An 'ethical vacuum' in Internet media?

An official inquiry into the abuses of British newspapers calls for tougher regulation of journalist behavior. But it holds little hope for ethics in online media. This ignores the history of journalist ethics.

REUTERS/Jeff Overs/BBC
Actor Hugh Grant speaks on a BBC show Dec. 2 about the Leveson report into press standards and ethics. He was a victim of phone hacking by a newspaper.

As you read these words, does it make a difference if they are in print or online?

Yes, if you accept one conclusion of an official inquiry on the British press released last Thursday.

The report’s author, Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, offers many recommendations on how to restore the integrity of British newspapers after recent scandals, which included hacking of personal cellphones, even one belonging to a deceased girl. His main proposals to Parliament are to pass a new law and use a government regulator to help hold newspapers to account for lapses of their own ethical codes.

While he is optimistic that traditional newspapers can be reformed – although his peculiar solutions may be a slippery slope to censorship – Sir Brian is strangely pessimistic that news consumers can ever trust much of what they read in the new digital media.

“The [I]nternet  does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’,” he wrote.

Bloggers and others who write on public topics can act with impunity, he states. Newspapers, however, already have ethical codes and promise a quality product. “The [I]nternet does not function on that basis at all. People will not assume that what they read on the [I]nternet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy; it need be no more than one person’s view.”

History would argue against the view that “new media” – bloggers, tweeters, citizen journalists, or news aggregators like Google – may not ever adopt principles such as truthfulness and fairness. After all, digital media already generally conform to laws on copyright, defamation, and contempt of court. Is it really a big leap to expect them to conform someday to ethical codes like those of traditional journalism?

Most American and British newspapers began to adopt codes a century ago in response to reader outrage over inaccuracies, sensationalism, personal attacks, and bias in news reporting. This publication, for example, was founded in 1908 with the mandate to “injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” In the United States, the Society of Professional Journalists continues to upgrade its code as new ethical challenges are exposed. Sir Brian acknowledges that “most of what the [British] press does is good journalism free from the sort of vices I have had to address at length.”

Journalists do keep an eye on each other. The press scandals in Britain, for example, were first brought to light not by the government but by The Guardian newspaper.

Indeed, the best guardians of the old and new media are the people who practice it as well as readers who can choose to ignore any website or publication that operates unethically. And no new law need target journalists that doesn’t also apply to all citizens. Libel is libel, for example.

In the US, some independent news bloggers have begun to set their own standards. Even more promising, schools have begun to teach students how to use information on the Internet, sifting truth from falsehoods and distortions.

Digital media do offer new challenges, in large part because anyone with a modem or even smart phone can now practice journalism with little oversight or professional vetting. Internet journalism is also more immediate and interactive. The pressure to publish quickly can more easily lead to mistakes or the harming of others. The business incentives to chase a mass audience can lower standards, including news judgment.

The “democratization” of media will require an effort to form a consensus on ethical standards for online media. The Internet itself is a powerful feedback loop for correcting “entrepreneurial” journalists who, say, have a conflict of interest or hide behind anonymity. Even defining who is a journalist these days needs work.

That last task can’t be left to government through its credentialing of journalists. The Fourth Estate, whether in print or online, is the news consumer’s best way to keep a check on government. And it is news consumers, as well as journalists, who must hold any media to account with ethical codes.

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