September 18, 2008
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue.
"Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world."
In January of 2005 I wrote Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over, by which I meant “this debate isn’t going anywhere.” But I’ve since realized that bloggers and journalists are each other’s ideal “other,” and so the flare-ups and controversies will probably continue.
These notes are my attempt to clarify some of the key terms and offer a few ideas to help people caught up in the bloggers vs. journalists conflict, which of course goes on. They were presented to “Whose rules?” a conference at Kent State University, billed as a “no-holds-barred discussion of online ethics.” (In other words, a genuine blogger ethics panel!)
Here’s the video of my presentation, which is called…
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t.
1. Because we have the Web…
There are now closed and open editorial systems: they are different animals.
They don’t work the same way, or produce the same goods. One does not replace the other. They are not enemies, either. Ideas that work perfectly well in one—and describe the world in that setting—may not work in understanding the other: they misdescribe the world in a shifted setting.
Because we have the Web…
There’s the press, but there is also the press sphere, an open system.
Within the press we find the people we know as “professional” journalists.
Within the press sphere we find pro journalists and the people formerly known as the audience, mixed together.
Because we have the Web…
The means of production—editorially speaking—have been distributed to the population at large.
“Press tools” once owned by media companies and operated by professional journalists are now firmly in the hands of anyone who wants them.
This meets the technical definition of a revolution: the means of production have actually changed hands. (Almost all Internet hype derives from that one fact.)
2. Citizen Journalism
When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that “citizen journalism.”
Citizen journalism is most likely to thrive on an “open” platform.
That’s what blogging is: an early and awkward name for open platform publishing, in which anyone can participate.
Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, said A.J. Liebling. Still true. But blogging means anyone can own one. Therefore freedom of the press belongs equally to the amateur and the pro. As does journalism, including its essential practices. The pros may be in a better position to excel at those practices but they do not “own” them.
Important! If anyone can that does not mean that everyone will. It means, “anyone who has time and reason can freely participate.”
In practice, closed and open editorial systems, the press and the press sphere, are not separate things but richly interactive with one another in the news and information marketplace.
3. Gatekeepers and filters
In closed systems, editorial production is expensive, so we need good gatekeepers. We solved that problem by having professionals do it.
In open systems, production is cheap and new material abundant, so we need good filters. We solved that problem by having bloggers, social media sites and software do it.
For a filter to become more intelligent and effective on the web, it needs to be highly interactive with the filter-ees: the people one is filtering for.
The original service that bloggers provided was exactly that: they were intelligent and agile filters of the Web for the people who came to rely on them. The users.
In closed editorial systems, the barrier for an individual author is vertical: getting published. Then you’re “in.”
In open systems, the barriers are horizontal: getting picked up. If your post is not shared, indexed, bookmarked, discussed, commented upon, and linked to, it’s not going to “stick” and become part of the Web. Getting published is the easy part.
The number one reason why journalists should blog is that it tutors you in how the Web works. You learn about open systems, and getting picked up; you become more interactive and have to master the horizontal part— or your blog fails. Fails to stick.
Dave Winer, one of the founders of blogging, says a blog is not defined by the software or features in the format (like comments) but by a person talking: “one voice, unedited, not determined by group-think.” Blogging, he says, is “writing without a safety net” and taking personal responsibility for the words.
To trust a blogger is to trust in a person, talking to you, who is working without the safety net of an institution.
If we rely on a blog for news in a given sphere—gadgets, politics, food, pets, moms—we are trusting in it as an intelligent filter of the live Web. This is the first thing a good news blog has to be.
Trust can also be lodged in the community of people who regularly show up at a blog to kibbitz about the news.
You can trust in the way a blog distributes you around the web: the world it links you to.
In all these ways, good bloggers—like Dave Winer—have earned the trust of users who come to rely on them.
If “ethics” are the codification in rules of the practices that lead to trust on the platform where the users actually are—which is how I think of them—then journalists have their ethics and bloggers have theirs.
In all these ways, good bloggers build up trust with a base of users online. And over time, the practices that lead to trust on the platform where the users actually are… these become their ethic, their rules.
Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform that operated as a closed system in a one-to-many world.
That’s why I say: if bloggers had no ethics, blogging would have failed. Of course it didn’t. Now you have a clue.
Dec. 30: comments re-opened, in case you would like to discuss.
Posted by Jay Rosen at September 18, 2008 10:22 AM Print
Be curious to hear how this is received by audience at KSU. Will they get it? Particularly the part about ethics.
Wonder how many in the audience have tried blogging on their own? Failure to do so, to my mind, demonstrates a fundamental lack of curiosity so necessary to be successful in this biz.
The number one reason why journalists should blog is that it tutors you in how the Web works. You learn about open systems, and getting picked up; you become more interactive and have to master the horizontal part— or your blog fails.
Jay, brilliant analysis and some points that cut to the heart of the matter. If a lack of ethics on the blogosphere was such a big problem then more people (other than conference delegates) would be making a noise about it.
Posted by: Vincent Maher at September 18, 2008 10:47 AM | Permalink
I so appreciate your inclusion of bloggers serving as aggregate filterers. Bloggers also amplify and provide a synergistic effect in how they disseminate, analyze and apply the collective/collaborative information.
One aspect of the relationship between blogging and traditional investigative journalism is that of is that they are becoming interdependent. Bloggers need to use the source material which so far, only investigative journalists have the needed access to be able to obtain.
BUt what is changing is the bloggers' ability to drive and to change the media narrative. I think that this is where some of the resistance to bloggers by traditional journalists arises as it's perceived as losing control over the narrative, control over the story and usurping the power and changing the relationship between reporter and editor.
But this is only a guess as a non-journalist, blogger looking from the outside in at another profession.
I write about health, policy and professional nursing (which in my view, if woefully absent in mainstream reportage). I often send emails to reporters explaining where the gaps in coverage are, why it's important to include professional nursing, and I offer to serve as a resource for nursing and for nursing sources/experts, etc.
Only a small proportion of reporters have responded to those emails, and even fewer have asked for support or assistance.
I hope that bloggers and reporters will develop better partnering ties in the future so that reportage across all issues becomes richer, broader, deeper and more evidence-based.
I was trying to think about bloggers who have lost the trust of the audience. Normally you don't hear about such cases, but then I realized "Well what about Drudge?" He's not really a "blogger" but I would say over and over again he proves he's not trustworthy. Headlines show up but never appear. Scoops rarely appear all they turn out to be.
Do conservative bloggers link to him? But for all that, he seems to never have quite lost the trust of certain inside-beltway reporters.
Posted by: NewsCat at September 18, 2008 2:07 PM | Permalink
I was on NPR two weeks ago during a Talk of the Nation episode about the coverage of the conventions in mainstream media. I made the exact same arguement you did. Bloggers, while not neutral, are transparent. The mainstream media is neither neutral OR transparent. Thus, I am able to see the filter my news passes through on blogs, and can adjust my level of belief/skepticism accordingly. It is why I get nearly all my news for multiple sources online. The only thing the mainstream media seems to be good for anymore is gossip. See what Sally said about Tony. Then, I turn the TV off.
Posted by: Dustin at September 18, 2008 3:10 PM | Permalink
One of the reasons I prefer bloggers over the traditional media is that blogger bias is typically blatant. Bloggers get up on there soap box and argue for a point of view. They don't pretend to be "fair and balanced."
The traditional media pretends its non biased, and therefore parades opinion around as fact. Fox News = perfect example.
I'll take my bias straight up any day.
Posted by: John G. at September 18, 2008 3:20 PM | Permalink
I was trying to think about bloggers who have lost the trust of the audience.
Andrew Sullivan is the perfect example of this. It's worth noting that he didn't forfeit trust by breaking any of the rules on Jay's list ...
Posted by: Michael Brazier at September 18, 2008 9:26 PM | Permalink
Jay, brilliant analysis and some points that cut to the heart of the matter. If a lack of ethics on the blogosphere was such a big problem then more people (other than conference delegates) would be making a noise about it.
are you kidding? the left is always complaining about the lack of ethics of bloggers from the right, and vice-versa.
perhaps more to the point is what happened in the left blogosphere during the primaries. Most of the left drank the Obama Kool-Aid and/or went whole hog with Clinton derangement syndrome. Facts no longer mattered, truth no longer mattered -- even common decency and respect for women no longer mattered. Flat out lies were told about Clinton and misogyny and sexism was the rule of the day (and this from so-called progresseives).
There are no blogger ethics, there is no filter, there is just a mob (on both ideological sides) that accepts and repeats whatever panders to their prejudices.
Posted by: p.lukasiak at September 18, 2008 9:30 PM | Permalink
"That’s why I say: if bloggers had no ethics blogging would have failed."
Prof. Rosen: What is your proof this statement is true?
Posted by: Dexter Westbrook at September 19, 2008 2:33 AM | Permalink
This is a fun read with a few good points but is either a bundle of false premises or an attack on a straw man, I can't decide which.
Straw man / false premise 1: Mainstream media is somehow trying to impose its hoary ethics on the entire blogosphere, which it considers unethical.
False premise 2: That old fashioned journalistic ethics are an ill match for the blogosphere.
False premise 3: Bloggers are kept ethical by the need to retain the trust of their readers.
This last to me is something I very often see in digital journalism, the blind, excited belief that if more people are watching, that makes what you're creating more worthwhile.
Popularity does not equal credibility. Popularity does not equal credibility.
Posted by: Nick Miller at September 19, 2008 4:40 AM | Permalink
Nick: The conference I was asked to keynote was specifically asking questions like, "should there be rules for bloggers?" and "has the blogosphere ruined journalism?" Those are the questions they posed-- The Kent State journalism school and the Poynter Institute, a school for working journalists. I response, I said what I said in this post.
Um, I think the ideas of trust and transparency have been around for just a little longer than the intertubes.
This post says the Internet invented trust and that no one knew about transparency before the Web? It does? Really? Gosh. Where? I don't remember putting those absurd claims in, but, heck, if you would dig them out and show me then I will certainly retract them. Does that work for you?
Popularity does not equal credibility.
Good news is: you're right! But who said popularity equals credibility? I said that good bloggers like Dave Winer have earned trust by doing things like the things I described in those bullet points.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 19, 2008 9:21 AM | Permalink
I said that good bloggers like Dave Winer have earned trust by doing things like the things I described in those bullet points.
But non-transperant bloggers don't seem to lost trust. It does seem to me that once trust is earned, it is never actually lost. Same applies to individual reporters.
Posted by: NewsCat at September 19, 2008 10:33 AM | Permalink
Thank you for this. It's meaning-to-word ratio is tremendous and fun.
I just feel like you've glossed over the most interesting bits. What constitutes an open system vs. a closed one? How are their structures relevantly different? And, much more importantly, just how do their ethics fall out of their respective structures?
Time constrained your talk, for sure, but you mentioned only that you were omitting examples. As much as I'm willing just to trust your claims--I do think they're right--I'd like deduction, and other, more skeptical people could really use it.
Also, you're claims about publishers that mix open and closed systems--that they'll just have to mix the ethics of open and closed systems--seems far from obvious and kinda dubious actually. (We would not be able to mix ethic A and ethic not-A, for an example.) An explanation about what gives rise to each ethics would help us sort this out.
Posted by: Josh Young at September 19, 2008 10:26 PM | Permalink
It's not that all bloggers are magically ethical, or transparent, or reliable, or sufficiently interactive... it's that in the aggregate they have the tendency to be, as amplified by endorsements and interactive learning.
The context of amplifiable opinion is what enabled the catalyst of an effective search machine to multiply the utility of the internet in a remarkably short time.
Posted by: fortboise at September 19, 2008 11:23 PM | Permalink
Josh: Thanks for the invitation to elaborate on the difference between closed and open editorial systems.
If I want to join the Los Angeles Times political team and help report and comment on the 2008 election with them, because I like their approach, where do I go to sign up?
That's the essential difference I am driving at in trying to discern two "types" of editorial systems-- closed and open. Where do I go to sign up?
For the LA Times there is no such point in the system. It isn't designed to work that way. The people running their political coverage have never thought of it as "open to outsiders," which is how they would put it.
Similarly: If I want to create an account and join Time magazine's health coverage... how do I do it? There's no place on this page where I can do that. It's "closed." Which is not a bug but a feature, as the coders like to say.
The strength of a closed system is that it has controls, in same sense that an accounting system puts controls in place. Stories are assigned, reported, edited and checked (copy edited) by a team using a protocol, or newsroom standard. These are the hallmarks of the closed system. The controls create the reliability, right?
In contrast, we have OffTheBus, one example of an open system. Here, you definitely can sign up. (and 12,000 did in campaign 08) Same with TPM cafe ("sign up') and Next Right ("create an account.") To join their political coverage in 2008 is fairly easy because it's an open system, meaning “anyone who has time and reason can freely participate.”
Which is not to deny you need a computer, a few spare hours, and Net access, and several other things to get in the game. Still, there are few controls. The more controls you put on it, the fewer people participate. Why? Basically because people don't like to be controlled. :-)
Open systems take advantage of cheap powerful tools and the magic distribution system of the Web. This leads to a flood of "cheap" production in the blogosphere, some of which is valuable and worth distributing in wider rings, much of which is not. Thus, a characteristic means of creating value online is what I called the intelligent filter to do that sorting and choosing.
If you look at successful open systems, they don't try to prevent "bad," unreliable or low quality stories from being created or published. They don't try to prevent the scurrilous. But the Los Angeles Times would. Typically, successful sites within open systems "filter the best stuff to the front page." And this is how they try to become reliable, despite the fact that anyone can sign up and post rants.
That way of creating trust (or reliability) is different than the way a closed system--like the health team at Time magazine--does it. Therefore the ethics will be different. Which is what this post is about.
As for the "mixed" system and "what does that look like?", look no further than Top of the Ticket. It's not super open. Just a blog with a comment thread. It's semi-open. A mixed system.
Or look at this plea from the News-Press in Ft. Myers, Florida: Help us Investigate. A little more open. Can anyone participate? Yeah, anyone with information.
Then we have CNN's I-report What's this? Hey, you can sign up. Do I have to pledge to always take the view from nowhere, as CNN prides itself on doing? No, different ethic. That's an open system, set within a closed one.
Does that help at all?
Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 20, 2008 2:35 AM | Permalink
I'm working on a follow-up:
If Reality TV Had No Ethics, Reality TV Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue.
Just kidding, but I don't think it's ethics that's kept blogging afloat. Arguably many of the most popular blogs suffer from a severe deficit of the quality.
People usually engage with different blogs (and other media) because they reflect (and typically re-enforce) what they already believe. If they happen to be ethical and idealistic, they make a beeline for ethical, idealistic blogs. If they happen to be ethically challenged and intellectually malnourished, the head to Little Green Footballs. In droves.
So for a blog to be successful, it doesn't have to be ethical, it just has to hew closely to subject matter that appeals to an audience of significant size.
Definitely agree with your characterization of what makes for an ethical blog and appreciate your articulating it. Just playing devil's advocate with your thesis.
Posted by: Robert S. at September 20, 2008 2:49 AM | Permalink
Bloggers have their ethic. Tune into it if you want to understand them. That is my plea. Not "if you examine the blogosphere you will see what you recognize as ethical behavior all over the place."
Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 20, 2008 2:59 AM | Permalink
If they happen to be ethically challenged and intellectually malnourished, the head to Little Green Footballs.
... or, on the other side of politics, DailyKos.
There is a difference, though. LGF lost a lot of influence when it turned into a fever swamp. DailyKos gained influence by becoming one.
Posted by: Michael Brazier at September 20, 2008 3:26 PM | Permalink
Meant to bring this interview to your attention earlier, but I think it dovetails rather nicely with the ethics of blogging, trust and truth.
So go and check out this ABC 7.30 Report Media industry in crisis as standards decline interview transcript, with Journo Nick Davies (here in Oz for the Melbourne Writers Festival back in August), about declining standards and "truth".
Posted by: Cassie ST at September 22, 2008 12:45 AM | Permalink
While I agree that blogging serves a purpose in a democratic society, I do not think that it is comparable to journalism and its ethics standards. In this post, Rosen uses the term journalism too loosely. He generalizes and fails to acknowledge that not all bloggers follow his ideals.
In addition, I think the term “citizen journalism” is somewhat of a misnomer. Having access to a form of mass media, such as the Internet, and disseminating a personal report about current events does not constitute an act of journalism. A better term might be citizen reporter.
Kovach and Rosensteil’s last principle of journalism states that “Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.” Citizens, who rely on blogs as their main sources of news, need to question their sources of information and not trust so blindly.
Posted by: Maria at September 22, 2008 1:21 PM | Permalink
By listing what "good bloggers" do in my bullet points, I think I was acknowledging that not "all bloggers" follow the ethic I have described. There's good blogging, bad blogging and a ton of mediocre as well as ethically challenged blogging. I think that's pretty obvious, don't you?
Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 22, 2008 1:47 PM | Permalink
Well, Michael, it is nice to know that I am "ethically challenged and intellectually malnourished", because I happen to spend time at DailyKos.
Posted by: Graham Shevlin at September 22, 2008 4:13 PM | Permalink
Another way open systems are different:
Here's Markos Moulitsas speaking about his own site, "If something stupid can be said, you can believe someone on Daily Kos has said it."
The owner of a traditional media property could never say that.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 22, 2008 10:30 PM | Permalink
I find the initial thesis regarding an assessment between blogger and journalist ethics potentially interesting and worthwhile. However, there seems to be such a lack of 'deep structure' analysis or what one could call 'meta-analysis' of bloggers and blogging that this conversation remains on a superficial level, and perhaps that is why there is no true conflict of interest. Who, for example, has deemed that there should even be an extended discussion on the matter? Is it worth talking about? If so, why? I fail to see any real answers to these basic questions. There is such a simplification about connecting blogging to democracy that it is astounding. Truly important issues are not addressed. Here are some things I consider basic and important that are below the radar screen:
1. Bloggers are privileged. They have access to computers. They by and large are literate; that is, they can read and write a grammatically correct sentence, and connect them together. This is not something one should assume is universal.
2. Bloggers have time. Large numbers of people do not have time; their work leaves them utterly without physical or mental energy. They are content to survive from one day to the next.
3. Bloggers do not reach out to the international community by doing something that would demonstrate respect and consideration for much of the world: that is, they do not learn the basics of a foreign language, let alone achieve proficiency in one. Automated bilingual translators are by and large useless. Just try one , and it will be evident. English is the imperial language, and bloggers could actually DO something about this by studying a foreign language, and perhaps one day blog in more than one language or translate their blog as a service to non-English speakers. But that would be an act of selflessness, not egocentricity. And besides that, it's hard work. God forbid!
4. Bloggers form their own societies. Like minded bloggers form cliques, and oppositional bloggers form contra-cliques to keep things interesting. Argumentation descends to the triteness of fans for opposing sports teams arguing for their side.
5. To borrow a valuable concept from Stephen Jay Gould about self-awareness, most humans know very little about their own perceptions, memories, preferences, and beliefs. We are often wrong, and we are permanently imperfect. "Know thyself." I recommend "Muller Bros. Moving & Storage," an excellent and accessible essay that addresses the problematic nature of understanding the self.
6. The issue that ethics is not an issue in regards to blogging does not necessarily mean that bloggers are ethical (even if they are). It's that , to my mind, there is no controversy because really, blogging doesn't really matter very much, and when something doesn't matter, one doesn't micro-analyze it. Look at the universe of discourse. Comments here refer to bloggers like Andrew Sullivan. I've heard of his name, but I have never read his blog, at least not intentionally. Does one need to read blogs to be well informed? Well, since the political blogs in the U.S. are in English, one might as well say that if one doesn't understand English, one isn't informed: more unacknowledged or invisible bias. By the way, the BBC published websites, blogs, podcasts, and other web-based media in about 20 different languages. What individual or consortium does that in the U.S? Does anyone remember Obama's remarks about being embarrassed at not knowing a second language? It's doubtful. It would actually mean doing some hard work. Where's the ethics in assuming that admittance to your blog's universe is contingent on knowing English?
6. Ultimately, this idea of 'transparency' in blogging is ridiculous. Bloggers in America come from the same social caste, operate in more or less the same universe of technology and use language that is at the same level of discourse. Bloggers (of the political/opinion variety) are overwhelmingly male, white with graduate degrees, do not endure financial hardship as do most of the world's people, are not threatened with death (as journalists of any stripe are in places like Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. It's true that bloggers may not be a part of the mainstream media, but that's not necessarily good. They have no power; they talk and do nothing. And the metaphor that most closely matches that of the political blogosphere is the college seminar class in politics and government. It's all one big classroom where one can opine and provide evidence for 'points' and to impress the teacher (which since he/she is disembodied) is a mental construct within the blogger mindset, a composite of the other 'participants' in the seminar. However, while many may not like to accept the fact, once you shut down your computer, you will be in the real world.
Posted by: Alan John Gerstle at September 24, 2008 1:11 AM | Permalink
Alan, anyone who wants good information on the subject of US politics had better be fluent in English, for the simple reason that the overwhelming majority of US voters speak English, a status that no other language enjoys, and it's US voters who are the intended audience for the debate. For the same reason students of French politics must know French; and as it would be unreasonable, nay provincial, to condemn French bloggers for not translating their words into English, you are being unreasonable in condemning US bloggers for not translating their words into twenty other languages. If foreigners expect US citizens to assume the burden of translating arguments intended for other US citizens into their native languages, it is they who are inconsiderate and disrespectful.
Moreover, none of the points you raise actually distinguish bloggers from journalists, as classes. I never yet heard of an illiterate journalist, for example. And bloggers outside the West -- yes, they exist -- run the same risks to life, limb and property that journalists outside the West do, while US journalists are quite as safe in that respect as any US blogger. For the purpose of analyzing blogging vs. journalism these considerations are irrelevant; you might as properly call attention to the fact that everyone involved is a human being, and we are not considering the valuable insights of the fungoid Mi-go from Yuggoth, or the perspective of the courts of Seelie and Unseelie in Faerie.
Posted by: Michael Brazier at September 24, 2008 5:26 AM | Permalink
Is accepting the Society for Professional Journalists's code of ethics still purely voluntary, for their members?
Posted by: Anna Haynes at September 25, 2008 11:12 PM | Permalink
If only journalists and bloggers would do ethical things -- such as soliciting reporting on the untruths put forth by both presidential campaigns, instead of just one.
Posted by: Evil Pundit at September 27, 2008 8:47 PM | Permalink
Keep after 'em Jay. One of these days people will come to respect this publishing platform like the people who, long after he died, realized the significant publishing contributions of the poet William Blake.
And maybe you have to look down here in a place called Alabamaland to find journalist-bloggers who are at risk of jail and death for challenging Karl Rove and the Bush Justice Department and the power of corporate America.
Were newspapers quick to predict the economic collapse and subsequent bailout? Uh, no, I think us bloggers have been talking about that for awhile.
And maybe it is only here and in places such as Auburn where newspaper editors consider it ethical to throw away letters from the KKK rather than putting them a baggy and giving them to the FBI and Klanwatch.
Journalism historians now write stories about courageous newspaper editors that might as well begin with: "Once upon a time..."
I would like to see more discussion of editors and reporters and writers who publish on the Web Press who are making a difference and less hand-wringing from academics about ethics.
I think the first and easiest way to dismiss new technology for those who feel intimated or threatened by it is to question the ethics of it.
Long live the Web Press!
And let's not forget. Just about every major newspaper corporation in the U.S. has been hit with not only major ethical lapses at one time or another. They routinely miss stories and make bad business decisions.
"maybe you have to look down here in a place called Alabamaland to find journalist-bloggers who are at risk of jail and death for challenging Karl Rove..."
Oh, please, GW. Enough already with the gross hyperbole.
Link, please, that backs up such a charge? I mean, really, and on a "journalism" blog no less (although, perhaps that explains it to some).
Posted by: Kristen at September 30, 2008 12:58 PM | Permalink