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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

Without a Rule Book   

Cyberspace presents journalists with an entirely new set of ethical dilemmas.

Related reading:   Online Ethical Challenges

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

In February, 1997, Fred Mann, general manager of Philadelphia Online, addressed 37 of his colleagues in the auditorium of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and set the tone for the four-day ethics conference that was to follow.

Online journalism, he said, is a quagmire of conflicting interests and new ethical dilemmas. It raises questions even the most seasoned journalists have yet to consider. "And if I was asked to speak tonight because I could answer all of these confusing questions, well, they screwed up," Mann said. "I can't."

It was his hope, he continued, that the conference would produce some common understandings. "I look to this gathering for guidance and support," he said.

Mann, who oversees the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News' Web site ( www.phillynews.com ), may have found both. But what he didn't get was consensus.

Despite long days of heated debate, and the drafting of a set of guidelines for making ethical decisions online, participants left St. Petersburg with more questions than answers:

  • Are news sites responsible for the information they link to?
  • How does a site remain credible and accurate in the face of minute-to-minute deadlines?
  • Are online sites responsible – legally or ethically – for what goes on in their chat rooms?
  • Are "cookies" (online tracking devices) and registration requirements an invasion of users' privacy?
  • And perhaps most troubling: Is the long-standing church-and-state relationship between editorial and advertising morphing into an overly accommodating partnership?

  • "We failed to reach consensus on many issues and, in some cases, to even agree on the nature of the problems," wrote participant Anne Stuart, managing editor of WebMaster magazine ( www.web-master.com ), in her column on the conference.

    Almost a year later, not much has changed.

    Web editors around the country say there is little consistency across the profession – even between one situation and another in a single newsroom. And while most journalists contend that traditional values remain relevant online, they disagree sharply about how those values play out in a medium defined by immediacy, interactivity, burgeoning competition and unflagging pressure to produce revenue.

    Such ethical uncertainty has not slowed the rush to cyberspace. AJR/ NewsLink ( www.ajr.org ) reported in October that more than 2,000 American newspapers publish regularly on the Web, and – despite the 100 or so publications that abandoned their online enterprises last year – the number continues to grow.

    With 71,000 new users logging on to the Internet every day in 1997 and newspaper readers twice as likely as average Net users to spend money online, the question for most media outlets is not if but how to establish a strong Web presence – though many acknowledge that it is fear of obsolescence rather than enthusiasm that drives their efforts.

    But as the online landscape evolves from an unsettled frontier into, perhaps, a commercial boomtown, professional attention remains fixed on technology and economics.

    ëhe problem, say some editors and ethicists, is that the online environment changes rapidly and unpredictably. Decisions are made in a culture still uncertain of itself, and the clamor for profits too often drowns out other concerns.

    "In the case of new media, people are going 100 miles an hour, both to get up to speed and to stay ahead of their competitors," says Bob Steele, director of Poynter's ethics program. "We need to ask ourselves, 'How do we make good decisions in an environment that has neither a long journalistic tradition nor an opportunity for reflection?' "

    Steele suggests that online newsrooms look to their print counterparts as models. But the very nature of the online audience changes the terrain, argues Doug Manship Jr., new media director of the Advocate in Baton Rouge.

    Print newspapers adhere to community standards as they make ethical decisions, he says. "Most papers know their readership very well and make editorial and advertising decisions based at least in part on their readers' sensitivities."

    But how does an editor gauge an audience that could be national, even international, in scope?

    That's just one of the challenges that traditional approaches to ethics may not cover, according to Brooke Shelby Biggs, columnist for Hotwired ( www.hotwired. com ) and producer of the site's commentator page.

    "The ideals put forth in the ethics codes still hold true and are very valuable online," Biggs contends, "but this particular medium has so many ingredients that the codes don't take into account. It makes things a lot more complicated."

    Biggs argues for a new media watchdog group, a coalition of journalists to serve as a touchstone for the industry. Not a news council, the group would be a "cross-section of representatives of the online community talking about these issues in a more formal way." At minimum, she says, online journalists need a better understanding of their audience and its culture.

    The Web community is antiestablishment and skeptical of the status quo. It assumes that information should be free-flowing, unrestrained and open to interpretation – assumptions that thwart the old media's traditional role as gatekeeper and protector of the public's right to know (see "Net Gain," November 1996).

    "The people who have been great at communicating information to a mass audience will continue to be great at it," she says, "but they're going to have to be more open and creative about it, even while they're protecting their credibility and authority."

    If there is anything about which most editors and observers seem to agree, it's that good ethics is good business. In the increasingly chaotic and fragmented world of online media, newspaper sites have brand names to protect and defend – brand names that set them apart from a ravenous pack of wannabe news providers.

    "I do have one important answer," Mann told the ethics conference last year. "If we hope to prosper online, it is because, amid the thousands of Web sites – from Yahoo! to the two guys in their garage in West Philly – we journalism sites are paid attention to because we have brand recognition that says we are credible sources of information."

    But how do you foster credibility online? Through roundtable discussions, Staci D. Kramer, a freelancer and chair of SPJ's Task Force on Online Journalism, is helping to define issues in new media, ranging from credentialing to copyright to ethics. The organization's traditional code of ethics is a good place to start, Kramer says. Its tenets are direct and clear: Seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; and be accountable.

    For trained and experienced journalists, the SPJ values are working assumptions, Kramer says. But that may not be true for the new breed of online publishers and writers. "There is a feeling that the difference between people who were trained as journalists and people using the Internet to act
    as journalists is that the first group adheres to a common set of ethical guidelines, and the second doesn't feel that it has to," Kramer says.

    In addition, independent journalists don't benefit from the institutional checks and balances built into newsroom routines. The daily news cycle sends a story through a series of internal checkpoints before it arrives on a reader's front porch or computer screen. That's not always the case in an environment in which anybody with a computer and a modem can publish.

    "Online is different," Kramer says. "But if I'm a reporter, I still shouldn't be printing a story without sending it first through an editor. It can't go directly from me to my computer to the Web, the way it does with so many people who are pamphleteering online."

    íramer says it's important to remember that despite the differences between old and new media, the fundamental issues remain the same. "We need to remember: Common sense doesn't leave the room when online journalism comes in," she says.

    Who could argue? But one newsroom's common-sense decisions can depart dramatically from another's, which results in widely varying policies on such fundamental issues as linking, the use of cookies and advertising relationships. In the forefront – and coming under fire for some of its decisions – is the venerable, traditional and authoritative New York Times.

    On September 15, 1997, the New York Times, in both its print and online versions, featured an in-depth story by reporter Nina Bernstein about the use of electronic data-gathering techniques that have "turned private detectives into a vanguard of privacy invasion."

    "At a time of growing public alarm over the erosion of privacy by technology and data commerce, electronic dossiers have become the common currency of computer-age sleuths, and a semi-underground information market offers them much more: private telephone records, credit card bills, airline travel records, even medical histories," Bernstein wrote.

    The print version of the story named the businesses that provide these services. The online version provided direct links to their Web sites.

    On October 21, the New York Times on the Web ( www.nytimes.com ý carried a story about a new Web site devoted to establishing the innocence of convicted killer Charles Manson. Under the headline "Manson Family Web Site: History Rewritten by Losers," the story described the prosecutor's concern that the Web site "obviously is sucking in unsuspecting young people who have no idea what a bad person Manson is."

    At the close of the story, the Times provided links to Access Manson and three other sites espousing his innocence.

    The links in these stories probably led readers to less-than-credible organizations or information, acknowledges Rob Fixmer, editor of CyberTimes, the section of the Times' site featuring original material. But, he adds, the Times is providing its readers a service, not assuming responsibility for the information at the other end of the click.

    "Our job is to share as much information as possible," he says. "We have to have enough faith in our readers that, when we send them to a site, they will make an informed, intelligent decision about what they're seeing."

    That doesn't mean the Times has no standards for linking, Fixmer adds. He has written guidelines based on the Times' tradition as a family newspaper: no links to sites that "celebrate violence" or present sexual content; no links that promote or extol bigotry or racism.

    In addition, when a reader clicks on a link embedded in a story, a "disclaimer" page appears, explaining that the user is leaving the Times' site for destinations over which the newspaper has no control. "In a way, that's a legal disclaimer to the point that we're telling you you're going somewhere that has some affinity to the story," Fixmer explains, "but we don't know what you're going to find when you get there."

    The Washington Post's site ( www. WashingtonPost.com ) has adopted a similar approach: a combination of vetting links and informing readers when they're leaving Post territory. Staffers make every effort to review links and let readers know what to expect.

    Even so, the site posts an Editor's Note in the margin of linked pages, reminding readers that their clicks are taking them away from WashingtonPost.com . Many sites rarely link to content outside their own pages, a practice some Net users say exemplifies the old media's failure to exploit or understand the unique features of the new medium.

    But among sites that do embed links in their editorial content, disclaimers are often touted as a workable solution: They create a safety zone between a site and the rest of the Net, thereby protecting its brand name and credibility.

    That's a practical answer but not an ethical one, says Poynter's Bob Steele. "We cannot just say 'Buyer beware,' " Steele says. "That alone does not mitigate against the harm that can come from tainted information."

    In his view, sites are ethically responsible for the information they provide to readers, even if that information comes through a link. "I've never liked the word 'disclaimer,' " he says. "It means, 'I do not claim responsibility.' I don't believe that's an appropriate position for a news organization to take."

    Steele says there's nothing wrong with warning readers "when we are leading them to something that might alarm them," but, "to say 'disclaim' and wash our hands of it to me seems to be both arrogant and irresponsible."

    Click on www.nytimes.com and several things could happen:

    If you're new to the site, you'll be asked to register. You'll need a user name and password. You'll be asked for your age, your gender, your Zip Code and how and where you buy the Times; you'll also be asked for income information, but that's optional. And you'll be asked whether you want to receive e-mail about site features and advertisers.

    Fill in the blanks and nytimes.com is open for business.

    Unless you've configured your browser to reject cookies.

    Then you'll find yourself back at the registration page, cycling through the same process. Over and over. Until you decide to let the Times embed in your home computer a bit of data – commonly called a cookie – that allows it to track where you go on its site (see "The Cookies Crumble," July/August 1997).

    In short, the Times' policy is clear and unequivocal: No cookies, no access.

    In an online collection of replies to frequently asked questions, the Times explains the rationale. Cookies are used to save your log-on information. They keep tabs on which of the site's paid services you can access, and they allow the Times to track your clicks, either for advertising or editorial content.

    So what's the big deal?

    Despite the fact that most sites – including the Times' – assure readers that cookie information is used only in the aggregate and won't be sold or provided to other companies, privacy advocates argue that cookies infringe on Web users' right to surf the Netanonymously and privately.

    In addition, they argue, many Web users don't even know that cookies exist. They're not sophisticated enough to set their browsers to warn them about cookies, or to delete the files in their hard
    drives where cookies are stored.

    And it's all too easy to imagine scenarios in which cookie data could be used to track a Web user's personal proclivities and site preferences. For example, a Tennessee newspaper filed suit in October claiming that local government employees' cookie fileÑ are covered by open records laws; the newspaper wants the files to determine whether city workers have been spending work hours visiting entertainment or adult-oriented Web sites (see Free Press, page 15).

    "If I were to gather this kind of information about a student or colleague, I probably would be guilty of stalking under current law," University of Illinois journalism professor Eric Meyer said in a posting in an online news forum. "Online, we call it intelligent marketing, and we clamor to sign up as part of such networks. Why? Because it's money, and money is in particularly short supply online."

    However you spin it, say cookie opponents, using software to track users' Web activities reeks of George Orwell – Big Brother in cyberspace. Except in this scenario, the motivation is profit.

    The potential for abuse is there, acknowledges Kevin McKenna, who is on leave from his post as editorial director of the New York Times Electronic Media Company while on a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. "But cookies are not intrinsically good or evil," he says. "It's how they're used. And we use them for good reasons."

    The Times is highly sensitive to its users' concerns about privacy, McKenna says. That concern prompted the site to post a privacy policy that articulates exactly what it will do with the information it's collecting.

    The Times is not the only news site to require registration and cookies. The Wall Street Journal Web site ( www. wsj.com ), which charges an annual subscription fee, also demands that readers provide personal information before accessing its services.

    But many other news sites – even those whose editors argue that cookies aren't as threatening as many people believe – are very sensitive to the public's general antipathy toward them, at least for now.

    McClatchy's Nando.net *is one. Executive Editor Seth Effron says the staff is still divided on the use of cookies, both within its site and in advertising content.

    hristian ýendricks, the site's president and publisher, says advertisers are just trying to measure the effectiveness of their banner ads, not infringing on the privacy of users. But it's a distinction that readers sometimes miss, he says. And that makes cookies as much a public relations issue as an ethical one.

    "I actually had someone tell me a cookie knows everything about the user," Hendricks says. "Things like where the user has been on the Web, their credit card numbers, all kinds of things."

    Incorrect though that perception may be, it's that kind of public image of cookies that makes them more trouble than they're worth, in his view. "One must remember that a cookie by itself is meaningless," he says. "It's the information that is attached to it in some databases – and how that information is used – that is problematic."

    Read a book review at nytimes.com , click a Barnes & Noble link, and order the book. You get quick service, the giant bookseller makes a sale, and the Times gets a commission.

    Is it just good business – or an inappropriate melding of a respected news site's advertising and editorial content? The answer depends upon whom you ask. (See The World of New Media, December 1997.)

    ýernard Gwertzman, editor of New York Times on the Web, says his staff debated the arrangement and consulted with the Sunday book editor and senior editors at the paper before it was approved. He also ran it by a group of people at "one of those interminable Internet conferences" and found opinions decidedly mixed.

    "I wasn't at all sure on this one, either," he admits, "so we had demos, we kicked it around."

    There was easy consensus, Gwertzman says, that the Times reviews weren't going to pander to the bookseller. But there were two issues to consider, according to McKenna: "The first was our own integrity, which we don't intend to compromise. The second is user perception, which is equally important."

    The arrangement's success depends upon the site's ability to convince readers that advertising isn't affecting editorial content, according to McKenna. The Times came out of its deliberations convinced that it could strike the balance.

    "In the end, I decided it was a service for our readers," Gwertzman says. "We need to explore avenues of revenue since we don't charge for our product, but we need to do it in a respectful way."

    Nytimes.com is far from the first or only news site to establish transaction-fee relationships with online vendors. Salon ( www.salon.com ), one of the best-known Webzines, has a deal with Borders Books, and Amazon.com has a growing "associates program" in which it contracts with online publishers who earn up to 15 percent on sales resulting from consumer clicks off their Web sites.

    But common practice doesn't make an arrangement valid or ethical, say some observers.

    ýPJ director Kramer says appearances are just as important as reality. "If the New York Times can live with the fact that there appears to be a conflict of interest there, they have to realize that somewhere down the road, those appearances may come back to haunt them," she says.

    The site's most sophisticated users will assume that the traditional firewall between advertising and editorial content remains intact, Kramer says. "But your ethical responsibility is to program and present information to your broadest audience, not your most sophisticated user," she adds.

    In response to suggestions that agreements like the one between Barnes & Noble and the New York Times are simply a service to readers, journalism professor Meyer scoffs outright. Under many such arrangements, he wrote in an online posting, news organizations "have an active financial stake" in the topics they cover. He added, "Any way you cut it, however many rationalizations you try to make, coverage becomes an unethical shill for a product."

    Most of the editors contacted for this article were more open to the idea that the new medium demands – or at least allows – new relationships with advertisers. After all, they argue, they're providing their products free of charge; the money has to come from somewhere.

    "You can't apply the ethics from the old media to the kinds of information and editorial content you'll find on the Web," says Hotwired's Brooke Shelby Biggs. "And you can't do it in advertising either."

    üevertheless, it's the tension between revenue and readership that most concerns online editors. The challenge is to keep advertisers happy even as a news site maintains its traditional – and ethical – obligations to objectivity, fairness and credibility.

    "What exists in newspapers and what we've got to translate into online is that we're independent and not for sale," says Tim McGuire, editor and senior vice president for new media at Minneapolis' Star Tribune. "That means advertising cannot and will not affect coverage. It also means that you must not fool readers about what is advertising and what is news and information."

    That doesn't mean sites shouldn't accept transaction fees, McGuire argues. It does mean they need to be honest with their readers about what they're doing. "When you click on that button that takes you to the Barnes & Noble site, the nytimes.com site should say, 'You may click to Barnes & Noble and order this book, and when you do, the New York Times gets a cut of that,' " McGuire argues.

    Even murkier, says McGuire, are sponsorship arrangements in which advertisers actually pay for the presentation of some kinds of editorial content.

    "That's going to be a very touchy area," he says. "We need to look at what television has always done and say, 'Can we do this kind of thing in a way that makes it very clear to readers what the role of our sponsors is?' "

    Anne Stuart's observation about the state of new media ethics remains as true today as it was a year ago: There's no consensus about whether the Web poses new problems and issues, much less how they should be addressed.

    McGuire says the profession needs to relax about the fact that guidelines for online journalism have yet to be written. "Some people forget that it took us a long time to work our way to a firm understanding of newspaper rules," he says. "We're going to have to work our way to a set of rules about online, and they may not be the same rules."

    But Jim Willse, editor of Newark's Star-Ledger and 1997 chair of ASNE's New Media Committee, says the traditional rules and values work just fine, even in the online world. Most of the new situations presented by the Web are practical – not ethical – concerns.

    "Most of these issues don't bother me very much.." he says. "You've got common sense, you grew up with good values, you're not going to invite incursions into your editorial integrity. There doesn't seem to be any reason for any great hand-wringing about it."

    Publishing the news is basically the same, whether you're doing it once a day or once every 15 minutes, Willse suggests.

    "I don't see any new ethical issues online that are fundamentally at odds with traditional journalism," he says. "I guess I'm just less anguished about these things than some of my colleagues."