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From AJR,   November 1999  issue

Charting New Terrain   

Related reading:   When Posting a Scoop Backfires
  Navigating a Minefield
  Web Ethics Starter Kit
  Discussing Standards
  Old Values for a New Landscape

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


SIFT THROUGH WEB journalists' inboxes, and you'll come up with a collage of their daily concerns.
Each day, for example, dozens of notes shuttle across Newstalk, an internal e-mail list serving the circle of online news "channels" managed by Internet Broadcasting Systems Inc. of Minneapolis. Most messages document daily maintenance: A writer at Channel 2000 in Los Angeles requests a proof of her latest story; another at Portland's Channel 6000 offers a national-interest piece to the group.
Others spawn ethical and policy discussions that ricochet around the ring for days: Should we link directly to the Nuremberg Files, the Web site purported to be a hit list of abortion doctors across the country? If so, do we warn viewers about the graphic images they'll see on the front page of the site?
  • How do we respond to an automated e-mail message claiming we've violated the rights of a site in Puerto Rico by using one of its images in a news story?
  • Do we accept a discussion submission from a woman, who could possibly be identified by her e-mail address, accusing her ex-husband of physical abuse?
  • Beneath a feature about a local winery, would we be comfortable linking to our e-commerce section, promising "More Gift Ideas?"
  • If we incorrectly reported that an accident victim was pronounced dead, can we wipe out the error 30 minutes later without ever having noted it?
    Compile these threads, and you might get something resembling a newbie's guide to online reporting. But so far, few news sites have stepped back from the spinning pace of the virtual press to do that.
    Should we be worried that this dynamic new medium has not hammered out hard rules of reporting to complement those in many "traditional" newsrooms? Several online news managers interviewed for this article say ironclad edicts aren't necessary and wouldn't be particularly helpful. They point out that at big, brand-name news Web sites, journalists often come with news experience and sound judgment pre-installed.
    "People who come in the door at the Wall Street Journal tend to have some experience already, or they wouldn't get in the door," says Rich Jaroslovsky, president of the newly formed Online News Association and managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition. "My philosophy from Day One was that I wanted to hire people who were first and foremost solid journalists...rather than people who could create something really whizzy but didn't have that solid journalism background."
    Jaroslovsky says it's not the mission of the ONA to lobby for rigid publishing guidelines across the medium. "In generalÉthat's something we probably don't feel comfortable with, in part because we don't see ourselves as the content cops of the Internet," he says. "Our viewpoint is that we want to encourage high standards, but I'm not sure that written standards for the Web will work, because there are so many sites engaged in various flavors of news."
    Doug Feaver, editor of washingtonpost.com and a veteran of the Washington Post newsroom, says certain routine procedures lend themselves to a written policy, but on-the-fly decisions demand on-the-fly judgment backed by experience. He encourages editors to consult with each other every day. "A lot of what good journalism is about is making decisions based on facts that are in front of you at the time," Feaver says. "I wear a beeper all the time for a reason."
    But what about the scores of smaller sites testing new territory without the benefit of institutionalized ethics, experience and editing processes? What light guides the novice Internet reporter flying solo on the night shift?
    Michael Fitzgerald, senior news producer at technology e-zine ZDNet, compares the Internet novice's predicament to that of a reporter at a small-town daily. "Sites that don't have these kinds of filters are like local printing presses, where they don't have that much impact and are not that widespread." Mistakes may be made, but the world won't be watching.
    Finally, consider the fast-growing population of mid-size sites that compete with national heavyweights in regional or niche markets, with streamlined newsrooms connected (if they're lucky) to central production and support hubs. Scores of local newspaper and TV sites fall into this category, from IBS' "Channels" to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's JS Online to the Naples (Florida) Daily News' naplesnews.com. These sites might be in the most precarious position, since they often have the visibility of large organizations without the layers of filtering processes.
    "Frankly, there need to be more safeguards and more of a gatekeeping process in small online newsrooms because you're handing the keys to your integrity over to a 22-year-old kid out of college who's exercising complete editorial autonomy," says Jay Maxwell, managing editor of Minneapolis' Channel 4000.
    Attorney Steve Ritt is a partner in the Madison, Wisconsin, firm of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP. He represents CBS affiliate WISC-TV in Madison, the TV partner for Channel 3000 (where I work as managing editor). Ritt believes codified policies can foster consistency for such newcomers. "You're trying to establish credibility, the appropriate procedures and mechanisms in a world where people think it's just a big Wild West show," he says. "Those people that address both the traditional issues as well as the quickly rising issues in the online world are going to do best. They're going to establish that credibility and allow themselves to concentrate on doing business, as opposed to getting in disputes."
    But in a business that presents new puzzles every day, Ritt and his colleagues warn that written rules can only supplement a hearty diet of discussion and education. And some question their usefulness at all. "I think codes of ethics for journalists are impossible to write in a manner that's really effective," says Jonathan Hart, online media attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm Dow, Lohnes & Albertson PLC.
    How, then, to inculcate the new-media reporters with the wisdom they'll need to earn credibility? Both Feaver and Hart stress the importance of "sensitizing" online journalists to the multitude of legal and ethical issues they'll face, rather than handing them a volume of commandments. "Though I'm skeptical about the value of codes of ethics, I'm a fan of seminars, workshops, roundtables and the like," Hart says, "which I believe can be very effective in helping young journalists learn when to ask questions, when to consult more seasoned journalists or a lawyer."
    Bottom line? "There is no substitute for news judgment," he says.
    The hallmarks of professional reporting in print and broadcast also distinguish good journalism from junk news on the Web. No reporter should be let loose in an Internet newsroom without a grasp of the basics.
    "Journalism translates from medium to medium," says ZDNet's Fitzgerald. Journalists "have to know how to check sources. They have to know to check sources. Ideally, they shouldn't be their own editors. Know how to ask good questions, to tell good stories. We want the truth, and we want to serve an audience." That said, most traditional newsroom policies are too sparse--and stagnant--to set an example. Finding a contemporary, comprehensive set of standards to cut and paste is easier said than done.
    Reviewing 33 codes of ethics for member papers of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Robert Steele of the Poynter Institute and Jay Black of the University of South Florida reported fewer than half dealt with corrections and plagiarism. Only one fourth addressed privacy and deception in newsgathering.
    "We need to be concerned with both the basics and the new issues," Steele says. "The ethical potholes and land mines are scattered across the old and new terrain."
    "I would say a whole lot of these kinds of issues do have a precedent in the print newsroom," agrees Nora Paul, an online reporting expert at Poynter. "The Internet just makes the old issues bigger and faster."
    If they choose not to codify their policies, Paul says, online managers should at least have "specific and concrete discussions" with their staffs on a regular basis. Here are some legal and ethical issues that might come up:

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