Ethics and Standards in Online Journalism: Policing the Journalistic Frontier

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Managing the Content Masses 

Celebrity rumors and premature claims of Steve Jobs’ death aside, the internet has proven a remarkably accurate source of business and professional information, many in the industry contend. "It is surprising, in a way," says BusinessWeek Online editor-in-chief John Byrne. "You would expect a lot more unsubstantiated rumors that would affect companies or exacerbate crises. But [overall] that has not been the case." In Elsevier’s scientific and medical journal business, digitization has only helped not hindered the peer-review process, says Philippe Terheggen, director, journal development and support. Editors can detect plagiarism and gauge originality faster and more accurately. "The transparency is better," he says. And yet, the self-publishing ethos of the web lowers the barrier of entry to beginning scientists. "We see a flooding of articles and paper submissions that don’t have the right standard yet." 

In fact, it is source-mingling, the new proximity of user, advertiser, and editorial voices on the same page, that keeps many editors up at night. Is a publication’s brand at stake when its own scrupulously sourced content shares a page with user comments that include invective and innuendo? With dwindling staff to monitor ballooning user-generated content, editors increasingly rely on the community to flag bad actors. Which raises another ethics issue: Should publishers be censoring readers, and, if so, when should they be censored? "We are learning it is complex," says Finnie. "It can give us tough afternoons." However, Steele worries about something worse: that editorial might start instigating online "mosh pits" in order to court traffic. "The main reason they have done this is not noble but to get eyeballs," he says. "The attempt to get feedback has resulted in the spewing of hatred." 

Curiously, despite conventional wisdom about the unreliability of an unprofessional blogosphere, most editors share Rafsky’s view that, "The real good news about the blogs is you know where you get them from." Acquire Media feeds carry thousands of blogs, and Rafsky has never needed to suppress them. In the financial sector especially, he says, "The blog universe, paradoxically, is actually a bit purer. Blogging tends to be more personal and doesn’t cloak itself in the respectability of a review." In fact, publishers such as Computerworld, Inc. are networking many nonprofessional bloggers under their brand umbrella. Finnie has a staff "blog editor" with whom these 50 bloggers of varying journalistic backgrounds must check on editorial questions. "It is not as easy as it was in the old days when everyone was a pro," admits Finnie. But publishers must also embrace the voice and authenticity of the web’s new forms by finding ways to police talented amateurs. He argues that the blogosphere actually has improved in recent years as bloggers become businesspeople and recognize that inaccuracy is bad for their bottom lines. 

Conley goes further, suggesting that in the business information space, it is the endemic web-only publishers who view the traditional B2B brands with suspicion because of their long-standing, integrated relationships with vendors. "A lot of us came out of the print world expecting untoward behavior in the web world, but my experience has been quite different. [Web-only publishers] see themselves taking advocacy positions and not pandering to advertisers … and main B2B magazines are less a journalistic look at an industry and more a part of the industry itself."

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