The ethics of blogging

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

outlandish it

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.

My bad.

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 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 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

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 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.

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11 Responses to The ethics of blogging

  1. MemeFirst says:

    Felix apologizes! Felix apologizes!

    It’s buried deep inside a long, rambling introspection on the ethics of blogging, but it is a rare enough occasion indeed when Felix admits to being wrong about anything, so it is worth underlining:So: apologies, Nick, and apologies, Elizabeth. My…

  2. Gothamist says:

    Friends Helping Friends, Exposed!

    The publishing world is abuzz upon news of the Amazon error that showed reviewers’ true identities (bad, technology, bad!) which, as Gawker aptly put it, “gave a little peek into the world of friends pimping friends’ books and bitter unpublished writer…

  3. MemeFirst says:

    Bad news from Gothamist

    Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa! All my hand-wringing about the ethics of blogging, it would seem, has had a devastating result. The great Gothamist (winner, you will recall, of the first BlogWars), had a service-journalism post today, extolling the virtue…

  4. digital journalism @ NYU

    This is fabulous: Christopher Allbritton, journalist and independent warblogger, is teaching a class in Digital Journalism at NYU this semester. Requirements for the course include numerous blog-related reading assignments, and setting up and writing a…

  5. Colin says:

    There all kinds of blogs, and so, potentially, all kinds of blog ethics (porn blogs will lose credibility without the money shot), but insofar as blogs are a form of communication between and among human beans, they’re certainly ethical up to the eyeballs, by definition.

    The great claim made for blogger as independent journalist who can actually honor the professional canons because she has no advertisers and interlocking directorates of news and entertainment enterprises breathing down her neck, noble as it is as an ideal of conduct, has a hard time keeping up with the tabloid mentality that is the secret of the success of most alpha-bloggers, who address their powers of persuasion to our baser selves.

    I do think you can stay on the right side of canons of ethical reporting while blogging: the main thing is to realize that “I heard, I suspect, but I don’t know, what did you hear, more later” is an honest and useful contribution to the conversation. Don’t feel that you have to pretend you know something just because you think you can’t write it otherwise. A blogger needn’t deliver the story wrapped up as a Christmas package, as a blow-dryed reporter must: it’s fine to leave it as a plain old request to other bloggers to swarm on the issue at hand and show us where we’re going wrong. The ball will eventually pop out of the ensuing scrum.

    The great thing about blogging is that, since it doesn’t cost much and certainly doesn’t pay much of anything, it it frees us up to work through the principles taught in J-School ethics seminars by pure trial and error. Me, I’m a professional editor and a journalist adept in certain fields but only a curious amateur about others. The great thing about blogging is being able to relax the professional standards a bit, to allow myself to broach a topic and then leave it open at the end: What does this mean? Which side, if any, is right? What more do I need to know to not be an idiot on this subject? If I have to stick to things I make my bread knowing about, I’ll die yawning. If I’m willing to admit I’m an idiot in some areas, I just might learn something.

    So the important thing to me is never to misrepresent my relationship to what I’m presenting. I am not an expert on digital rights management, but I read three articles, had these thoughts, confessed that I have these ideological prejudices, and wonder what other people think? I see many people these days analysing the “Arab Street” who know nothing about. How do I know? I read and speak a little Arabic.

    Basically, you can never go wrong thinking out loud, though it takes guts to confess you might not know something; but you’ll always go wrong just parroting what someone else said without subjecting it to critical scrutiny.

    Important disclaimer: I am fairly drunk as I write this. Pardon.

  6. blogspotting says:

    Survey Says

    Among the odds and ends in my inbox today, I found some results of a survey of 200 of the “top interactive thinkers” from this year’s South by SouthWest Interactive Festival. The SXSW Festival’s pr people said the respondents were…

  7. Microsiervos says:

    39 enlaces

    Guardé estos enlaces como interesantes durante las últimas semanas. Hay un poco de todo. Si te aburres durante el fin de semana, aprovecha para navegar un rato… ¨Ö Flash of Unstyled Content (FOUC) ¨Ö Berkeley Lower Extre…

  8. Nice article, one of the best journalisms evah.

    I figure that the people who don’t like what I blog gave more as enough reason to keep this to them selfs, but I would be happy if they didn’t.

    Observations are never perfect and interpretations are even worse. You need a lot of both to make any sense of any thing. Thats why blogs rule. ^_^

  9. But… Mongrel has been working great for us for the past few years. Why switch?

  10. Topics of interest but I could not understand the full ..

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