Weblogs are the mavericks of the online world. Two of their greatest strengths are their ability to filter and disseminate information to a widely dispersed audience, and their position outside the mainstream of mass media. Beholden to no one, weblogs point to, comment on, and spread information according to their own, quirky criteria.
The weblog network’s potential influence may be the real reason mainstream news organizations have begun investigating the phenomenon, and it probably underlies much of the talk about weblogs as journalism. Webloggers may not think in terms of control and influence, but commercial media do. Mass media seeks, above all, to gain a wide audience. Advertising revenues, the lifeblood of any professional publication or broadcast, depend on the size of that publication’s audience. Content, from a business standpoint, is there only to deliver eyeballs to advertisers, whether the medium is paper or television.
Journalists–the people who actually report the news–are acutely aware of the potential for abuse that is inherent in their system, which relies on support from businesses and power brokers, each with an agenda to promote. Their ethical standards are designed to delineate the journalist’s responsibilities and provide a clear code of conduct that will ensure the integrity of the news.
Weblogs, produced by nonprofessionals, have no such code, and individual webloggers seem almost proud of their amateur status. “We don’t need no stinkin’ fact checkers” seems to be the prevailing attitude, as if inaccuracy were a virtue.
Let me propose a radical notion: The weblog’s greatest strength–its uncensored, unmediated, uncontrolled voice–is also its greatest weakness. News outlets may be ultimately beholden to advertising interests, and reporters may have a strong incentive for remaining on good terms with their sources in order to remain in the loop; but because they are businesses with salaries to pay, advertisers to please, and audiences to attract and hold, professional news organizations have a vested interest in upholding certain standards so that readers keep subscribing and advertisers keep buying. Weblogs, with only minor costs and little hope of significant financial gain, have no such incentives.
The very things that may compromise professional news outlets are at the same time incentives for some level of journalistic standards. And the very things that make weblogs so valuable as alternative news sources–the lack of gatekeepers and the freedom from all consequences–may compromise their integrity and thus their value. There is every indication that weblogs will gain even greater influence as their numbers grow and awareness of the form becomes more widespread. It is not true, as some people assert, that the network will route around misinformation, or that the truth is always filtered to widespread awareness. Rumors spread because they are fun to pass along. Corrections rarely gain much traction either in the real world or online; they just aren’t as much fun.
There has been almost no talk about ethics in the weblog universe: Mavericks are notoriously resistant to being told what to do. But I would propose a set of six rules that I think form a basis of ethical behavior for online publishers of all kinds.1 I hope that the weblog community will thoughtfully consider the principles outlined here; in time, and with experience, the community may see the need to add to these rules or to further codify our standards. At the very least, I hope these principles will spur discussion about our responsibilities and the ramifications of our collective behavior.
Journalistic codes of ethics seek to ensure fairness and accuracy in news reporting. By comparison, each of these suggestions attempts to bring transparency–one of the weblog’s distinguishing characteristics and greatest strengths–into every aspect of the practice of weblogging. It is unrealistic to expect every weblogger to present an even-handed picture of the world, but it is very reasonable to expect them to be forthcoming about their sources, biases, and behavior.
Webloggers who, despite my best efforts, persist in their quest to be regarded as journalists will have a special interest in adhering to these principles. News organizations may someday be willing to point to weblogs (or weblog entries) as serious sources, but only if weblogs have, as a whole, demonstrated integrity in their information gathering and dissemination, and consistency in their online conduct.
Any weblogger who expects to be accorded the privileges and protections of a professional journalist will need to go further than these principles. Rights have associated responsibilities; in the end it is an individual’s professionalism and meticulous observance of recognized ethical standards that determines her status in the eyes of society and the law. For the rest of us, I believe the following standards are sufficient:
1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true.
If your statement is speculation, say so. If you have reason to believe that something is not true, either don’t post it, or note your reservations. When you make an assertion, do so in good faith; state it as fact only if, to the best of your knowledge, it is so.
2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.
Linking to referenced material allows readers to judge for themselves the accuracy and insightfulness of your statements. Referencing material but selectively linking only that with which you agree is manipulative. Online readers deserve, as much as possible, access to all of the facts–the Web, used this way, empowers readers to become active, not passive, consumers of information. Further, linking to source material is the very means by which we are creating a vast, new, collective network of information and knowledge.
On the rare occasion when a writer wishes to reference but not drive traffic to a site she considers to be morally reprehensible (for example, a hate site), she should type out (but not link) the name or URL of the offending site and state the reasons for her decision. This will give motivated readers the information they need to find the site in order to make their own judgment. This strategy allows the writer to preserve her own transparency (and thus her integrity) while simultaneously declining to lend support to a cause she finds contemptible.
3. Publicly correct any misinformation.
If you find that you have linked to a story that was untrue, make a note of it and link to a more accurate report. If one of your own statements proves to be inaccurate, note your misstatement and the truth. Ideally, these corrections would appear in the most current version of your weblog and as an added note to the original entry. (Remember that search engines will pull up entries without regard to when they were posted; once an entry exists in your archives, it may continue to spread an untruth even if you corrected the information a few days later.) If you aren’t willing to add a correction to previous entries, at least note it in a later post.
One clear method of denoting a correction is the one employed by Cory Doctorow, one of the contributors to the Boing Boing weblog. He strikes through any erroneous information and adds the corrected information immediately following. The reader can see at a glance what Bill Cory originally wrote and that he has updated the entry with information he feels to be more accurate. (Do it like this in HTML: The reader can see at a glance what
Bill Cory originally wrote and that he has updated the entry with information he feels to be more accurate.)
4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
Post deliberately. If you invest each entry with intent, you will ensure your personal and professional integrity.
Changing or deleting entries destroys the integrity of the network. The Web is designed to be connected; indeed, the weblog permalink is an invitation for others to link. Anyone who comments on or cites a document on the Web relies on that document (or entry) to remain unchanged. A prominent addendum is the preferred way to correct any information anywhere on the Web. If an addendum is impractical, as in the case of an essay that contains numerous inaccuracies, changes must be noted with the date and a brief description of the nature of the change.
If you think this is overly scrupulous, consider the case of the writer who points to an online document in support of an assertion. If this document changes or disappears–and especially if the change is not noted–her argument may be rendered nonsensical. Books do not change; journals are static. On paper, new versions are always denoted as such.
The network of shared knowledge we are building will never be more than a novelty unless we protect its integrity by creating permanent records of our publications. The network benefits when even entries that are rendered irrelevant by changing circumstance are left as a historical record. As an example: A weblogger complains about inaccuracies in an online article; the writer corrects those inaccuracies (and notes them!); the weblogger’s entry is therefore meaningless–or is it? Deleting the entry somehow asserts that the whole incident simply didn’t happen–but it did. The record is more accurate and history is better served if the weblogger notes beneath the original entry that the writer has made the corrections and the article is now, to the weblogger’s knowledge, accurate.
History can be rewritten, but it cannot be undone. Changing or deleting words is possible on the Web, but possibility does not always make good policy. Think before you publish and stand behind what you write. If you later decide you were wrong about something, make a note of it and move on.
I make a point never to post anything I am not willing to stand behind even if I later disagree. I work to be thoughtful and accurate, no matter how angry or excited I am about a particular topic. If I change my opinion in a day or two, I just note the change. If I need to apologize for something I’ve said, I do so.
If you discover that you have posted erroneous information, you must note this publicly on your weblog. Deleting the offending entry will do nothing to correct the misinformation your readers have already absorbed. Taking the additional step of adding a correction to the original entry will ensure that Google broadcasts accurate information into the future.
The only exception to this rule is when you inadvertently reveal personal information about someone else. If you discover that you have violated a confidence or made an acquaintance uncomfortable by mentioning him, it is only fair to remove the offending entry altogether, but note that you have done so.
5. Disclose any conflict of interest.
Most webloggers are quite transparent about their jobs and professional interests. It is the computer programmer’s expertise that gives her commentary special weight when she analyzes a magazine article about the merits of the latest operating system. Since weblog audiences are built on trust, it is to every weblogger’s benefit to disclose any monetary (or other potentially conflicting) interests when appropriate. An entrepreneur may have special insight into the effect of a proposed Senate bill or a business merger; if she stands to benefit directly from the outcome of any event, she should note that in her comments. A weblogger, impressed with a service or product, should note that she holds stock in the company every time she promotes the service on her page. Even the weblogger who receives a CD for review should note that fact; her readers can decide for themselves whether her favorable review is based on her taste or on her desire to continue to receive free CDs.
Quickly note any potential conflict of interest and then say your piece; your readers will have all the information they need to assess your commentary.
6. Note questionable and biased sources.
When a serious article comes from a highly biased or questionable source, the weblogger has a responsibility to clearly note the nature of the site on which it was found. In their foraging, webloggers occasionally find interesting, well-written articles on sites that are maintained by highly biased organizations or by seemingly fanatical individuals. Readers need to know whether an article on the medical ramifications of first trimester abortion comes from a site that is pro-life, pro-choice, or strongly opposed to medical intervention of all kinds. A thoughtful summation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be worth reading whether it is written by a member of the PLO or a Zionist–but readers have the right to be alerted to the source.
It is reasonable to expect that expert foragers have the knowledge and motivation to assess the nature of these sources; it is not reasonable to assume that all readers do. Readers depend on weblogs, to some extent, for guidance in navigating the Web. To present an article from a source that is a little nutty or has a strong agenda is fine; not to acknowledge the nature of that source is unethical, since readers don’t have the information they need to fully evaluate the article’s merits.
If you are afraid that your readers will discount the article entirely based on its context, consider why you are linking it at all. If you strongly feel the piece has merit, say why and let it stand on its own, but be clear about its source. Your readers may cease to trust you if they discover even once that you disguised–or didn’t make clear–the source of an article they might have evaluated differently had they been given all the facts.
1 With regard to points 1 and 5, I am indebted to Dave Winer for his discussions on Scripting News about integrity with regard to weblogging. Though our thinking diverges greatly, his ideas were one springboard for my own thoughts on the matter.
Referenced and related URLs
from the Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog by Rebecca Blood, copyright 2002, all rights reserved
Blogging is a way for me to comment on and consolidate news, current events, useful resources, and other relevant matters. In my blog entries, I usually add links to other people’s blogs or websites with original content instead of writing my own.