by Carolynne Burkholder
The internet has created a new sphere where everyone can be a journalist;
all you need is a computer and an opinion – no training necessary.
A blog, short for weblog, according to the Oxford English Dictionary
is “a frequently updated web site consisting of personal observations,
excerpts from other sources, etc., typically run by a single person,
and usually with hyperlinks to other sites; an online journal or diary.”
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, whose blog site webneveshteha.com
is considered to be one of the most popular Iranian sites.. Photo:
Nazila Fathi, New York Times
is home to almost 10 million blogs, ranging from rants by teenagers
to loosely disguised product advertising, from political commentary
to news reporting.
Blogging is a very new form of journalism. Beginning in the 1990s
when personal computers became readily available, digital communities
began to develop. Email lists, bulletin boards, and forums were
the early forms of internet communication. Bloggers or journallers,
as they were called, began claiming their place on the internet
in the late part of the decade. Blogging has been growing in prominence,
scope, and influence ever since.
Ethical questions arise when blogs are read as news and in turn
create a new wave of online journalists – intentional or not.
“New technology and delivery systems make it necessary for
journalists to develop new, more sophisticated, ethical decision-making
skills,” said Jay Black, the editor of the Journal of Mass
Journalism's first obligation may be to the truth, but are bloggers
journalists? Do they need to abide by the same rules as traditional,
professional journalists? This question has been hotly debated within
academia, journalism and the blogging community.
Ethical Issues in Blogging
But are they journalists?
Any discussion of ethical issues in the blogosphere begins with
the question of whether bloggers are journalists. In March 2005
there was speculation that the courts would answer this question.
Apple Computers filed a lawsuit against several California bloggers
who had revealed company secrets on their websites. As journalists
in California (and about 30 other U.S. states) have “shield
laws” to protect them from revealing their sources, the question
was whether bloggers too have this right. In his ruling, the judge
side-stepped the question of whether bloggers were journalists,
but the issue will probably return in the future in some legal forum.
In “The Role of Blogs in the New Media,” Brad Badelt
wrote: “Today’s audience want to be part of the media,
rather than passive receivers. Not only do they want to comment
on the news, they want to be part of creating it."
"It isn’t whether bloggers ‘are’ journalists.
They apparently are, sometimes,” wrote Jay Rosen, a journalism
professor at New York University. Rosen believes that defining bloggers
is not as important as looking at their ethics.
Some primarily mainstream journalists and news organizations, in
fact, have been using the new technology to report on developing
stories and capture a greater audience. A notable example was during
Hurricane Katrina, when reputable newsrooms, such as CNN used blogging
technology to provide up-to-the-minute news.
‘Reporting’ in the Blog World
A concept that many journalists would find shocking, but is important
nonetheless, is that people may trust the commentary and news written
by ‘Joe Average’ in the blogosphere more than what is
written by a professional journalist. The annual Public Trust barometer,
put out by the Edelman global public relations firm based in the
United States, found that, after doctors, people trust people ‘just
like us’ above all others. Journalists rank sixth on the list,
just ahead of CEOs.
“It's a pretty shocking piece of research that shows we trust
people who we feel are like ourselves and are not out to promote
something. That is why blogs have such power. We trust them, and
if we disagree with an opinion, we normally have the option of adding
our say," said Clare Hart, CEO of Factiva, a media-monitoring
agency in an interview with Sean Hargrave.
With trust in journalists so low, it is not surprising that the
public is going elsewhere to get their news. But this puts much
power in the hands of bloggers.
If we consider blogs as a personal diary, then publishing unsubstantiated
information is not really a problem. If we consider them a form
of journalism, however, this becomes a major concern. In reality,
very few bloggers do their own original reporting. Most rely on
other news sources for their information and then provide commentary
Rebecca MacKinnon, Berkman Fellow and former CNN-TV reporter, believes
that the ‘war’ between bloggers and traditional journalists
is not a “zero-sum game.” “The two can co-exist,”
she said. “Blogs are really a conversation about events and
facts that journalists are reporting about.”
Many bloggers consider themselves ‘citizen journalists’
and believe they are better suited to provide the diversity that
today’s democracy needs than traditional journalists. By moving
away from the established news sources, they weaken the control
of major mainstream gatekeepers. They pride themselves on being
the ‘watch-dog’ of the traditional watch-dog media.
According to the report, “We Media: How Audiences are Shaping
the Future of News and Information” by Shayne Bowman and Chris
Willis, citizen journalism aims “to provide independent, reliable,
accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy
Accuracy and Verification
According to a survey put out by the Canadian Internet Project in
2004, 37 per cent of people believe that most or all of the information
obtained online is reliable or accurate, and 81 per cent believe
that at least one half is reliable. Although citizens invest a degree
of trust in online information, the accuracy of blogs is questioned
by many scholars and mainstream journalists.
In an academic paper, “Minding the Gap: An Ethical Perspective
on the Use of Weblogs in Journalistic Practice,” Andrew Morozov
of the United States writes that bloggers may not be as accurate
as mainstream journalists because of the lack of a structured verification
process. This is due to “the absence of the traditional editing
process, which is linked to the apparent inability of weblogs to
maintain the same standards of truthfulness, verifiability, fairness,
and completeness, as are presumably manifest in most of the traditional
Conversely, according to Joe Trippi, an Institute of Politics fellow,
blogs by nature are self-corrective and therefore more accurate
than traditional news forms. When a blogger makes an error, “thousands
of people immediately [begin]criticizing them, and they need to
correct it within minutes. That’s something the New York Times
can’t do,” he said.
However, bloggers’ claims that they are the true citizen-journalists
and that they can self-correct their errors is questioned by journalists
and ethicists as self-serving rhetoric. Critics note cases where
rumours were circulated by blogs and they were not proven to be
false until much damage had been done to the reputation of career
of a person or group. Self-correction by blogs is an imperfect process.
Other critics accuse blogs of hypocrisy by claiming they believe
in accuracy but they do not believe in editorial controls on postings
prior to publication. Bloggers are also accused of wanting freedom
without responsibility -- of reaching thousands of readers but rejecting
calls for ethical codes and standards.
Blogs and commerce
Ethics aside, blogs are becoming so influential that corporations
are taking note. Several companies are now surfing the blogosphere
in search of comments about their own businesses. When comments
are false, the company corrects them. When comments are negative,
companies claim to try to remedy the situation. According to a Ford
spokesman: "The real value of searching the net, including
blogs, is that you get a live picture of what people are thinking
about certain issues. It means that you can predict if there is
going to be an issue that's going to grow and become something you
need to respond to before it gets to the mainstream press,”
quoted in the Guardian newspaper, London, August 9, 2004.
Commercial Messages Hidden in Blogs
As more people turn to the blogosphere for news and commentary,
they provide a key market for advertisers. Marketing teams have
begun hiring bloggers to promote their products. As blogger gain
the trust of their readers, they can be very effective in promoting
Olympus, a prominent American electronics company, uses blogs as
a form of advertising. Sean Hargrave, a new media reporter for the
Guardian (London), writes, “Whenever a new camera is approaching
its launch, details are passed on to prominent blogs, a spokesman
reveals, because the sites are crucial to getting interest ahead
of the launch as well as getting early feedback on what the public
thinks of the new model.
Three blogger codes of ethics
If blogs are being read as news, making bloggers journalists, should
they be required to abide by a code of ethics, similar to traditional
journalists? This idea was once considered ridiculous since the
blogosphere was a medium of free spirits. However, because of increased
social and political impact and greater readership, the call for
a code is now more plausible.
One of the earliest ethical codes for bloggers was published in
the Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood in 2002:
1. Publish as fact only that which you believe
to be true. If your statement is speculation, say 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.
3. Publicly correct any misinformation.
4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do
not rewrite or delete, any entry.
5. Disclose any conflict of interest.
6. Note questionable and biased sources.
Another influential blogger code of ethics was created by Jonathan
Dube, editorial director for CBC.ca and also an award-winning print
journalist who created cyberjournalist.net. The principles were
adapted from the code of ethics used by the Society of Professional
Journalists with its principles of fairness, accountability and
minimizing of harm. See http://www.cyberjournalist.net/news/000215.php
Martin Kuhn from the University of North Carolina suggests that
Dube’s code does not address the human dialogue and interactive
nature of blogs. In his paper, “Interactivity and Prioritizing
the Human: A Code of Blogging Ethics,” Kuhn includes promoting
interactivity, promoting free expression, and promoting the ‘human’
element in blogging. His code is:
1. Promote interactivity
• Post to your blog on a regular basis
• Visit and post on other blogs
• Respect blog etiquette
• Attempt to be entertaining, interesting, and/or relevant
2. Promote free expression
• Do not restrict access to your blog by specific individuals
• Do not self censor by removing posts or comments once they
• Allow and encourage comments on your blog
3. Strive for factual truth
• Never intentionally deceive others
• Be accountable for what you post
4. Be as transparent as possible
• Reveal your identity as much as possible (name, photo, background
• Reveal your personal affiliations and conflicts of interest
• Cite and link to all sources referenced in each post
5. Promote the human element in blogging
• Minimize harm to others when posting information
• Promote community by linking to other blogs and keeping
• Build relationships by responding to e-mails and comments
Books on Blogging
Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s
Changing Your World
The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining
Benjamin Trott, Mena G. Trott, Shelley Powers, J. Scott Johnson,
Rael Dornfest, and Cory Doctorow
Quagmires and Quandaries: Exploring Journalism Ethics