Bias and Ethics
(Originally published in Greater Democracy)
The recent issues about Armstrong Williams’ dealing with the Department of Education has gotten many people to start talking a little more seriously about journalistic ethics, and this, I believe, is an unintended benefit. It seems as if too many journalists are far to distant from the ethics of their profession. Zephyr Teachout has extended this discussion to bloggers, and I feel that this is extremely important.
Bob Novak, on Crossfire, whom I consider to be one of the most ethically challenged ‘journalists’ out there, has incorrectly tried to insinuate that the two events are somewhat related. To the extent that they bring up ethical questions that need to be addressed, they are related. To the extent that Williams was paid with taxpayer money, and the bloggers were not, and that Williams failed to disclose the relationship and the bloggers did disclose the relationship, Novak is comparing apples to oranges. Perhaps some of this strikes especially close to home for Novak due to his relationship with Regnery Publishing Inc and his disclosing the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame without alerting editors that he had considered and rejected a CIA request to withhold her name
(Ref: Washington Post Ombudsman, Sept 5, 2004)
Yet all of the mass distraction aside, Zephyr raises a very important issue, and I have talked with her about this via email and face to face over the past several months. The question remains, what ethical standards should apply to bloggers?
When I received credentials to cover the 2004 Democratic National Convention as a blogger, there were many discussions about whether or not bloggers were journalists, and to what standards bloggers should be held. Jay Rosen wrote about this a bit here, and I posted some of my thoughts here.
David Winer explores the issue of the difference between bloggers and journalists further here, where he asks, “If a Times reporter, because she is doing her job, … can say no to the court, why can't you or I? … In the age of citizen journalism and blogging, can the austere and distinguished Times ask for and receive special protection under the law?”
On of the much celebrated, and I believe rightly so, differences between journalists and bloggers is that bloggers make no pretense of being unbiased. They wear their biases on their shirtsleeves. As I have written elsewhere, I believe that the revealing of biases in writing, instead of pretending that they don’t exist is extremely beneficial.
However, there is much more to journalistic ethics than revealing ones biases. In the comments to Zephyr’s post, Matt Stoler writes, “the modern notion of journalistic ethics is sort of outdated in a world where anyone can own a printing press, and that a new culture of open discussion can replace it.”
I find I just disagree with Matt on this. Ethics is important, and until a clear blogging ethics can be established, it is beneficial to use journalistic ethics. I do wonder how many people in this discussion have even read any statements of journalistic ethics.
With a recent project I’ve been working on, a friend pointed me to the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. I believe that the blogging community must work towards establishing ethical guidelines, and that SPJ’s code of ethics is a great starting point.
The meat of the discussion comes down to the section about acting independently. In specific the code of ethics says, “Journalists should: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility. Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
As noted, above, the relationship between blogging and journalism is unclear, so it is unclear to what extent these ethical guidelines should apply. However, the goal of not compromising integrity or damaging credibility is an important goal that we should all seek. In my opinion, Novak has seriously failed in this area and I do not view him as having any integrity or credibility. I do hope that bloggers like Matt, Markos, Jerome and the rest of us consider what we can do to be perceived as having the highest integrity and credibility.
Zephyr is right. We need to think about these issues. Her blog entry is a great starting point. The SPJ’s code of ethics is a great starting point. It is now up to all of us to determine where we go with this and how blogging will be perceived in the future.