what appeared under the institution’s banner was as fair and complete as possible given time and production constraints, and that the people producing it had no undeclared biases or hidden allegiances.

Well: Here we are on the web, in a world where journalism is done by legacy media organizations who’ve made the online transition (e.g. the New York Times), new journalism organizations who operate only online (e.g. Pro Publica), and solo practitioners who come at writing from an array of backgrounds and experiences that they may or may not have declared. As the Pew State of the News Media report put it in 2009:

Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions… Through search, e-mail, blogs, social media and more, consumers are gravitating to the work of individual writers and voices, and away somewhat from institutional brand.

When I worked for an institutional brand, it conferred several things upon me: a regular paycheck, access to tech support people who were not me, and coverage by an ethics code that someone else had written and that I only had to agree to. Replacing the paycheck and the tech support were straightforward tasks, though difficult. Replacing the ethics code took more thought. Did I need to state my own best practices up front?

I decided I did. On the index page of Superbug’s original incarnation at Blogger, I ran the text block in the screenshot at right. It followed me to Scienceblogs, and then back again to Blogger after I left Scienceblogs in the wake of Pepsigate. In fact, having put up that declaration played a large part in why I left; having put my marker on the table, I had to live up to it.

(Alert readers may have noticed that I have no such block here at Wired. It’s ready and waiting for as soon as we get customizable back pages, which are promised soon; until that happens there is nowhere in the page template to put it.)

So, this is my own answer to the question of how to maintain journalism standards on the web, which is for someone operating independently, as I do now, to find (or write ) and declare one’s own ethical code. For me, it hasn’t been necessary to write one, because there are existing ones with which I entirely agree: the code of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the additional statement of principles of the Association of Health Care Journalists, where I am a board member. I subscribe to both because, while SPJ’s code is excellent overall (its subheds, each with much text under them, are Seek truth and report it; Minimize harm; Act independently; and Be accountable), the AHCJ’s code speaks specifically to what I do as a science/medical writer. Among its provisions:

  • Understand the process of medical research in order to report accurately… It is misleading to report bold or conclusive statements about efficacy in Phase I trials since the primary goal of Phase I trials is to evaluate safety, not efficacy.
  • Be cautious in reporting results of preliminary studies, in vitro or animal studies. Give accurate portrayals of the status of investigational drugs, devices and procedures, including significant caveats and explanations of hurdles, unknowns and potential problems.
  • Preserve journalistic independence by avoiding the use of video news releases or the use of quotes from printed news releases. Label and credit the source whenever a portion of a video or printed news release is used.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, and special treatment. Refuse meals from drug companies and device manufacturers and refuse to accept unsolicited product samples sent in the mail.
  • Weigh the potential benefits involved in accepting fees, honoraria, free travel, paid expenses from organizers of conferences or events against the desire to preserve our credibility with the audience and the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

These codes speak to my work as a solo practitioner. What about the actions of a publisher or blog platform? There are existing principles that cover their actions as well, which could be declared and/or linked to. In the case of Pepsigate, for instance (which, for those who weren’t reading last summer, involved Seed Media, publisher of Scienceblogs, running a corporate-written advertorial blog without labeling it as such), the American Society of Magazine Editors has standards for advertorial in print, and also a codicil that addresses advertorial and other promotional content on the web. Another option is the more than a decade old HON Code, developed by the Health on the Net Foundation, which asserts that any health-information site carrying its badge ascribes to certain ethical principles.

During our session (which was streamed and taped; I’ll embed the video when it gets posted), Paul read a statement from Mary Knudson, who had planned to moderate but was unable to attend. The full post, which guested on Deb Blum’s blog last October, describes Mary’s experience starting a blog for US News & World Report and discovering her text had been adorned with hover ads that she had not been consulted about. Unable to square the implicit endorsements with her own desires for transparency and autonomy, she turned the blogging contract down.

Mary’s experience suggests the next ethical battleground. New media pioneer and chronicler Scott Rosenberg, who was kind enough to come be part of our engaged audience, pointed out that the principles I’ve linked/excerpted above barely apply to the kind of web writing being produced by firms such as Demand Media in response to (or anticipation of) Google search results. (Here’s a 2009 Wired story on Demand.)

The reactions we’ve had so far, that I know of:

In a really great (and not because he praises us) post, Dave Mosher, staff reporter at Wired Science, backs Paul’s-Mary’s-my comments, points out how cumbersome handling disclosures and transparency can nevertheless be, and proposes a tech solution (I’m in.):

There’s got to be a way we can quickly and cleanly allow readers to see writers’ baggage without marring a design or taxing the flow of writing. Editors are impatient, writers don’t have extra time and designers sure as hell don’t want to add yet another unstable widget to a teetering mountain of code…
Let’s create an easy-to-use, icon-based platform that clearly communicates disclosures and the context of content. Imagine the magical association of  Twitter and Facebook buttons with a set of expected behaviors, merged with the pervasiveness and diversity of traffic signs. Now hover over those icons and read statements about disclosures.

On the other hand, Bora, and also Christina Pikas, point out that not everyone who blogs wants to function as a journalist. I acknowledge that. (And I think there was a tweetstream about it during our session, but we were short a back-channel  moderator so I don’t know who was speaking.) Once we get the video, I hope to transcribe Ed Yong’s comment in our SciO session, which said (reconstructing freely from memory) that whether or not people intend to act as journalists in their blogging, they may nevertheless be construed as such by their readers.

This has turned out to be my longest post yet. Any comments, anyone who has stuck with me thus far?

Flickr/Laineys Repertoire/CC


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