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May 08, 2005

Blog Ethics From the NYT.

Adam Cohen thinks that we bloggers have a probem with ethics, that we really all ought to be sharpening up our act and dealing with the world like proper journalists. That he uses, as his first example of a blog The Drudge Report shows that he hasn’t quite grasped the basics of the field, for of course Drudge is not a blog. Moving right along:

The thing about influence is that, as bloggers well know, it is only a matter of time before people start trying to hold you accountable. Bloggers are so used to thinking of themselves as outsiders, and watchdogs of the LSM (that's Lame Stream Media), that many have given little thought to what ethical rules should apply in their online world. Some insist that they do not need journalistic ethics because they are not journalists, but rather activists, or humorists, or something else entirely. But more bloggers, and blog readers, are starting to ask whether at least the most prominent blogs with the highest traffic shouldn't hold themselves to the same high standards to which they hold other media.

Every mainstream news organization has its own sets of ethics rules, but all of them agree broadly on what constitutes ethical journalism. Information should be verified before it is printed, and people who are involved in a story should be given a chance to air their viewpoints, especially if they are under attack. Reporters should avoid conflicts of interest, even significant appearances of conflicts, and disclose any significant ones. Often, a conflict means being disqualified to cover a story or a subject. When errors are discovered or pointed out by internal or external sources, they must be corrected. And there should be a clear wall between editorial content and advertising.

That first paragraph entirely misses the point about how it all works. We could offer an analogy  from the economics of markets. No one (and I do mean no one, from Friedman and Hayek to La Rouche and any Marxists still remaining) doubts that markets need to be regulated. The question is, who does the regulating? Is it the government, as many would want? Or is it the consumers themselves, voting with every dollar they spend? So with media, on the one side the MSM, with a formal set of rules about what one can say and how one can say it, on the other, blogs, where regulation comes directly from one’s readers. Go too far and no one reads you. Errors of fact get quickly corrected in comments sections. Errors of logic are at least attacked in same. Errors of opinion get lambasted by other blogs with different such.   Compared with, say, trying to get errors in a Paul Krugman column corrected, blogs are wildly open to revision, not necessarily by their writers or an ethics code but by their readers.

The second paragraph is similarly out of touch. Blogs are quite rightly not held to those standards of "ethical journalism".  Only what comes out of the system, after the unsupported allegations, the rants, the foam-flecked screaming, only after the filtering process provided by 8 million blogs shouting at and correcting each other, only that should be considered ethical journalism. Each individual blog post, he is correct, is simply the unsupported word of a partisan (given the financial rewards currently available, there is no one doing this who doesn’t have some kind of bee in their bonnet) but the system as a whole works very well. It’s an economic thing (not a great strength of NYT writers I know, but try some Hayek), that information is distributed. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of reporters and fact checkers the NYT has (or any other organisation), how many sources they speak to, how often they refine their words, 8 million blogs have access to more information than they do. The question is, how is that information processed? Or, if you prefer, how is the data held in this dispersed manner processed so that it becomes information, robust information at that?

The unfortunate truth is that if each blog post were held to the same standards of "ethical journalism" then we would be just as lame as the MSM at processing data. Probably even worse, in fact, for none of us individually have the same resources as one individual newspaper. Yet the system as a whole has vastly more resources than not just any one newspaper but all of them added together.

There’s also another way of looking at this, following a discussion at Left to Right on academic diversity. At what level of granularity do we actually want to have diversity? Should all history courses include some Asian history? Or should all History Departments teach some Asian history?  Or should all Universities ensure that some Asian history is taught? Or should the system of all Universities ensure that Asian history is taught?

Should every economics class include both, say, libertarian (for example, Austrian) and Keynesian ways of looking at things? Should they be taught as separate units within a course? Should departments make sure that both are available on the same campus? Or is it only necessary that the entire system teaches both, even if at different Universities?

Back to blogs, at what level of the system is it necessary that it be "ethical"? At what level of the system is it necessary that the truth be spoken? As Cohen points out, in the MSM the attempt is made that only those individual pieces that can be rigorously checked on a stand-alone basis pass the tests. This leads to large amounts of data being rejected, as they cannot be confirmed as information.

Blogs work at the system level. Any and all pieces of data, each individual datum, is allowed into the system. What is information is what comes out of the whole system. It’s a different way of reaching the same goal, processing data into information, but one that would be entirely crippled by the insistence that only what is already proven to be information can be allowed into the system.

In short, adopting the same system of journalistic ethics for each and every blog, for each and every blog post, would entirely cripple what blogs actually do, work at the system scale, not the more granular post or piece scale, to process data into information.

It would be quite wonderful to see a piece on blogging that did not include Ms. Cox but apparently anal sex jokes really are the way to the MSM’s heart. Not sure who that says most about actually. In conclusion we get:

Bloggers may need to institutionalize ethics policies to avoid charges of hypocrisy. But the real reason for an ethical upgrade is that it is the right way to do journalism, online or offline. As blogs grow in readers and influence, bloggers should realize that if they want to reform the American media, that is going to have to include reforming themselves.

I cannot speak for the other 7,999,999 bloggers I am told there are out there but I have no particular desire to reform the American media. I’d like those who go into it to have at least a nodding acquaintance with basic economic thought but that’s not a reason to storm the barricades, more the lack of it being an occasion for gentle head shaking over their ignorance. What I would want to make sure people understand is that we are aiming for truth in the end, the blogosphere being a method of attempting to reach that that works at the system level, one that has its own inbuilt ethical checks and balances, that it is a system that only works if we do not have ethical policies at the individual level, for if we do, how can we process all of the data?

Update. Highly amusing addition to the debate in today’s, Monday’s, NY Times. A Times panel has reported on how it can boost its own credibility. Some choice thoughts:

As examples, the report cited limiting anonymous sources, reducing factual errors and making a clearer distinction between news and opinion.
....
The report also said The Times should make it easier for readers to send e-mail to reporters and editors. "The Times makes it harder than any other major American newspaper for readers to reach a responsible human being," the report said.
....
When specific newspapers were mentioned, The Times fared about average, with 21 percent of readers believing all or most of what they read in The Times and 14 percent believing almost nothing.

....
The full report will be on nytco.com but as of my writing, 11 am GMT, is not.

May 8, 2005 in Weblogs | Permalink

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» NYT on blog ethics from EdCone.com
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Comments

Well, correctly said Mr. Worstall. There are times when the BIG media people want to control the blogsphere. Times of India took legal action against a blogger cum journalist. Chech this out:
http://critical.modblog.com/?show=blogview&blog_id=520165

Posted by: Lohan Gunaweera | May 8, 2005 1:04:13 PM

Well, that's one model. I had hopes that another would dominate blogdom, and perhaps it eventually will. I see the blog system not so much as a huge democratic process, but rather as a way to tap into the distributed expertise of civilization. For instance, there are a few topics that I know vastly more about than, say, you, or Instapundit, or the director of the NSF, or whatever. If I confine my commentary mainly to those subjects, ethics doesn't come into it, just fact, mixed with a little bit of particularly educated opinion. Keeping those distinguishable is a matter of ethics or professionalism, perhaps, but not a difficult one. You're close to my model in the paragraph leading, "Blogs work at the system level." I think they'll work much faster and more efficiently, though, if some of the noise is filtered out at a lower level.

Filtering out this noise is easy in principle, but not so much in practice, as the definition of "expert" is sometimes misunderstood. The classic example was asking missile scientists if a country should build a ballistic missile system. Wrong question. Ask your technical geniuses if and how and when such a system would work. On the question of whether or not to build it, though, they're not much better qualified to opine than most anyone else. Their expertise, though genuine, is only superficially relevant to the question. A more modern example is the notion that an expert in, say, the conjugation of Arabic verbs has, by virtue of that alone, anything useful to say about American Middle East policy.

Even if clumsy and imperfect, the blog system has the potential to blow the MSM off the page, because it has distributed expertise, and the MSM does not. Consider Dan Rather hanging onto a palm tree while reporting about a hurricane. What does Dan know about hurricanes? Does he have a degree in meteorology? Has he ever tried to keep a large ship off a lee shore during a hurricane? Tried to repair a dyke while water is pouring through? No, he has no expertise in the subject of hurricanes and their effects and their remedies, none at all. He's just a pair of eyes and fingers on a teletype. Shoot, any local blogger can do that job. Some other blogger can then tell us something technical, or historical, or useful, or whatever about that hurricane. A mere journalism major can't compete with that.

But we really have to get the noise level down a bit. Dan Rather has to write about hurricanes. That's his all-day job. I don't have to write about hurricanes unless I have something useful to say. And as for where the overexposed Wonkette and her personal expertise fits into the picture, well, I'd rather not go there.

Posted by: big dirigible | May 8, 2005 5:13:06 PM

The thing that stood out about this article in my mind is how Cohen misrepresents the call for a code as coming from the *blogosphere* rather than the MSM. Blogged here:

http://citizenz.blogharbor.com/blog/_archives/2005/5/8/662240.html

Posted by: Citizen Z | May 8, 2005 5:35:37 PM

The assertion that the MSM is grounded in a solid ethical system is entirely unsupported by anything I have seen in my lifetime, or read about historically. Regardless of the particular medium in question, the primary motivation is sell, sell, sell, and the bloodier and more sensational the subject, so much the better.

There is little difference between the deluded snobbery of the NYT and the delusional tabloid nonsense of the Enquirer. Reporters for both would trample over their own mother to get an interview with the celebrity murderer du jour, or to get the dope on some juicy sex scandel.

It is long past time to treat these pretentious hacks with the contempt they deserve, and to ignore any more "instructional" articles about ethics from those who wouldn't know a moral principle if it bit them in the rear end.

Posted by: veryretired | May 8, 2005 7:25:39 PM

What I love about MSM is that the first solution to a non-problem is regulation or, well, a charge of hypocrisy...Yikes.

What worries me far more than big bloggers not hitting the ethical level of the NYT and CBS is the possibility that the real dissenting voices, the new guys, will be infected with the sort of ethical worries which stiffles good writing and interesting research.

Imagine if bloggers had begun believing that the only right thing to do was to pretend to tell both sides of the story...

Posted by: Jay Currie | May 8, 2005 9:01:05 PM

a very enjoyable read. Made me think in a new way.

Posted by: Scott S. | May 9, 2005 3:44:56 AM

My favorite part is that here we have someone with declining circulation, with negative growth telling bloggers, who are growing by leaps and bounds what we should be doing, as if what we are doing is not working, is unsuccessful.

Posted by: Scott S. | May 9, 2005 3:47:50 AM

Information should be verified before it is printed... When errors are discovered or pointed out by internal or external sources, they must be corrected. And there should be a clear wall between editorial content and advertising.

Naturally, papers like The Guardian do all of these things.

Posted by: Tim Newman | May 9, 2005 9:59:42 AM

If we must hold ourselves to the same "high standards to which we hold other media", does that mean we need to write like them...? Some say...while others believe. Not everyone however agrees...many believe that...the fear is that..

Typing this is painful-thinking that way would be deadly.

Posted by: Kerry | May 9, 2005 10:55:54 AM

What you're talking about is the free trade of information championed by blogs (and the social network built by blogrolls and comments fields) making effectively an information market that heavily regulated "trading blocs" like commercial msm ventures can't replicate for all their rules and ethics.

It's the wiki principle in action, and plenty of people dislike wikis for the same reasons others love them. The blogosphere is, essentially, a world-wide wiki.

Blogging "ethics" need to be defined in terms of blogs, not in terms of newspapers. Only bloggers can come up with rules to govern their own unique format. I've come across a few different versions, but was interested in this one, more descriptive than prescriptive, unlike other versions I have read.

The general behavioral consensus on netiquette, as those chronic neologising MSM journalists like to call it:
* post regularly
* title each post
* link to things on the web
* provide each post with its own url (permalink)
* allow full access to archived posts
* allow comments
* identify updated content with an appropriate label (such as “update” or “correction”)
* provide a feed (rss, atom, etc)

Posted by: EasyJetsetter | May 9, 2005 10:59:48 AM