Ethics and Standards in Online Journalism: Policing the Journalistic Frontier

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Crowd-Sourced Integrity

Speed and diminished resources not only task reporters with monitoring integrity but readers as well. The same democratized publishing platform that can lead to error also proves remarkably self-correcting. Many editors agree with Seglin that in the professional content space especially, "There are more people watching other people and taking them to task when there are egregious lapses in judgment." Rafsky also reminds hand-wringing critics of the blogosphere that one original promise of digital aggregation was increasing editorial integrity—"the belief that mainstream media were excluding a lot of smaller voices that needed to be distributed. The point was to be ecumenical." The danger of overcorrecting for perceived lapses in a populist-content ecosystem is a "slippery slope" that returns to an oligarchy where old media alone are trusted media. His five editors vet content by aggregating the award-winning and trusted blogs but also by relying on references from his own clients. "It is the web trust model," he says. It is not surprising that new technology and business models invite new checks and balances, says Finnie. "We are in a period of incredibly rapid change where the quality rules still apply, but how we get to that quality has changed."

Yet this new multivocal, multimedia platform is taxing the pros too, with unexpected drags on quality. Impartial reporters are now online bloggers, videographers, and photographers. "If ever there was a recipe for disaster, that sure, seems like it," says Steele. An obsession with always-on speed to market content creates mistakes that echo on the web long after we correct the original. "There are not nearly enough editors on the internet side to bring meaningful checks and balances," he says. "There is a terrible erosion of quality controls in the oversight process. We run faster and think less." McCracken agrees that the hunger for page views and the elimination of fact-checking creates an ecosystem that regards error too casually. "You will get the page view even if it turns out what you reported was not true," he says. Almost all editors agree that the absence of fact-checking in 24/7 publishing models creates a real shift in accountability where reporters, not editors, police integrity. Seglin says even on this rapid-response platform, "there needs to be some kind of filter … even a quick filter." Can integrity and reader trust in the editorial product really be crowd-sourced?

The big concern now is that any internal integrity filters and old church/state pieties will be the first to go as a deep media downturn combines with a historic recession. Almost all editors worry that the current crisis not only causes layoffs of many of the watchmen but also gives sponsors enormous leverage. As organizations cut content services such as Rafsky’s, do they risk losing whatever quality filter the aggregated web has? "You think it is bad now—what happens when you disintermediate people like us that care about it," he says. Even the publishers who do continue to care may need to ask how much editorial integrity they can afford. Byrne warns that it "will put undue pressure on a lot of organizations to do things they would not have done. Now it comes down to survival. You are going to see things we haven’t seen."

Companies featured in this article:

Acquire Media Corp.

American Society of Business Publication Editors

BusinessWeek Online

CFO Publishing Corp.

Computerworld, Inc.


Everything Channel

PC World

Vibrant Media

Ziff-Davis Media

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