Cedar Rapids Gazette, Ethics in the blogosphere
By Steve Buttry
Blogging has proliferated on newspaper web sites more rapidly than the industry has been able to consider and develop standards. You need to decide what goes and what doesn't for your site and your staff. Whether you are a manager or a staff member, you need to consider the issues discussed here. Managers need to consider situations and make clear their expectations. Staff members need to consider what they want to do and what they should be doing and discuss possible ethical implications with their editors.
You can't anticipate every dilemma that blogging might present. But as blogging grows in your community and on your web site, you should anticipate possibilities and decide your standards and how you will apply them. This handout offers more questions than answers, because most of the answers aren't universally agreed to. But you should ask the questions and make sure that editors and staff members agree on the answers or are aware of areas of disagreement. Some issues to consider:
Part of the appeal of blogging is the rough, interactive, gritty nature of the material. But is a staffer's blog still part of the content of your publication? Should it undergo the same sort of editing as other content? Some definitions of blogs say they are unedited. Is that acceptable for your site? Should blog updates go online right away, to be timely, with an editor reading and making corrections after the fact? Is it acceptable for editors to read stories after they are posted? If you allow staff members to blog unedited, you need to discuss any prohibitions or guidelines with them, to avoid ugly surprises.
Do you allow reporters to express opinions in blogs that wouldn't be acceptable in stories? Can reporters express political opinions in a blog that would not be acceptable in a news story? What if the reporter does not cover politics? Do you allow reporters blogging about their beats to express opinions about the issues they cover? Do the standards vary any for reporters blogging about sports or entertainment? Should staff bloggers be free to comment about issues in the news industry? Can they express opinions about internal matters of your organization? Reporters who are blogging should discuss these matters with an immediate editor so you have an understanding about what is allowed and what is not.
Do you allow staff members more leeway in using foul language and other matters of taste online than you would in print? Do you want (or can you accept?) a more informal tone, with humor, sarcasm or gentle wit that might not be acceptable in reporting? Sometimes a blog is just a news reporting tool or a means of sharing some of the information in a reporter's notebook while the story is unfolding. If the reporter should take a straight-news tone, both reporter and editor should be clear on this understanding.
Comments from readers are an important element of most blogs? Does someone edit them for taste, accuracy, libel, grammar, fairness or any other standards before they go online? Or do you allow users to post directly and you read them afterward and remove those that are objectionable? Is it acceptable or advisable to allow readers to monitor blogs - so you don't monitor but invite readers to let you know if objectionable material appears? Is each blogger responsible for monitoring comments on her own blog? Should the blogger respond to or refrain from commenting?
Many newspaper sites host blogs by people in the community, too? Do they face the same standards as staff members? If not, how do their standards vary and why? What sort of transparency do you require from community bloggers, such as disclosing their community involvements and other possible conflicts of interests?
News breaking in blogs
What if a blogger in the community makes an unsubstantiated allegation or spreads an unverified rumor about a public figure in a blog? Does the fact that the rumor or charge was published on the web make it more newsworthy than if it was simply circulating by word of mouth? Or is blogging the new word of mouth? What if the community blogger making the allegation is a non-staff member who blogs on your web site? Or if the rumor is spread in a reader's comments on a staff blog?
What about staff members with personal blogs on other sites or with personal web pages or entries on sites such as MySpace and Facebook? Do you have any rules for them and what they may or may not write? Are they not allowed to discuss matters they cover in private blogs? Are public statements of political or religious opinions allowed or forbidden? Are any kinds of personal disclosures unrelated to work allowed or forbidden? What if the blog doesn't identify the person as a member of your staff? Are staff members allowed to write elsewhere on the Internet using screen names? Do screen names make personal opinions acceptable that would not be acceptable if using their bylines?
Responsibility for links
How responsible, if at all, are you for external links your blog provides? Does a link to some content expressing an opinion mean that you endorse that opinion? Should a reporter's blog provide links to opinion sites? If so, should the reporter seek some balance in links? If the page you link to directly does not have material you would find objectionable, are you responsible if that page links to other pages on the same site that do have objectionable content? Is it acceptable to link directly to some content you decide not to post yourself, such as a video of a beheading by terrorists? Does a disclaimer warning of objectionable content make the link acceptable? Sex and violence aren't the only topics that might make content objectionable; should you avoid links to sites that don't meet your standards of verification or independence? Might a page that has no objectionable content when you link change to something offensive in an update? If you link to a site that provides a one-sided view of an issue, do you have an obligation to provide balance, either in your content or in a link to a site presenting an opposing view?
For more information, see Steve Buttry's blog