Online Journalism Ethics

New Media Trends

by Kendyl Salcito

Journalism is evolving rapidly in a “mixed media” of traditional newspapers and broadcast stations combined with a “new media” of on-line journalists.

These developments in journalism are driven by vast economic and technological changes. Some of these trends have profound ethical import for journalism. This section provides a brief description of some trends that impact on journalism ethics.
 
Getting ready for a podcasting show in Germany. Photo by Andreas Schaefer

Proliferation of news media
First came cable television. Then satellite. Soon online versions of newspapers augmented the news media scene. Now millions of bloggers, countless web sites, web broadcasts, and “podcasts” have become mainstream. All make up the “body” of today’s news media, and there is no visible end to this proliferation. The main ethical implications are threefold: increased competition has effected the quality of news reports, the public has heightened its demand for transparency, and the news world’s understanding of copyright has ceased to suffice.

Newsmakers face increasing competition to cover all the pertinent stories and reach sources before their competitors. CNN and website news have resorted to wall-to-wall, 24 hour coverage to ensure that they can provide the story to their readers/viewers as soon as it occurs. The danger is that speed will prevail over accuracy, and journalists will exchange their ethical motives as fact-checking truth-seekers for the love of breaking a story -- any story.

However, an increase in competition also has led some news organizations to distinguish themselves from less responsible outlets by being more transparent about how they do their work. Journalists who want to set their articles apart as truthful and comprehensive have begun giving the public access to their sources. Studies are equipped with margins of error, assertions are backed by supporting web links, and anonymity granted to sources is thoroughly explained.

While some journalists turn to transparency to justify the claims in their reports, others have resorted to a much more careless form of writing, dubbed “journalism of assertion.” Many blogs and independent e-zines, lacking an engrained sense of duty to the truth or to readers, have developed a journalistic style of unsubstantiated opinion. Ideas are accrued and then restated, without regard to their origin or factuality.

The fact that information can be so easily accessed and then redistributed on the internet has lent itself to yet another trend: questioning the value of copyright. According to Piers Fawkes, co-creator of PSFK, a collaborative trend-reporting site, copyright has lost its value. “A blogger’s job is to spread ideas,” proclaims Fawkes. “They may be our ideas or the great ideas of others – but blogging gives an unparalleled way of passing those ideas on to others . . . the reason we write is not to control our ideas, not to look clever. We write to add our ideas to the global discussion.”

Changes in news media audiences
The proliferation of news outlets means that audiences can read and watch their news on various channels and web sites. In other words, media audiences have fragmented. No longer does an overwhelming majority of Canadians sit down in the evening to watch one or two major TV newscasts. People get their news updated throughout the day, when they want it. They surf the web to find the stories that interest them. Some describe these niche audiences as impatient, “remote control” audiences, who want the information they’re seeking without delay and without additional, unsought news.

In response, more and more news outlets cater to smaller and smaller demographics or “niches.” The risk is that journalists will no longer seek to provide the public with comprehensive accounts of the day’s top stories from many areas of life, but will focus narrowly on “niche news” that is of interest to narrow sectors of the population. An additional danger is that the public will no longer come together, through the news media, to deliberate over common issues. Instead, the public will fragment into many special-interest audiences.

Convergence of media
The fragmentation of the news audience has prompted some major news organizations to attempt to “re-assemble” a large news audience by providing news across many media platforms. Major organizations such as CNN in the United States and CanWest in Canada seek to own and provide news via a convergence of their newspapers, television stations and web sites. Meanwhile, journalists are urged to embrace multi-media reporting -- the ability to report for print, broadcast and the internet.

Business Values
As newsrooms become small parts of large corporations, there is a danger that profit-seeking and economic imperatives may cause newsrooms to compromise their ethical standards. Business values, such as the need to meet the demand of investors and advertisers, may trump journalistic integrity. Since many news companies are publicly financed corporations, newsroom owners or their senior staff may feel the pressure of investor-friendly quarterly reports. Inside the newsrooms, journalists may find themselves in conflicts of interest -- reporting on economic and other issues that may have a direct affect on interests of their news corporation.

Some of the positive and negative effects:
Far-reaching change usually has positive and negative effects. The same is true of recent trends in journalism.

Some positive effects of change:
• Interactivity: Increased ability of the public to actively search for their own information and to interact online with news web sites
• Increased public access to different forms and types of media; access to a greater diversity of content
• Reduced “gatekeeping” powers of major news organizations; less power to set the news agenda or manipulate the public’s understanding of events
• New and powerful story-telling methods through multi-media technology
• Convergence in news may mean more resources to probe issues

Some negative effects of change:
• Rise in “journalism of assertion”: unsubstantiated opinion and rumor which harms journalistic credibility; lack of restraint among online writers
• Pressure to lower ethical standards and sensationalize stories
• Public complaints about how a “ubiquitous” media violate personal privacy
• Confusion about who is a journalist, when anyone can publish
• Ethical “vertigo” regarding news values, newsworthiness, credibility. What standards are appropriate for this new “mixed media”?


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