'Blogging Code of Ethics' April 11, 2002 10:44 AM   Subscribe

John Hiler has written a good piece discussing blogging and journalism. At the conclusion he outlines a ' Blogging Code of Ethics' which I think is meant to be a work in progress. Whilst I understand his point, surely there are only a very few weblog that actually have the level of impact and/or respect, for such a thing to be relevent? I don't know, is a 'Blogging Code of Ethics' really necessary? If you think it is, is there anything you would add/subtract from his list?
posted by RobertLoch to General Weblog-Related at 10:44 AM (30 comments total)

Blogging doesn't magically make you immune from Libel and Slander. I never really thought about that before but it sounds like it can get serious. So maybe a code of ethics could help people avoid pitfalls.

surely there are only a very few weblog that actually have the level of impact and/or respect. I agree, for someone like me (who had 2 hits in 2001) it wouldn't matter. Like someone would sue me because ~I saw Jennifer Lopez naked and digging holes in my backyard.~ Why, the only person who would know is aunt since she visits my site twice a year.
posted by bunktone at 11:16 AM on April 11, 2002

The third point was a good one. The other two seemed irrelevant to most weblogs. I would have thought that personal publishing comes without guarantees. If you're writing for a commercial enterprise like Corante, there's a difference. Also, if I'm wrong and someone can be sued for publishing false information on a personal site, I'm presuming a disclaimer on the site would cover it.
posted by walrus at 11:33 AM on April 11, 2002

Anyone can be sued for libel (in print) or slander (in speech/broadcast) by almost anyone. The one exception to libel & slander laws is a "public individual," essentially politicians and celebrities. So you can say whatever you want about J.Lo, but J.Lo's mom, who is not a celebrity, could sue you if you said something untrue about her.
posted by me3dia at 12:38 PM on April 11, 2002

but J.Lo's mom, who is not a celebrity, could sue you if you said something untrue about her.

There is no lawbreaking going on if what you are saying is the truth though, correct? I think the core honesty and disclaimer aspects of any code of ethics should keep webloggers free from any libel or slander suits (as long as they communicate the truth, or if not, disclaim it appropriately as something akin to "this is parody" or "as far as I know..."
posted by mathowie (staff) at 12:42 PM on April 11, 2002

The one exception to libel & slander laws is a "public individual," essentially politicians and celebrities.

Not in jurisdictions like the UK, which also place the burden of proof on the defendant for libel. Google for 'Lawrence Godfrey' if you want more details. And jurisdiction here is definitely an open book. Oh, throw in the bloody Naomi Campbell case, which ajudged that the Mirror's reporting the truth about her visits to NA meetings was an infringement of her privacy. Never have the papers so relied upon their lawyers.
posted by riviera at 1:10 PM on April 11, 2002

Seems to me that point #3 covers points #1 and #2 fairly well.
posted by mischief at 1:38 PM on April 11, 2002

oh, and one also has to be able to prove that such slander or libel prevents one from making money.... otherwise, it get's thrown out.

which is a moot point, being as i thought weblogs were JUST links to other sites.

or did someone fuck up again when trying to explain to me how a weblog ISN'T a journal.
posted by jcterminal at 2:23 PM on April 11, 2002

I think the code of ethics has sprung from the fact that journalists now often use weblogs as sources of info, and that they want bloggers for that reason to conform to the same set of rules that they do. Fine if you want to be a journalist, but otherwise...

I think its a sign of respect of sorts.
posted by xammerboy at 3:28 PM on April 11, 2002

Oh, good god. Why are so many people with weblogs so insecure that they need to seek affirmation by saying their weblog's journalism, or that they need to meet journalistic standards? If we're going to just appopriate a different medium and arbitrarily set it as the target of our efforts, why not have your weblog be a film?

My weblog is a novel. My weblog is a song. My weblog is my ass.

And this code of ethics? I respect John very much, but it's silly. I mean, is it a revelation that a weblogger has a bias, has opinions? Is that supposed to be a contrast to "professional" journalists? Isn't Ann Coulter allegedly a journalist?

Even if you want to have this only apply to the less than one percent of weblogs that even attempt reportage, it's still silly. Large swaths of traditional journalism consists of opinion, conjecture, and speculation, all of which this would rule out. And these rules would nearly eliminate a lot of the personal voice that gives weblogs their characteristics. Why not try to have a weblog instead of a poor attempt at journalism?

which is a moot point, being as i thought weblogs were JUST links to other sites.

or did someone fuck up again when trying to explain to me how a weblog ISN'T a journal.

Uhh, jc, I don't know what battle you're fighting here, but if you're trying to argue that weblogs are just journals, or that weblogs are only links, you're being silly. Take a look at my site: it's not about just me, like a journal, and it's not about just links, like this straw man definition of weblogging that you've set up.

Why, you might say it's a collection of links and/or commentary, chronologically arranged. You might even call it a weblog.
posted by anildash at 5:35 PM on April 11, 2002

After that post and your post to PCMag, I'd like to personally nominate you, Anil Dash, as Weblog Crusader. I mean that without a hint of facetiousness, that is to say, I agree with you 100%. A weblog is just that, a weblog. There are no hard and fast rules to any of this. That 's what makes publishing (and reading) a weblog so enjoyable. It is what the author wishes it to be. If I wanted to be a journalist, I would have finished out the journalism major I started out with in college. But I don't want to be and I am not.

One of my favorite blog posts this week is this one. Try to drop that in a category.
posted by eyeballkid at 5:52 PM on April 11, 2002

My weblog is a novel. My weblog is a song. My weblog is my ass.

Sounds like a new MetaFilter tag line to me!
posted by dchase at 6:26 PM on April 11, 2002

"My weblog is a novel. My weblog is a song. My weblog is my ass."

you are not your weblog.
posted by jcterminal at 6:48 PM on April 11, 2002

"My weblog is a novel. My weblog is a song. My weblog is my ass."

you are not your weblog.

∴ Anil is not an ass. QED.
posted by riffola at 7:36 PM on April 11, 2002

no, anil is not his own ass.
posted by Kafei at 10:52 PM on April 11, 2002

anil, thanks for your thoughts on my article. you're totally right: a weblog is first and foremost a series of posts chronologically arranged.

you raise an interesting point about ann coulter. from what i understand, she's actually a columnist. columnists are the newsprint version of crossfire - it's more fun if the guests are controversial (and inaccurate) than if they're accurate and evenhanded.

yeah, i agree with you that most weblogs are just soapboxes for people to share their opinions with the world - essentially, online versions of ann coulter and cnn's crossfire. but i'm an idealist at heart, and i do feel a strong sense of responsibility to my readers. and i've noticed that a lot of the higher-traffic sites do seem to follow a higher code of conduct than most personal blogs. then of course, some of them are just flame-bait columnists looking to pick a fight.

in any case, just want to clarify that my intent here wasn't to say "all bloggers are journalists and must follow a code of ethics". it was more that "i'm writing a decent amount these days about the sector that i work in, and am entering some ethical gray zones that are making me uncomfortable. i looked to journalism for guidance, and it didn't feel right - is there something else that might?"
posted by kaname at 9:35 AM on April 12, 2002

There is no lawbreaking going on if what you are saying is the truth though, correct?

Correct, no lie, no harm done. The basis of libel/slander law is in personal privacy. It violates someone's privacy to have untrue or damaging things said about them. What I meant by saying celebrities and politicians are exempt from libel laws is that they are (with exceptions) unable to sue because their status as public individuals negates their claims to privacy. By putting themselves out in the public eye, they relinquish a level of privacy and open themselves up to slander and libel.

However, celebrities' public status also gives them a greater outlet to refute libelous claims -- they can appeal to the public to clear their name. Private individuals do not have a similar arena in which to refute libel, so they are given means through the courts.

Why are so many people with weblogs so insecure that they need to seek affirmation by saying their weblog's journalism, or that they need to meet journalistic standards?

I don't think insecurity is the point. I think a reality check is. There are many blogs that claim to be journalistic, and most of them really are not. I think it's important for the blogs that do purport to be journalism (that aren't written by actual journalists) to understand what journalism means, and understand that they're not filling that role. They're mostly filling the role of commentator or columnist, which is inherently baised. But in the rare instances when real journalism is being performed, the guidelines of journalism should be followed.

Personally, I think a code of ethics is a good start toward defining the issues that weblog writers need to keep in mind as they go about their business. If nothing else, a lesson in libel law is definitely in order, considering some of the amazingly cruel and damaging things I've read on weblogs. But we're not a professional society. Nothing will hold us to the code or chastize us if we break it.

Kaname, I'd be happy to help you develop a more robust set of ethical codes for what you're doing, but I think the Journalism Code of Ethics covers you as much as it would cover any other journalist. Perhaps you should look to media critics and other journalists whose beat is the media itself for guidance on how to ethically cover one's own profession.
posted by me3dia at 12:34 PM on April 12, 2002

i looked to journalism for guidance, and it didn't feel right - is there something else that might?

This is an important point, John, and I didn't mean to denigrate that in my distaste for the self-obsessive journo-wanna-be webloggers.

i've noticed that a lot of the higher-traffic sites do seem to follow a higher code of conduct than most personal blogs.

Do they? There are people with very popular sites whose definition of integrity includes this gem:

"Never state as fact something you know not to be true."

Not "Only state as fact something you know to be true", mind you, but the curiously double-negated version above, which lets you state anything as fact until it's been disproven.

Which is why I can say that Dave is a douchebag, and still maintain my integrity. I think that the majority of the .01% of webloggers attempting to be journalists are doing so in the realm of tech journalism, which is a shame, because it's the most boring realm of journalism out there.

But, to return to your point, if there is a code of ethics to be developed, why isn't there one for novelists? Is there? Other than avoiding outright, non-ironic plagiarism? Or, if we're defining weblogs by the tools people use to make them, why isn't there a code of ethics for Microsoft Word users?

I'm just asking. :)
posted by anildash at 12:51 PM on April 12, 2002

me3dia, i'm actually working on a piece about online libel laws. so more to say on that one shortly.

as for being covered by the Journalistic Code of Ethics, i wish i felt like that document spoke to me. but it doesn't, i think partly because the medium itself has changed. we no longer live in a world where people shout "stop the presses!" these days, the press never stops - after all, a blogger can just print an update of what's going on.

so accuracy is still critical, but now it's possible to say "this is everything that i know to be true right now" and then post a follow-up later with an update. or you can post something without have multiple sources to back it up, as long as you caveat it and document what sources you DO have.

according to the Journalistic Code, i shouldn't be writing at all about an industry that i work in. so for that reason alone, i started looking for another code that felt relevant for me.
posted by kaname at 2:16 PM on April 12, 2002

anil, yeah it probably seems arbitrary that i'm trying to build a code of ethics around weblogs.

my sense is that this ethics stuff really comes into play in mediums where someone purports to be talking about the truth. so my take is that most movies and sitcoms don't need to think about a code of ethics, but documentaries and tv news programs do.

it gets interesting when you have tv dramas based on real life events, like law and order. the other day i saw an episode based on the j-lo/puffy nightclub shooting, and now i'm convinced that j-lo shot someone with puffy's gun. well not really, but it made me think about what responsibilities someone like dick wolf (l&o's producer) has.

but i don't usually overthink things that much. tv shows (like novels) don't purport to represent true stories. but i did read once that television shows like ER are resulting in people making bad decisions about whether or not to have surgery (the recovery ratios from ER aren't even close to reality). so lots of ethical grey zones, even in the world of entertainment.

as for microsoft word, i think there should be a code of ethics... for the programmers! i'm using office XP - if i get one more alert telling me that "the macros in this project have been disabled", i'm going to seriously lose it. maybe that's why i write all my articles in notepad...
posted by kaname at 2:28 PM on April 12, 2002

Kaname, I look forward to your libel article.

In regards to covering one's own industry, it's done all the time in journalism, by Jim Romenesco, Columbia Journalism Review, etc., and in technology by CNet and dozens of technology magazines. While the SPJ code is a bit heavier-handed on objectivity, the rest seems pretty pertinent to the "amateur journalism" of weblogs, particularly the section on accountability.

In the medical world, ethics are enforced partly through a system of peer review. Could some form of peer review fit in the weblog setting? Reader feedback in the form of comments is the closest thing weblogs have to such a system, and that's obviously a pale comparison. It does work to an extent here on MeFi, with people fact-checking each other and questioning motives.

posted by me3dia at 3:03 PM on April 12, 2002

hmmmm. maybe the "blogosphere" (not just reader comments, but the whole link-slut commenting chain hoo-ha) is an anarchist's form of peer review. I like it!
posted by epersonae at 3:21 PM on April 12, 2002

Anil posted some interesting comments about the differences between journalism and blogging sometime back. I got flamed there by a journalist (!) when I commented that accountability is one of the key differentiators between bloggers purporting to be 'journalists' and journalism as practiced by mainstream media. I think that thread had some interesting comments.

To my mind, media code of ethics derives from the following needs:
The writer's/the institution's need:
1.to be fair, objective and unbiased
2.to be perceived as fair, objective and unbiased
3.to avoid being sued in the court of law and to avoid being slandered in the court of public opinion

Anyone who is concerned about the first two in mainstream media would be concerned about it in his/her weblog too. Usually readers can make the difference. e.g. most of us take what Matt says at face value, because he has a developed a high degree of credibility in the online community. Michael Moore may be far more widely read, but he probably (arguably) doesnt have that equity. The judgement - rests with the reader, in both cases.

I think we exert the same judgement for mainstream media too. I take WSJ's news pages very seriously. But take 'Opinion journal' with more than a pinch of salt.

It is difficult to dupe, mislead people consistently on the net.

Re: the third point: so far as online libel , IP laws etc. go, its such a gray area that it would probably be years before we know legally where does accountability rest.

To my mind, an online code of ethics for a weblogger is mostly for himself / herself. It should probably matter a great deal to you if you are reporting factual events. Factual accuracy is probably not very important to artists( I thought about it recently, after watching 'A beautiful mind, the ensuing mefi thread also had some interesting comments).
posted by justlooking at 3:26 PM on April 12, 2002

Ethics is essentially about not harming people. Since lies are generally less harmful when they're labelled fiction, fiction is generally less harmful too. Still, novelists should not, for instance, write thinly veiled characterizations of people they know in real life and paint them in a harsh light, whether they call it fiction or no.

Blogging for the time being is mostly harmless, too -- even where it's taken as fact, people are generally somewhat skeptical and seek to confirm anything controversial. But the ethics of the thing are still worth thinking and talking about -- if you, as a writer, want your readers and your peers to take you seriously and trust your work, then you have to be responsible to some sort of code of behavior; and the stricter the code (that you actually adhere to), the more trustworthy you become.
posted by mattpfeff at 4:19 PM on April 12, 2002

Metafilter : putting the journal back in journalism?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:21 PM on April 12, 2002

John calls us 'amateur journalists' and says it's because bloggers are by nature "...inherently biased and unedited." True enough. To my credit, I've never claimed to be edited, unbiased in my blogging, or even promote myself as a valued news source.

If we stopped "pandering to lurid curiousity, avoided conflicts of interest" (we talk about blogging all the fucking time!), "showed compassion", and started censoring ourselves, what good would that do us? We've got to live up to our name as 'amateur journalists', dammit!

On the other hand (I'm sure I'm being redundant here) I have found some bloggers to uphold some of the principles of traditional journalistic ethics, blogging somewhat responsibly. Some seeking out truth in subjects of news stories, giving credit to their sources (I see some bloggers do this but not all...), separating fact from fiction/commentary to avoid misrepresentation, and also encouraging public discussions about what you've blogged (duh...isn't that what YACCS is for?).

BTW, I like the idea about the new mefi tagline :o) 'my weblog is a song, my weblog is a novel, my weblog is my ass.' It's got a nice ring to it.
posted by beejaywhy2k at 11:34 PM on April 12, 2002

I've had this argument with people before. We'd always get lost in the semantics. What defines "journalist"? Is there really such a thing as "journaller" and are those two words synonymous? Should they be? Are there subtle differences between "diarist," "journaller," or "personal narrative?" Is a "weblogger" the same or different? Should a weblog be just links? Should it be commentary? Should there be a balance? If someone does more of one or the other, are they doing it wrong? Should commentary be opinion or only fact? If it's only fact, doesn't that dismiss the purpose of commentary?

Hiler said, "Sometimes a blog is just a blog." A blog is never just a blog. It is the culmination of that blogger's life. His thoughts, dreams, fears, concerns, opinions, aspirations. Does a weblog have value? You can get more about the Human Condition from any one personal website than you can get from any article in the New York Times. In my opinion, every webpage has an undeniable yet unquanitfyable value. My opinion is just one opinion however.

Let's look at an opposing opinion. Bill Maher once said, "I'm not an Internet guy. Ah, mostly I think uh - and this sort of feeds into my point - is because I think it's about ego. The Internet. I think it's about people just wanting to share more than the rest of us really need to have shared with, y'know? Websites with people's diaries. Who cares? Email.. 'Hi every thought I ever had in my head I'd like to share now.' What happened to the days when diaries were under lock and key? Now people get pissed off if you don't read their diary. I don't want to know every thought that's in everybody's mind... What does it say about the world when people think that they have to share every bit of their interior monologue, really is what it [is] and there's a reason why it's called an interior monologue because it should stay interior. I mean you used to have talent before you were published. You and you and me we all had to work really hard to get on television... I'm just making a point about ego." That's his loss from my perspective, that he's not "an Internet guy" but he doesn't see it that way. It's his choice, and he's welcome to it. Just as it's my choice to be one.

When I was a kid my two older sisters each kept diaries, and they'd get upset when I snuck into their bedrooms and read them. I've never understood why they would write their diaries if they never had any intention of there ever being an audience for their words. I write for myself but I also write for an audience. I have no illusions that my website has an audience. Occasionally I get emails from people who obviously read my online website and I'm thankful for their input whether they be pro or con. I doubt I've ever had more than twenty regular readers at any one time in the past seven or eight years that I've had some kind of online web presence. And that's okay. I won't ever get on Politically Incorrect. I don't need that. Unlike Mr. Maher, I don't think one has to "work hard to get on television." One shouldn't have to. Every single individual on the planet has validity. They don't have to prove their right to live and express themselves to a bunch of rich guys who control money and power.

What does "working hard" entail? Well, usually those who have the money only want to support artists or journalists or opinionated assholes who will in one way or another support whatever those with the money want to invest their money and influence. Bill Maher didn't get where he was by saying only what the rich people who support him wanted him to say. There's obviously disagreements between them especially in areas like censorship and drugs. However he challenges their minds, he brings in the ratings, and he entertains and enlightens at least enough to get rich people to want to invest in what he has to say and what his show offers to the audience, because the audience keeps coming back and those rich guys wanna sell more shampoo.

But still, Maher has to follow certain rules. There are times when he steps over the boundaries and those with influence over him and his show have to reel him back in and get him to apologize or get him to not make jokes about certain things at certain times. That's his "code of ethics." I don't like the idea of being limited by a code of ethics that's dictated by someone like John Hiler unless he's going to pay me a salary. Then it's not a code of ethics anymore. It's a code of Hiler's ethics that I have to adhere to if I wanna keep getting a paycheck.

Hiler says, "real journalists benefit greatly from objectivity and peer-review. But weblogs are powerful for exactly the opposite reasons.." Real journallers benefit greatly from subjectivity and peer-bashing. And there's also disadvantages to both. I don't believe journalling should be restricted to being like journalism. They're not the same thing nor should they ever be.

"can blogs contribute responsibly to the world of journalism, if they don't follow the Journalism Code of Ethics?" They already do, and they don't have to outscoop the journalists to prove that. There was a time when I thought journalling would never get on the map until some journaller somewhere reported something that no journalist caught which the journalist media of the world saw, doubletaked at and then ran with it. This is already happening. There's journalists out there who read online journals and weblogs and diaries. We don't often hear about it. Certainly I'm not one of them, but there are people in the online personal narrative community who have turned the heads of a lot of people, and some of those people happen to be in places of influence.

Every newspaper or periodical has their own code of ethics, kept updated and enforced by the editing staff. Theyr'e all similar in some ways but also have subtle differences. Each website is the same, but the code of ethics is rarely something that a weblogger's going to take the time to hammer out or even consciously think about. It's the ethics of that person in question. And sometimes our own internal ethics don't mesh with the rest of the world, because we've never had our own personal ethics challenged in these new ways. Perhaps it would be a good idea for a personal narrativist to write out their own code of ethics for their own edification. Maybe they could even post them online, and challenge their readers to keep them to it. Or maybe they could just tack them on the wall by their computer as a subtle reminder. Or maybe they'd look at it, shrug and just throw it away.

Should it be a requirement? No. It should be a choice. Just as everything we do is a choice. You, as a personal content provider of the 'Net, could opt for your own self whether or not you want to be "fair, accurate, honest, responsible, independent and decent." Whether or not you want "truth to be your guiding principle." You could choose to "avoid practices that would conflict with the ability to report and present true events in a fair, accurate and unbiased manner." I look at these words and think well those are noble goals to shoot for. Others may look at it and think it stinks.

And perhaps those who embrace tenets similar to already established and successful codes of ethics will find that their online efforts go farther, touch more people, get noticed more, and become better respected. Or maybe your efforts will appear wasted. The difference between professional journalism and amateur journalling is that in journalism, you have to appease other people. In journalling you ultimately have to appease only yourself. That's one thing I'd never like to see change. Bottom line: every website is different. Every personal webpage on the 'Net is and should be unique to the person who writes it.

Otherwise we should all just log off and go read a damn newspaper or watch television, and let those who have "worked hard" to get in that newspaper or on television or wherever tell us what to think and feel, and what ethics to uphold. As if they have more validity to think and feel than we do.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:39 PM on April 14, 2002

Great post, Zach. It raises all the right questions and doesn't go beyond the common sense answers - no mean feat.

I'd say bloggers are more like star columnists - who are not edited, peer-reviewed or in any way forced to follow a mere newspaper's or magazine's code of ethics. Except they get to be star columnists straight away. They don't have to work their way up to it or - as is more common - achieve success in another field.

They're star columnists, though, in little-read local newspapers. A contradiction between freedom(total) and readership(slight) which rarely exists in the mainstream media.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:43 PM on April 14, 2002

It all comes down to a question of which bloggers you're talking about. Someone should, IMHO, give den Beste a column, along with several other of the "warbloggers." Me, on the other hand, well, I find interesting links, but I intentionally stay away from controversial topics, and I don't post much about my personal life either. If someone reads my blog to find out about me as a person, they will find out exactly what I want to tell them and no more, and it's not much.

The blogger-as-journalist is just one small part of the blog phenomenon. Personalyl, I consider my guiding principle not to be "is it true?" but rather "is it interesting?"
posted by kindall at 9:59 PM on April 14, 2002

Also, "is it correctly spelled?"
posted by kindall at 10:00 PM on April 14, 2002

One point I'd make is that well known bloggers, therefore those that have influence, are often countered in what they say by other blogs. I think that the official term is blogversation or something. In certain respects for this reason blogging can be a better form of journalism. If someone writes something out of order, they are generally hit hard, and often go on to make very public retractions, or at least add further explanation. In the case of newspapers however, an inaccurate story is often broken on the front page, but if retracted it is done in a couple of inches on page 14.

The weblogs that I find most useful are the ones that are topic specific. Oddly enough, there aren't that many of them around, so much so, that I've actually felt the need to start one myself. Now that is scary.
posted by RobertLoch at 8:02 AM on April 15, 2002

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