From AJR, October 1998 issue
So If You've Got It, Flaunt It
Online news sites should post their ethics codes.
By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.
IN THIS AGE OF PUBLIC DISTRUST OF THE media. one would think that enterprising executives would make every effort to draw distinctions between their brand of journalism and the questionable style of reporting practiced in some quarters of cyberspace.
Certainly, readers rightly judge a publication's credibility based on its track record. But buttressing that record with a declaration of principles would send a powerful message, especially at a time when a cynical public often lumps Matt Drudge, MSNBC and the Dallas Morning News into a single, ominous force.
How to regain the public's trust? Here's one way: Tell readers about your standards and values. If you have an ethics policy, post it online. Do you have a code of conduct for employees, or a set of guiding journalistic principles? A policy to prevent the intrusion of advertising influence in editorial content? A disclosure statement about your publication's corporate parentage? Let's see it. (And please, don't let the lawyers muck it up.)
A handful of publications online--but only a handful--have laid their principles on the line. Among the best:
The San Antonio Express-News in April crafted a new ethics code, written in plain language, which covers such topics as conflicts of interest, plagiarism, freebies, anonymous sources, documentary photojournalism and (more controversially) political activism and membership on community boards. All employees are required to sign off on the code, which is posted on the paper's Web site at www.expressnews.com. The online financial publication TheStreet.com discloses its investors and business partners and posts its stringent conflict-of-interest policy on stock ownership by employees. International Data Group, the corporate parent of Computerworld, Macworld, PC World and other print and Web magazines, has adopted an online ethics policy that sets down standards for separating editorial content from advertising based on new-media guidelines adopted by the American Society of Magazine Editors. CNET: The Computer Network discloses its investors and business partners and plans to post its in-house code of conduct. The model ethics code covers employee freebies and stock transactions, disclosure of the company's affiliations in news stories, even-handed use of hyperlinks and how to forthrightly correct errors online.
Judyth Rigler, chairman of the Express-News' Ethics Committee, says the paper decided to make its code public because the editors wanted to make a statement.
``There's just a different climate for news today,'' she says. ``It's coming at us from all directions. We wanted to tell the community, in an honest and candid way, `Here are the rules we're following. Here is what we do and don't do.' ''
The paper's editor, Robert Rivard, adds: ``By affirming our values in our news columns and online, it's as if we're restating our vows to serve our readers, who feel a real ownership in their hometown newspapers.''
Clair Whitmer, executive editor of CNET.com and one of the drafters of its ethics policy, says the guidelines are rooted in traditional journalism but also embrace the realities of cyberspace publishing. For instance, ``When most publications make a mistake on their Web site, they cover their tracks and pretend it was never wrong,'' Whitmer says. ``We felt that was disingenuous, so for any mistake of substance, we post a correction on our front page and keep it archived for several months.''
Another ethical minefield involves separation of editorial and advertising. ``Throughout the industry, there's a real emphasis on achieving profitability,'' says Whitmer. ``We're seeing cross-promotional deals being struck and story pages with `sponsored links' [to related products] that are paid for by advertisers. Our policy is that any advertising link has to be clearly labeled.''
Chris Barr, CNET's top editor, agrees that disclosure is often the answer. As co-chairman of the Internet Content Coalition, a group of major online media companies, he's helping to craft guidelines that cover advertising links; advertorials; targeted ads (in which advertisers buy placement of their ad near a particular column or story); sponsored pages (in which advertisers pay to have their brand name on a page of editorial content); and other issues that directly affect a Web publication's credibility.
``It's a very rapidly changing field,'' Barr says, ``but one constant is the need for greater user education.''
Part of that education should involve publishing rules of conduct, in an open compact with readers. Who, after all, does an ethics policy serve?