When Jerome Armstrong began consulting for Howard Dean's presidential campaign, he thought the ethical thing to do was to suspend the Web...
NEW YORK — 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.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 27 percent of adults who go online in the United States read blogs. And blogs have greater impact because their readers tend to be policy makers and other influencers of public opinion, media experts say.
So far, many bloggers resist any notion of ethical standards, saying individuals ought to decide what’s right for them. After all, they say, blog topics range from trying to sway your presidential vote to simply talking about the day’s lunch.
Blogging is more like a conversation, and “you can’t develop a code of ethics for conversations,” said David Weinberger, a prominent blogger and research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “A conversation with your best friend would become stilted and alienating.”
Others, however, have pushed written guidelines.
Code could help credibility
Jonathan Dube, managing producer at MSNBC.com and publisher of CyberJournalist.net, modified the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics and urged fellow bloggers to adopt it. The principles: Be honest and fair. Minimize harm. Be accountable.
Longtime blogger Rebecca Blood circulated guidelines that call for disclosing any conflicts of interest, publicly correcting any misinformation and linking to any source materials referenced in postings.
“It seems pretty clear to me that having some kind of standard contributes to an individual blogger’s own credibility,” she said.
Yet Blood knows of fewer than 10 bloggers who have adopted her guidelines by linking to the document.
How bloggers handle matters of ethics and disclosure varies 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 last year, but Lauck didn’t believe he had to post any “flashing banner” on his site.
He said that unlike mainstream news organization, blogs like his never claim to be objective, and anyone reading a few posts would quickly know he was pro-Thune — with or without disclosure.
Beyond politics, marketers have turned to blogs as well.
A company called Marqui is paying about 20 bloggers $800 a month to write about the company and its products for managing marketing campaigns. Marqui says negative reviews are OK, and bloggers are permitted to disclose the payments.
Dr Pepper/Seven Up took a similar tactic when it launched a new flavored milk drink called Raging Cow.
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.
When Apple Computer got court orders allowing it to subpoena bloggers for the identities of people who had leaked company secrets, two of the bloggers responded by claiming they were entitled to protect confidential sources the way traditional journalists do.
And in Cambridge, Mass., over the weekend, a conference called “Blogging, Journalism and Credibility” explored the evolution of blogging and journalism and the influences of one on the other.
Many bloggers believe standards of practices are inevitable, even if they aren’t something formalized in writing.
Zephyr Teachout, who was Dean’s director of online organizing, likens it to crafting a constitution — not necessarily written as a formal code of conduct but as a set of accepted norms.
“Do you do it through a code of ethics? Do you do it by just talking to a lot of people about it? I don’t know,” she said.
Teachout has been thinking about such issues for about a year, she said, and is “constantly changing my mind.”
“Now, to some degree, bloggers are going through the same stages that professional journalism went through at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Jay Rosen, a blogger and professor of journalism at New York University. That was when newspapers started becoming independent and severed ties with political parties.
History repeats self
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, an ex-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.
“No one’s bound by these rules,” Gillmor said, “but I think some norms will emerge for people who want to be taken seriously.”
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