Online Ethical Challenges  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   January/February 1998

Online Ethical Challenges   

A look at some of the dilemmas facing online journalists

By Dianne Lynch
Dianne Lynch, who teaches journalism at St. Michael's College.     

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Linking, cookies (online tracking devices) and advertising relationships are among the most pressing ethical issues confronting online journalists. But they are far from the only situations raising new questions:

Chat rooms: Online journalism is all about interactivity. So most online news sites have opened chat rooms. In many cases, however, the discussion often centers around name-calling and body parts. Is a site ethically or legally responsible for what's being posted? And what's the impact on a site's brand name when chat room users are bombarded with obscenities?

Immediacy: Forget about the news cycle. Online users want information now – and that means deadlines around the clock. Some editors say that's simply what wire services have been doing for years. Others argue that the pressure to publish has never been greater – and with that comes new questions about accuracy, credibility and balance.

Corrections: Most daily newspapers regularly run corrections so readers know they've been misinformed. Most online news sites have yet to adopt the practice. Some say that's because they haven't made mistakes. Others simply correct the mistake when it comes to their attention. Others follow the wire service model and post write-throughs. Do news sites online have an obligation to inform their users when they've gotten it wrong?

Archiving: Thanks to online archives, it's possible to track down information published months, even years, ago in a few keystrokes. What kind of ethical and legal responsibility does a site have for the information stored in its archives, easily and permanently accessible to its readers? What are the privacy implications of a system in which a story is available indefinitely?

Databases: One of the great strengths of the new medium is interactivity. Users can access huge databases and cull out the information particularly relevant to them: their taxes, their school spending, their neighborhood crime rate. But at what point does that access allow users to invade their neighbors' privacy?

Plagiarism: The cardinal sin of traditional journalism, plagiarism takes on new dimensions online. Downloading code is as easy as pointing to "view code" in a browser; images can be copied by a simple click of the mouse. The culture of the Net is based on openness and sharing; the culture of the newsroom abhors copying of any kind. How can these two cultures be reconciled when it comes to reasonable or fair use of information and images? – D.L.

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