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Comments by YACCS
Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Let's talk about ethics


Here, take some and write nice things about me. It's ethical because I say so


Like so many things, Vietnam, keeping black faculty, Harvard makes a hash of what is a valuable discussion once again. Blogging ethics does matter, but it's pretty much been hijacked by a lawyer looking to make a name off the back of the successful, and wonders why no one will trust her to do anything important.

We've been talking around ethics for a while, and while I'm not eager to tell other people how to run their sites, I do have a few ideas.

First of all, the ambitious lawyer talks about a code of ethics she's obviously never lived under. I've printed the SPJ ethics here and there are others, most notably the AP's, which is standard in most newsrooms or modified. But ethics is more than declaring your interests. Having worked as a freelancer, and regular staff freelancer, I can tell you that things you think are unethical are not and things you wouldn't have a problem with are big ethical problems.

It is perfectly acceptable to have a free, champagne meal at the Plaza or lunch at the UN. Meals you could never pay for on your salary. It is, however, unethical to go to your frat buddies for a quote without explaining they're your buddies.

But from there, it gets murky and personal. Is it OK to hit on the PR rep who wants you to review her company? Or take review books and sell them? There is no code which deals with you writing a good story to get the PR person into bed. It might well be exactly what you would have done anyway. But giving her that call afterwards, is that abusing your position? To some degree, no. But Bob Greene used it to bed 19 year old girls over a number of years and that, finally cost him his job and his lucrative book publishing career. Was what he did unethical in the strict sense? His collegues argued over this bitterly. Morally, he was certainly wrong, but the question became whether it affected the Trib as a whole. Remember, there are no secrets in newsrooms and people knew that Greene was a barely legal casanova. Only when one set of parents complained was he forced to confront his personal life and his job and their conflicts.

Athough this nitwit lawyer is a poor vessel for the idea of ethical codes, I have said her basic idea is right. It's so right that it should be elemental. The only problem is that it's a not one fits all kind of deal. Blogs are not all newspapers or their online derivatives. She obviously has a rigid idea of what ethics should be, and it's not anything like that simple.

Primary Colors, the Joe Klein book, has an affair between two campaign staffers at it's core. The rumor is that it was based on an affair a reporter had with a campaign staffer. Now is it unethical for him to have covered the campaign and sleep with his girlfriend? Or what about Todd Purdum? He fell in love with Dee Dee Myers while she was press secretary. When she was busted for DWI and bailed her out, his bosses were none too pleased about his not mentioning this.

When people talk about ethical codes, it's about a lot more than money.

See, it's easy for an outsider to say everyone should disclose everything, but there are reasons people don't do that. One is job protection. You may not like Bush, but if you work for a company with a DOD contract, should you lose your job because you have to be completely honest on a blog?

Now, let's get to consulting.

I've worked as a consultant and done field work, but this was in the early 90's. This wasn't an issue at the time. The problem is that consultants are paid for confidential advice. It's a breach of their code of ethics to explain all their advice to the media. So does that mean that they shouldn't blog about relevant issues?

See, codes of ethics come from people who don't expect to live under them. The aformentioned lawyer is looking for work, she's not going to set up a blog and work at it seven days a week like us "leading bloggers" do. A title which obviously means little unless you're a right wing hack. The people who actually do the work have ethical standards which they actually try to live by, but they don't toss it in your face.

But if bloggers lived by her ideas of ethics, a lot of stuff would go by the boards. All she cares about is being given credit for something people are already doing and then making a lot of money off of grants or some other crap. Working dilligently at somethng is obviously beyond her. I resent like hell the idea that we're so stupid or so naive that we'd sell our reputations to a pol for a few grand. Blogs are as different as the people who do them, but the people who do it daily take their responsibilities as serious as any reporter I have ever known.

Ok, what are some of the ethical codes I think are important?

First, and it's obvious: no plagerism. Linking to a site or noting where the content comes from is the most important ethical duty of a blogger.

Second, giving due credit when reproducing other people's ideas. Now, I didn't need to say Atrios brought up that currency scam thing, but it's only fair to do so, just as he gives me credit for my work.

Third, trying not to steal photos. Now, I've been guilty of linking to photos from private sites. When people complain, I offer people paynment for their server load. Which is why most of the art I use comes from Yahoo or other news sites.

Fourth, correcting errors when found. It's wrong to let errors stand when they can be corrected. Sometimes, I do in comments or strike out the error in the copy. But as long as it's addressed which is what matters.

Fifth, fairness in content. I can't say oh, I think Andy Sullivan thinks Michael Jackson should spend tine with more little boys. He's never said any such thing, and thus, such a statement, while not libelous, is grossly unfair. Being fair to everyone, regardless of politics is simply critical. If people apologize or admit error, that should get as much attention as the original sin. This means going after them for their actions, not things they haven't done.

Six, responding to comments and or e-mail. While you can't respond to every piece of mail, you should do as much as you can.

Seven, disclosing conflicts of interest or special knowledge. When you've placed on your website your conflicts, you've done the most people can expect. The best way to do that is to be up front.

Notice where this is. Because frankly, by the time this matters, you have had to already have gained the trust of people. If you're a slandering wackjob, no one cares who pays you. The idea that bloggers have some alternative agenda and need to be policed is not only pernicious, but unproven on either side, except for the two clowns which took 30K from John Thune and didn't say a word. How come that got little ink, but Kos's $9K contract for technical consulting is some kind of scandal? It isn't, just grudgework which turned out badly.

Eight, disclosing where your site's funding comes from. This is no small item. People have a right to know who pays your bills. In my case, you and blogads. That's it and that's how it will remain. I will never accept money to consult for a campaign or give them any information I wouldn't give anyone else.

Nine, disclosing what you do with your money. Now, our ambitious lawyer doesn't care about that, because it doesn't further her grudge, but I think if you raise money from the public, they should have some idea where the money goes. If it's for soccer jerseys, then fine. Or computer parts. I won't use it for luxury items like TV's and trips to AC. I will use it to help other bloggers. In fact, I think it's critcally important.

Ten, allowing the free exchange of ideas on your site. I think it is unethical to ban people because you dislike what they say, only when they inhibit what other people can say on your site. Or to kill comments once you have them up. If you have to ban people or pull posts, do that. But allow people to say what they want as long as it's not slander or violates the rules you have established for your site.

Ethics is not some simple grabbag of disclosure of conflicts. It has to do with how you handle conflict, deal with source material, treat your readers, handle confidential materials people share with you. It's a range of issues which is far more complex than knowing if a blogger gets paid by some pol. Not that isn't an issue or isn't important, but it isn't the only issue on the table. Because these issues have to be lived with and common practices developed and that can only be done by the people doing it. Which is why none of us were invited to the circle jerk at Harvard. Because our opinions wouldn't be as simplistic as some simple adoption of journalistic ethics without understanding their limitations or reasons they were created. Unless you understand how they work and the problems they cause, how can you really have a discussion of ethics?

But then, I think the agenda is to climb on our backs, smack us around and tarnish our reputations. People who think ethics are simple and clear cut are bound to be disappointed.

posted by Steve @ 12:00:00 AM

12:00:00 AM

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