Thursday, January 27, 2005

Ethical Blogging

Lately, it seems I keep hearing about mainstream media articles like this and this discussing blog ethics. Key quotes from the AP article:

When Jerome Armstrong began consulting for Howard Dean's presidential campaign, he thought the ethical thing to do was to suspend the Web journal where he opined on politics.

But to suggest others do the same with their journals, otherwise known as blogs? No way.

"If I'm getting paid by a client, I don't blog about it. That's my personal set of standards," Armstrong said. "I'm not going to hold anybody else to my personal standards. I'm not going to make that universal."

The growing influence of blogs such as his is raising questions about whether they are becoming a new form of journalism and in need of more formal ethical guidelines or codes of conduct. . . .

How bloggers handle matters of ethics and disclosure vary greatly.

While Armstrong suspended his blog, a partner in his political consulting firm, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, kept his going and instead posted a disclosure about the payment. The Dean campaign had paid the pair $3,000 a month for technical consulting services.

Others saw no need to disclose at all. In South Dakota, blogger Jon Lauck said many people knew he was a paid consultant to John Thune's Senate campaign, but Lauck didn't believe he had to post any "flashing banner" on his site. . . .

Many news organizations have formal guidelines separating editorial and business operations, and journalism schools and professional societies try to teach good practices.

Bloggers, though, tend to shudder at being called journalists, even as lines between the two blur. . . .

In some sense, bloggers already have informally adopted norms that go beyond what traditional journalists do, Rosen said. For instance, bloggers who don't link to source materials aren't taken seriously, while traditional news organizations have no such policies.

Dan Gillmor, a former newspaper columnist now studying citizen-driven journalism through blogging, said bloggers who want an audience will voluntarily adopt principles of fairness, thoroughness, accuracy and transparency.

I agree that those who want to be seen as accurate will disclose any financial connections to the company being blogged on. I don't have a problem with the idea of a political worker blogging, so long as the disclaimer is made when it touches "their" candidate, as Markos Moulitsas Zuniga did with "Daily Kos". But where does the potential for conflict begin? For example, I was a criminal prosecutor for about five years, and focused on domestic violence issues for three of them. I now work in an insurance defense field. Does that mean I am obligated to put a link to these facts whenever I discuss criminal or tort issues? My current standard is to use a disclaimer whenever I feel I've crossed the line from straight legal commentary to soapbox-land. Otherwise, I don't bother. You can glean the info from reading the blog, and like most blogs, it is essentially a personal journal of oddities. I don't feel that the personal nature of a blog makes it a poor choice for a source of information. I think James Lileks said it well in 2002 (link via Instapundit, as were the links to the articles above):

A wire story consists of one voice pitched low and calm and full of institutional gravitas, blissfully unaware of its own biases or the gaping lacunae in its knowledge. Whereas blogs have a different format: Clever teaser headline that has little to do with the actual story, but sets the tone for this blog post. Breezy ad hominem slur containing the link to the entire story. Excerpt of said story, demonstrating its idiocy (or brilliance) Blogauthor's remarks, varying from dismissive sniffs to a Tolstoi- length rebuttal. Seven comments from people piling on, disagreeing, adding a link, acting stupid, preaching to the choir, accusing choir of being Nazis, etc.

I'd say it's a throwback to the old newspapers, the days when partisan slants covered everything from the play story to the radio listings, but this is different. The link changes everything. When someone derides or exalts a piece, the link lets you examine the thing itself without interference. TV can't do that. Radio can't do that. Newspapers and magazines don't have the space. My time on the internet resembles eight hours at a coffeeshop stocked with every periodical in the world - if someone says "I read something stupid" or "there was this wonderful piece in the Atlantic" then conversation stops while you read the piece and make up your own mind.

Precisely. Most news-like blogs are more accurately linked to an editorial than the front page of a news letter. They're a news digest, meant to inform but also as a vent for the author to expand on their "take" on the issue. The links to original sources allow the readers to follow a trail of evidence and accept or reject the premise forwarded by the author.

On the other hand, some MSM outlets apparently need a refresher course in the very ethics being discussed. I was reading the Iowa Pork Forest blog this morning, as I'm signing up to contribute some posts there.

State 29 had this post about an editorial in the Gazette about the fake rainforest in Coralville, and the response from University of Iowa law professor Nicholas Johnson. Relevant excerpts are both from reprints of the articles on Professor Johnson's site. While I don't mind registering for online papers, I'm not subscribing to the Gazette merely to fisk it's articles.

The Gazette's article was very favorable to the fake rainforest:

The Environmental Project is the boldest idea proposed in Iowa in decades. Are there risks? Sure. After years of fund raising, enough money still hasn’t been raised to cover the estimated $180 million construction cost. And even once it’s built, it’s going to take a lot of visitors to make the facility self-sufficient.

But is it time to take a risk in Iowa? Even with all kinds of attention paid in recent years to business creation, work-force recruitment and simply bringing more people to Iowa, the state ranks 47th in the nation in growth since 2000. . . .

The Environmental Project won’t magically solve Iowa’s growth problem. But it can play a significant role on several fronts. . . .

Perhaps a rain forest in Iowa sounds crazy, but not any more so than a president’s likeness carved into a stone cliff or a steel arch towering over a Mississippi River town. Having a unique attraction on a grand scale would give tourists a better reason to come to Iowa, and it would leave people with a more positive perception of the state.

The Environmental Project would create hundreds of good jobs. Iowans would be cheering and legislators working overtime to create incentives if a traditional company were promising the same. . . .

Iowa can play it conservatively, shun new projects and unique approaches to economic development. But with that approach, expect the same 3 million of us to be looking at one another in a decade wondering why the tax base hasn’t grown, why investment and prosperity is fleeing to other states and why we rank at the bottom of population charts.

Professor Johnson's response points out several problems with their opinion. It also points out that the President and Publisher of the Gazette Company is Joe Hladky, who is also on the Board of Directors for the Iowa Environmental Project, which is another name for the fake rainforest in Coralville, Iowa. The Gazette never mentioned that potential conflict of interest in its glowing editorial.

This touches back to the issue I blogged on earlier, regarding members of the Citizen Advisory Board for the Environmental Project writing editorials and letters in the Iowa City Press Citizen, few of which mentioned the author's connection to the group. I'm reposting the list, and adding links to the reprints of their articles on Professor Johnson's site:

• Sheila Boyd, General Growth.

• Randy Rayner, Laborers Local No. 1238.

• Scott Carpenter, University of Iowa Department of Geoscience.

Dick (Richard L.) Rex, former mayor of West Branch. • Lois Crowley, Iowa City Community School District.

• Chris Rohret, Iowa City Community School District. • Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville.

• Sheila Samuelson, 2004 University of Iowa biology graduate. • Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett.

• Chris Scarpellino, Loparex Inc.

• Rick Hanna, Carpenters Local Union 1260.

• Josh Schamberger, Iowa City/ Coralville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

• Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth.

• Dr. Jill Scholz, Family Foot Care.

• John Hudson, Iowa Arts Council.

• Linda Schreiber, Iowa City Area Development.

• Sandra Hudson, Iowa Incubator. • Sharon Thomas, Iowa City Community School District.

• Beth Jorgensen, Iowa City Community School District.

• Neil Trott, Canterbury Inn.

• Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil.

• Deanna Trumbell, Trumbell Consulting.

• Mark Phillips, RSM McGladrey.

• Ed Williams, Biowa.

• Wayne Peterson, United States Department of Agriculture.

• Joe Raso, Iowa City Area Development.


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