If ethics are rarely debated during the daily miracle of churning out a newspaper, the subject is rarer still in the whiz-bang, techno-toy-driven realm of new media.
While all the old ethical rules surely still apply, the Internet also presents dilemmas that never existed in a print world: reporters lurking invisibly in chat rooms; ad links embedded in editorial copy; the posting of private tragedies in news archiveÇ until the end of time; tracking users' habits and sharing data with advertisers; putting the tools of publishing into the hands of Little League coaches and others who aren't trained journalists.
But the ethical issue that may soon dwarf all others centers on what I call transaction journalism: the quid pro quo between a Web publication and outside interests such as advertisers or business allies. To the degree that it blurs the line between editorial and commercial interests, it poses a threat to the integrity of Web journalism.
We're starting to see the tentative outlines of such online alliances. The New York Times on the Web raised eyebrows in October when it incorporated links at the bottom of its book reviews, allowing users to buy books online. The clearly defined links transport users to the Barnes & Noble Web site.
My view is that the Times' arrangement is fine – this is an interactive medium, after all. But the Times would do well to add a disclosure statement spelling out the arrangement for those who wonder whether the newspaper's book review coverage might be driven in part by its financial stake (however minuscule) in trumpeting a potential bestseller.
We'll be seeing more of such arrangements as users come to expect to be able to act on the advice and information they receive on the Net. But not every publication shares the Times' high journalistic standards, and we can expect the ethical Maginot line to be breached repeatedly in the coming years. Already, advertisers are banking on the absence of the traditional "Chinese wall" between editorial and advertising in many online publications.
Fred Mann, general manager of Philadelphia Online, tells of one recent experience: "An advertiser asked us to create an interactive game based on the news of the day and put it at the top of our home page. To enter and win prizes, the user had to download some of their software. The revenue was attractive, but we decided we'd be selling our soul a little bit. So we told them they could run an ad, but we couldn't dress up their promotion to look like content."
As Mann points out, "There's considerable pressure on online publishers to grow the business and start making money, so the temptation to fudge the line is great [see "Profits in Site?" page 40]. But you can't yield to that, because the most precious thing a newspaper has is its credibility."
Even the appearance of a conflict of interest needs to be forcefully resisted. Mann relates the time a car dealer phoned the day the paper ran an effusive online review of a new BMW model. "BMW came to us and said, 'Hey, that was a great review. We want to sponsor that page.' We decided it would look like they bought and paid for that glowing review, so we turned them down."
Dominique Noth, an Internet consultant and host of last fall's Online News Summit in New York, raises a related issue: "What happens when TWA sponsors your online travel section, but you know there are better deals than the price TWA is offering in its ads? Do you give up certain consumer reporting because it will offend the advertiser? What is your responsibility to your readers?"
Another issue arises from the growing tendency of online publications to forge business alliances. Reporters and editors now must worry about the effects of a critical story on a site partner, or a phone company that provides your site's Internet access, or a bank that offers online banking services on your site, or a content provider whose physician database resides on your site.
In print an advertiser might pull an ad or cancel an account. Online they could withdraw sponsorship of an entire section. What happens when IBM sponsors your publication's technology section, or Visa sponsors the consumer finance pages, or Nike sponsors your sports pages?
"Some of us remember the bad old days when a gas company sponsoring a radio broadcast would insist on revisions to a dramatic script that included a reference to the gas chamber," Noth says. "This could easily happen again."
Which is why, in the still-evolving conventions of this young medium, we should embrace the enduring standards and values of traditional journalism: editorial integrity, balance, accuracy, respect for others and fairness.
The Net won't improve on those.