The Freelance Creative

5 Ethical Conundrums For Journalists In the Digital Age

In the world of crowdsourcing and citizen blogging, many newsroom codes of ethics seem about as antiquated as fedoras. Some journalists are prohibited from voting, donating to political campaigns, or even volunteering — rules that stand in stark contrast to the first-person, subjective, anecdotal writing that permeates the web. But transitioning to a digital medium not only complicates existing ethical concerns, it also raises new ethical questions.

Let’s look at how to handle some sticky situations.

1. Should you remove controversial content when asked, even if it’s accurate?

KELOLAND managing editor Jaine Andrews detailed such a case during a panel at the Midwest Journalism Conference last month: A source asked to be removed from a public document the site had published. Their call? Protecting someone who made the news — especially for breaking the law or acting unethically — isn’t the responsibility of the publication.

When a story is found to be inaccurate or misleading, the circumstances may be different; in such a case, a correction may be in order.

2. Do you need to get both sides of a story?

The blogosphere can seem like an echo chamber at times, with one big breaking news post reverberating widely. But the ripple effect can lead to a lot of “me too” posts, heavy on analysis but scant on reporting. Contributing your two cents doesn’t eliminate the need to get both sides of a story, though.

The Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics reads: “Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.” Even a quick phone call or email asking the subject for comment is a solid journalistic principle that is all the more necessary in the digital age.

3. Are you obligated to publish comments?

Commenters who are subject to moderation are quick to cry out against censorship, so it’s easy to forget how newspaper editors used to publish only the most poignant letters from readers. Now that space and ink considerations are irrelevant, many sites feel obligated to publish all comments, no matter how hateful.

But some sites aim to improve comment quality by either moderating or shutting them down completely (as Popular Science did last September). Other sites like SB Nation, Gawker, and Reddit use innovative algorithms that reward good commenters. No matter the site, restricting comments is always in bounds.

4. Should you post rumors or unverified information?

Most news sites no longer break news — users on social media are often first to the finish line when announcing important updates, unconcerned with fact-checking and source confirmation.

Fortunately, tools like Dataminr can help reporters get a head start on verifying information. Circa, an innovative news app, has also taken an interesting approach to this issue by posting regular updates to stories users can “follow,” allowing readers to get the breaking news they care about while being reasonably sure the content is accurate and up-to-date.

5. How should you identify native advertising?

The FTC mandates that native advertising or branded content be clearly distinguishable from news or editorial content. Endorsements and disclosures have to be stated prominently, viewable on all devices, and not buried within fine print or on the bottom of a web page. Language must be readily understandable.

The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) and American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) both take it a step further. Their recommendations include using different fonts and graphics for native ads and editorial content. (The New York Times’ sponsored content uses a shaded background and sans serif font instead of Times Roman, along with a clear indication of who paid for the post on the top and bottom of each page.)

The ASBPE also recommends labeling advertising content differently in links or search results, and the ASME suggests including “a prominent statement or ‘What’s This?’ rollover at the top of the advertising unit explaining that the content has been created by a marketer and that the marketer has paid for its publication.”

Although some publications may find these measures extreme, taking steps to make sure that native ads are easy for readers to distinguish from editorial is necessary for transparency and trust.

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