Debate is raging about whether to apply professional codes of conduct to non-work blogs
A discussion that began on a journalist's personal blog has sparked a wider debate on ethics in the age of social media as the lines between journalists' professional work and their personal activities blur. It began when Adam Tinworth, the head of blogging development for Reed Business International, criticised the National Union of Journalists on his blog for still not "getting" social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and for responding defensively to calls to include social media in their training.
In a follow-up post, Tinworth noted that an NUJ representative had visited his blog from an email with the subject "effing blogs" (http://bit.ly/blogs2). This turned into an unseemly spat when Chris Wheal, a freelance journalist and the head of the NUJ professional training committee, who had sent the email, criticised Tinworth for not contacting the union first for a comment before publishing his post. "Please consider the implications of your actions in future and follow basic journalistic standards and ethics before pressing the 'publish' button. Is that too much to ask of a journalist?" Wheal asked.
Tinworth argued that the union had an opportunity to reply in the blog comments. An opportunity, he said, that is far greater than in traditional publications.
While this discussion rages online, it raises issues of whether print journalism ethics apply directly to interactive media, such as blogs. Wheal believes "journalistic standards should apply across all media".
Karl Schneider, the head of editorial development at Reed, commented on Tinworth's post, saying that it was wrong to take the old rules of journalism and "apply them blindly" to interactive media. Two bedrock principles of journalism are accuracy and fairness, he said, and in print these principles were exhaustively applied before publication.
"That's because once something is printed it stays printed exactly as it came off the presses, with no easy way to correct errors or add nuance and no opportunity for other voices to be heard," Schneider said. Online, the medium is real-time and interactive. "The process of journalism can be carried out in public, with information shared and discussed throughout rather than only at the end of the process," he added, and the result was that principles of fairness and accuracy were better met than in print.
Tinworth pointed out that bloggers have standards, though they are different to those of journalists, but Wheal dismissed this distinction, saying that bloggers "rejoice in having lower standards".
Yet this distinction is important: different does not equate to lower. It is difficult to speak about the ethics of millions of bloggers around the world doing very different things, but, in general, bloggers believe they place a higher emphasis on the ethics of transparency by linking to external sources and interaction, for example. There is a widely accepted convention to disclose potential conflicts of interest and affiliations, which does not exist in traditional journalism.
The debate also raises the issue of whether journalists' professional guidelines apply to their personal activities online. It has been the subject of debate in some news organisations and other industries. How does employees' behaviour online, professionally or personally, reflect on their employers? As blogging became mainstream, there were many stories of blogging employees being fired for something they wrote or pictures they posted online (http://bit.ly/blogs3).
This encouraged many organisations to set a "blogging policy" to guide staff. The BBC, for example, has guidelines for use of social media that draw a distinction between the personal and professional activities of staff (http://bit.ly/blogs4). But the line between personal and professional is blurry: if an employee's personal blog is deemed to fall under the BBC's off-air activities guidelines, they are expected to have posts reviewed by their line manager before publication.
For many people, blogging is a personal act of expression in which the standards of journalism are irrelevant, but not all agree. Donnacha DeLong, the new media representative on the national executive committee of the NUJ, said that every member agreed to adhere to the NUJ's code of conduct: "The code of conduct applies to journalists' personal blogs if they're members of the union." DeLong argued that British libel law does not distinguish between personal and professional publishing, so neither should professional standards (http://bit.ly/blogs5).
Are professional standards relevant to strictly personal expression? Does a journalist's personal blog about their love of science fiction, gardening or food fall under the NUJ's code? DeLong said that publication is publication under the law. However, the law and ethics are different things. Is the idea of personal expression now irrelevant? Are our Facebook updates, our 140-character comments on Twitter, the holiday pictures on Flickr, all subject to professional codes of conduct?
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