Over the course of the past year, I’ve had quite a lot of experience with the
intersection between blogging and journalistic ethics. I have been accused,
and have accused others, of blogging unethically. And yesterday, I said that
one website was blogging too ethically.
So I’ve decided to outline my thoughts here, in the hope of starting a discussion.
The one thing I’m pretty sure of is that there is really no consensus at all
about the degree to which normal journalistic ethics (say, the rules governing
what appears in an average US newspaper) apply to blogs. Now that the blogosphere
is maturing into a news source in its own right, I think the time is ripe to
have this debate.
1. Is there a limit to what blogs should and shouldn’t publish?
Some blogs clearly think there is. Wonkette,
part of the Gawker Media empire, even went so far as to publish a Statement
of Principles yesterday, after I criticised
her for not, as she puts it, "naming the name that’s everyone’s heard but
no one’s said". She’s clear that she won’t print the name, but that didn’t
stop her linking to a news article which did print it. Meanwhile, the Columbia
Journalism Review links
to a number of different bloggers in a piece about who printed what, mentions
the fact that Wonkette links to an article with the name, and then conspicuously
denies her a link of her own. The obvious implication is that linking to Wonkette
linking to the name would be unethical, while simply saying that Wonkette
links to the name is OK.
Wonkette, in not printing the name, is actually following the lead of Matt
Drudge. Drudge, too, links to stories which name her and even print her
photo, but he has stopped short of printing her name himself. As for the press,
no US newspaper has named her, as far as I know, but the Sun and the Telegraph,
in England, have.
(Update: The Chicago Sun-Times, a major US newspaper, has now named
her, in a column which uses the word "reportedly" five times in three
When would it be kosher to name the girl? the New York Daily News fronts
the story, but says that "The News is withholding her identity because
there is no clear evidence of any relationship between her and Kerry."
Wonkette, meanwhile, just says that "We’re not going to post her name until
she has a chance to launch her own handbag line just like any other scandal-plagued
My take on this is that if the Sun prints her name and puts it on the internet,
the name is in the public domain, and no material extra harm is done by putting
it in a blog. Newspapers, especially big ones, can work on the conceit that
they have all the news that’s fit to print, and that their readers don’t necessarily
get their news anywhere else. Blogs are almost the diametric opposite of that
paradigm. So "X has named her, why can’t we" works much better as
a defense for a blog than it does as a defense for a newspaper. Especially if
you’re going to link directly to X, you might as well print the name yourself.
But clearly I’m in the minority here. After all, even Drudge won’t print the
name, and the CJR won’t even link to a blog which links to the name.
I ought to mention one other wrinkle to this debate, and that’s legal liability.
Newspapers have expensive lawyers and can afford to defend themselves from libel
suits; blogs don’t and can’t. That’s a practical concern, and it can intersect
with journalistic ethics. If you’re going to accuse a notoriously litigous person
of something bad, then you run the risk of being sued. You might feel comfortable
on an ethical level making the accusation, but still feel uncomfortable on a
practical level, especially if you live and/or publish in the UK. It’s worth
mentioning that anonymous
bloggers have relatively little protection in this regard: if someone’s
really determined to find out who you are, they probably will.
But my main concern here is the ethics of the situation. As far as I know,
no one has successfully sued a blogger for something they printed: the most
clear-cut case, that of Blumenthal vs Drudge, ended with a clear victory
for the blogger.
It’s worth looking at Blumenthal vs Drudge, though, because I think many bloggers
would consider Drudge’s original accusation – that Sidney Blumenthal was
a wife-beater – to be clearly unethical, even if it wasn’t illegal. Bloggers
often have many very influential readers, and once a rumour has been printed
somewhere it’s almost impossible to make it completely go away, no matter how
might be. So while the bar might be set lower for Drudge than it is for the
New York Times, I think there’s a very strong case that it ought to be set somewhere.
Once an accusation about somebody is out on the internet, people googling that
person will often end up at the accusing page, and many of them will believe
what it says. The person printing the information bears some responsibility
for what their readers go away believing.
Printing something about someone can also be wrong even if it’s true.
I noted in November that
Fleshbot, another Gawker Media site, was (a) publishing extremely graphic stills
from the Paris Hilton Sex Tapes while (b) refusing to publish her phone number,
which was doing the rounds at the time. (It was actually left in a comment on
my MemeFirst entry; I ended up deleting a lot of comments and, ultimately, closing
the entry to comments altogether, just because I felt that publishing either
the pictures or the phone number was clearly unethical.)
I’ve also noticed that since I started blogging, a lot of people have started
inserting an "off the record" into their conversations and emails
with me. They’re obviously worried that, being a blogger, I might turn around
and publish their confidences for all the world to see, and they’re also worried
that there isn’t some kind of obvious ethical code that would preclude me from
doing that. This despite the fact that in almost four years of blogging, I’ve
only quoted people from what they’ve said online or in print – the
single exception being Peter Kim, of Puma.
So there does seem to be a perception that blogs are an unfiltered, unedited
news source, and that if you’re communicating with a blogger, then you run the
risk of having those communications published on the internet, even if that’s
not what you want. Blogs can undoubtedly invade peoples’ privacy, by, say, publishing
their phone number, or photographs of them naked, or simply betraying their
confidence. My view on the ethics of blogging is that they shouldn’t do that,
although I’m conflicted on the subject of whether, if someone does
do that, it’s OK to link to them.
2. Should bloggers attempt to verify information before publishing it?
Whenever a newspaper prints a story, the reader can assume that if an accusation
is being made against someone, the paper made an attempt to contact that person
and ask them for comment. On the other hand, if a blogger links to an accusation
against person X, most of the time that blogger will have made no attempt at
all to contact X and ask them if the accusation is true.
I’ve done this myself. I am an acquaintance of Nick Denton, and he has always
responded promptly to any emails I’ve sent him. Yet in December I linked
to a web page accusing him of pilfering code, without trying to contact Denton
or get his side of the story. (He did leave comments on the page in question,
which I took into account in my entry.) I’m a professional journalist, and I
would never dream of submitting the kind of thing I wrote to a newspaper or
magazine – not without contacting all the principals and talking to them
about the issue in question. Yet still I went ahead and published the item anyway,
without talking to anybody at all. Did I behave unethically?
I can certainly see the argument that what I did was wrong. Blogs are
a media outlet, as Denton and I were keen to assert
in l’affaire Puma. If you’re going to claim Media Outlet status, you
should try to live up to the responsibilities such status confers upon you.
But I also think that blogging is fundamentally different from most journalism.
There’s almost never any pretense of objectivity: a genuinely fair and balanced
blog would be boring even if it were possible for such a thing to exist. And
a large part of blogging is simply linking – I was initially pointed to
the page in question by Anil Dash, who put it on his Daily
Links page. I doubt many people would consider Anil’s action to be unethical:
his links are so short and plentiful that he can’t be expected to go to work
vetting each and every one.
In the Denton case, I never considered myself to be reporting the
story: rather, I thought, I was simply linking to it, and adding my own personal
opinion, clearly labelled as such. I consider that anything I publish either
here or on MemeFirst should automatically be considered my personal opinion,
but in this case I even threw a few "I think"s in just to make things
perfectly clear. That said, it’s generally a good idea to back up one’s opinions
with verified facts rather than web-based allegations. Even if I was writing
the story for the op-ed page of a newspaper rather than the news page, I would
still make sure to talk to the principals first.
Nevertheless, I felt no guilt when I published the story: I didn’t feel that
I was doing something wrong. Rather, I felt that I was simply adding my own
two cents to the blogosphere’s ongoing conversation about a certain allegation.
But part of the reason I didn’t feel bad about writing such things was that,
deep down, I didn’t think that anybody really cared what I wrote in the first
place. A newspaper is a powerful institution; I’m just a small-to-middling voice
in a cacophony of blogs. Now, however, I’ve thought it over a bit more. Why
is there a generally-accepted set of journalistic ethics in the first place?
Precisely because newspapers are powerful institutions which can do significant
damage to reputations and lives.
But so are blogs. Just ask Trent Lott.
Insofar as people care about blogs, then, we bloggers should probably be careful
what we write, and even make some kind of attempt to check our facts and do
a little bit of homework before rushing to publish. And the more popular your
blog, the more hits and inbound links you get, the more this applies to you.
In general, though, if you’re writing about someone you know, then it’s only
polite to run it by them first. (After all, it’s not like they’re not going
to see it once you publish.) So: apologies, Nick, and apologies, Elizabeth.
3. Should blogs maintain a wall between content and revenues?
One huge difference between blogs and newspapers is that with blogs, there’s
no difference between a journalist, an editor, and a publisher. Increasingly,
blogs are making money – even felixsalmon.com has made the grand total
of $159.17 since I started running Google ads in September. It barely even rises
to the level of pocket money, but it does cover hosting fees.
Other blogs, however, really do make significant amounts of cash. Daily
Candy, which has bloggy properties, recently got sold for over $3.5 million.
Both Nick Denton and Jason Calacanis
are setting up multiple weblogs with an unashamed profit motive. Andrew
Sullivan, Matt Haughey (at PVRBlog),
and Rafat Ali (at PaidContent.org) all
now make more than the average American wage earner just from their blogs. And
Drudge, of course, makes a lot of money.
When weblogs were just beginning, many of the most successful ones were set
up by professional journalists who simply ported over to the web their ingrained
journalistic ethics. When Andrew Sullivan was accused of a conflict of interest
after he accepted advertising from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers
of America, he took those complaints very seriously, returned the cash, and
stopped running the ads.
Increasingly, however, bloggers will not come from a journalistic background,
and in any case many are more interested in making money than they are in adhering
to Old Media rules. What is the point, for instance, in maintaining a strong
distinction between editorial and advertising on a blog like Fleshbot?
The types of sites that Fleshbot wants as advertisers are precisely the type
of sites it wants to feature in its editorial content. If advertiser suicidegirls.com
wants Fleshbot to feature a "Suicide Girl of the Week" in its editorial
column, why on earth not? That’s just the kind of thing that Fleshbot’s readers
want to see.
(Update: I have now been informed that the "Suicide Girl of the Week"
feature predates suicidegirls.com signing on as an advertiser.)
Daily Candy is more of an ethical grey area, I think. The site became financially
successful by sending out "dedicated" emails, in its trademark editorial
voice, which were actually pure advertising. If you read the small print, it
was possible to work out which emails were "real" and which were paid
for, but it wasn’t easy. Advertisers clearly hoped that the recipients of the
dedicated emails would mistake them for unsolicited raves by the Daily Candy
editorial team – and Daily Candy more or less gave them what they wanted.
Still, Daily Candy did make some kind of distinction between editorial
and advertising. Other bloggers might not. Harry
Knowles, for one, doesn’t seem to care in the slightest about journalistic
ethics or conflicts of interest, and neither do his readers, it would seem.
In fact, the louder and brasher bloggers (Drudge springs to mind as another
example) are doing very well indeed despite – or perhaps because of –
their cavalier attitude towards traditional journalistic mores.
But again, I’m not writing about how to be a successful blogger, I’m writing
about the ethics of blogging. And I think that it is unethical to accept payment
for editorial content, especially if it’s undisclosed.
4. What would adopting an ethical code mean for the blogosphere?
Clearly, there is no institution which can regulate or bully bloggers into
acting ethically, even if there could be any kind of agreement on what constitutes
ethical and unethical activity by bloggers. But if individual bloggers, especially
the higher-profile ones, made it clear what kind of things they will and will
not do, at least some kind of consensus might start to emeerge.
If that happened, would the blogosphere lose its appealing, free-wheeling,
anarchic flavour? I very much doubt it. Would anybody still be free to publish
anything they wanted? Absolutely. Would blogs still deliver the kind of content
which is hard, if not impossible, to get from any other media outlet? I should
bloody well hope so. I would simply like to think that, in aggregate, blogs
might get taken increasingly seriously by the kind of people who naturally discount
anything which isn’t published on paper.
But there could be a downside, as well. If bloggers started censoring themselves
in an attempt to stay on the right side of the ethical line, their blogs might
become duller. If they started double-checking things before publishing them,
they could lose both speed and volume of posting. If they refused certain forms
of advertising, they could both lose money and hinder the growth of a whole
new form of media.
What bloggers might consider doing now, I think, is ask themselves what kind
of limitations they place on what they publish, and why. At least that way we
will be able to get some kind of idea of where we stand, before asking whether
that’s where we want to be. Is there a role for ethics in blogs? If so, what?
Let the debate begin.