on 26 October 2007
On April 16, 2007, a 23-year-old man shot and killed 32 people at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. As the shootings were taking place students reported what was taking place on blogs, mobile phones, instant messaging, Flickr, Wikipedia, and social networks.
As they did so, journalists started arriving in search of information and reaction. Some "lurked", taking what they found and publishing it elsewhere; others engaged in "digital doorstepping" - asking students for their experiences and feelings, or if they'd be willing to be interviewed on camera.
While traditional journalists saw the material as being `in the public domain', many students reacted angrily to the invasion of what they saw as `their' space. It was an example of worlds colliding, highlighting the new ethical challenges facing journalists as new media technologies enabled the distinction between public and private, and between publisher and audience, to collapse.
In this context, Friend and Singer's book on the ethics of online journalism is hugely welcome.
Over eight chapters Friend and Singer attempt to summarise how journalism ethics are being changed by the ways new media technologies are being used. They begin by highlighting the culturally-specific and indeed technologically-influenced nature of ethics - how that the emergence of objectivity as an idea, for instance, was derived in part from the development of the telegraph, while new media technologies are reshaping these ethics once again.
They then look at questions around `Who is a journalist?' and whether they should have different rights to non-journalists, before looking at sourcing practices - the importance of credibility, transparency, and the ethics of lurking. In a global publishing environment legal issues are tackled - privacy, deception, data protection, and even online corrections.
In a separate chapter Singer deals with the ethics of bloggers as being distinct from mainstream journalists. "Journalists hold an Enlightenment view of truth as something rationally arrived at through well-tested methods," she argues. "Bloggers see truth as emerging from shared, collective knowledge - from an electronically enabled marketplace of ideas." A further chapter looks at citizen journalism, polling, and email: how does a news organisation maintain ethical principles with user-generated content? Where does personal opinion expressed via email sit?
The final two chapters address commercial issues such as the separation of advertising and news online - particularly issues around design and contextual ad links, external linking, and aggregating - and partnerships and ownership: what ethical issues raise their head when journalists are asked to produce for multiple platforms, or cross-promote?
Each chapter contains a useful `Case Study' which asks the reader to put themselves in a journalistic situation where the ethically `right' decision is not crystal clear: would you publish video of a beheading (and it's already on your competitor's site)? Or allegations made on a sports blog? Would you pretend to be someone else online to expose a public figure? What would you do if libellous comments were published on your blog?
These in particular highlight just how difficult the choices are, as, with new technologies, we are being forced us to reevaluate many things we take for granted: concepts of privacy, copyright, social relationships, publishing models, and communication.
For the 21st century journalist, with a virtual world at their fingertips, and the ability to publish globally, instantly, across legal and cultural boundaries, and to audiences of both `digital natives' and `digital immigrants', it's easy to make an error of judgement that will cost you. Ethical issues have become central, and this book is an essential starting point for considering them.