Ethics and Standards in Online Journalism: Policing the Journalistic Frontier

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As with anything on the vast internet, finding examples of egregious lapses in editorial judgment and traditional journalistic ethics is as brain-dead simple as a shallow Google search. 

To wit: In early September, an investment reporter’s Google search turns up a 2002 news story about United Airlines filing for bankruptcy, which he mistakenly reports as current news. When Bloomberg News Service links and pushes the erroneous story into countless investment houses, the company’s stock tanks.

Also in September, a Rocky Mountain News reporter Twitters to a live blog the details of the high-profile funeral of a 3-year-old child killed by an ice cream truck. How invasive should always-on, always-there journalism be? 

In 2006, Microsoft famously sent numerous independent bloggers free PCs loaded with its then-new Vista operating system. A firestorm ensued. Were tech companies detecting in the blogosphere a soft underbelly of digital journalism, in which traditional rules against accepting vendor gifts were unknown?

And, of course, libel and misinformation are everyday occurrences even in the comments sections of most branded media sites. How responsible is a content producer for the user-generated invective it hosts anyway?

This is a complex issue, to be sure. To take a spoon of traditional editorial medicine and approach the issue in an ethical way—which means talking to sources at the front lines of editorial quality in order to understand how (and how much) digital technology, distribution, business models, and democratized publishing have affected traditional notions of editorial integrity—well, suffice it to say, this process is a lot tougher than typing a few keywords into a search engine. 

From a user perspective, the trustworthiness of this medium remains middling to good. The latest World Internet Project survey finds that 47% of U.S. internet users feel most information on the web is reliable, and 43% consider about half of it is trustworthy. The dozen or so content editors, publishers, and academics I consulted on these questions were generally more sanguine about the resiliency of editorial integrity online, but a number of flash points in recent years reveal an industry still trying to keep up with a new range of challenges. Egregious violations are less the issue than the unforeseen ways in which fuzzy ethics creep in at the borders.

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