#10: Singing The Standards

By | November 14, 2006

During a meeting at my workplace this week, a group of copy editors asked the managing editor whether the same standards of accuracy that apply to print product also apply to the online product.

In a nutshell, the managing editor’s answer was this: When it comes to content created by the newspaper, yes. When it comes to user-generated content, no.

All media should pay attention to ethics and standards of accuracy in a time of media concentration and sensationalism, according to Mark Glaser’s August 2004 OJR.org article, “On the Wild, Woolly Internet, Old Ethics Rules Do Apply.”

The ability of one person to publish their thoughts to a global audience remains a unique online activity, difficult or impossible to duplicate in broadcasting or print, Glaser wrote. This incredible freedom of expression online has opened up global distribution for every human thought or deed, good or bad.

Add to this the values of “a culture that increasingly expects and demands “access” to any and all information at breakneck speed,” states Stephen Ward, an associate professor of journalism ethics at University of British Columbia.

The next generation of journalists will be wired from childhood, more used to this wild and woolly frontier, and more exposed to a multimedia landscape that shocks and amazes them at every turn, Glaser observed. Ethics and standards for online journalism need to remain part of the picture.

The ethic of “show everything just because we can” is no ethic at all, Ward said. He advocates that online journalists should adopt reasonable and responsible practices and standards.

I agree. But the model should be one that makes sense for online, a medium with notable differences from print.

“There are still far too many people in the print newsroom who seem to believe it is the online staff’s duty to replicate the newspaper as closely as possible,” remarked my colleague Jeanne A. Leblanc, a senior online producer at courant.com. “We will continue to get undue pressure from them to do that. And they will continue to believe that we are failing in our mission, until they understand that it’s our responsibility to serve a differenet audience in a different medium, and that this demands different decisions.”

Online news faces the pressure of speed and immediate demand. That fact usually translates to fewer eyeballs looking at the story before it is published.

However, online news also has the luxury of immediate correction and updating. A print newspaper, once its printed, can’t be corrected the same day. An online news story can be changed within the same few minutes, if necessary.

The Associated Press has constantly rewrote stories and corrected or confirmed information with each new version that goes out on the wire. As local newspapers become more like a 24-7 news wire service, the journalists who work for them must be willing to do the same thing for their Internet audience.

There have been plenty of times at courant.com when we had readers email us after the first version of a story went up on the web. These readers often point out factual errors or other issues with the story. The online news producers would convey this new information to the reporter and/or editor so they can address those issues for the next version of the story, oftentimes the printed version in the morning paper.

As a result of the online churning of a story, the readers of the newspaper in the morning will get a more correct/complete version of that story, often with added perspective and higher standards.

Online, news organizations must work to get the story right and get it out there as quickly as possible. If they do it in that order, they will have no problems. If they do it the other way round, after a while they won’t be taken seriously, observed Simon Waldman, director of digital publishing for Guardian Unlimited.

Another burning question raised by my print colleagues: How can a news organization steer the ethical/accuracy wheel, if it hands over the keys to readers with user-generated content?

As Web 2.0 models lead news organizations to collaborate more with readers, it is giving consumers the ability to contribute their own “news” and opinions to a traditional media website. The idea is that participation by readers will lead to retention of those readers and their $$.

“Information has two forms of value. First, information that is new is valuable, but in a limited sort of a way. More valuable is information that has been vetted and organized in a way that gives the user meaning,” said Kelly McBride, a faculty member for The Poynter Institute. “That kind of information starts out in the first category, then it is verified and categorized by a credible organization, which elevates the information to the second category. ”

“Anyone can achieve the first level of value. It takes a bit of skill and intelligence and knowledge and hard work to get to the next level,” McBride said.

I think readers are smart enough to tell which content comes from the “news organization” and which comes from “the ordinary reader.” User-generated content should be labeled as such, as well.

If a news organization wants to uphold its print credibility online, it needs to make high journalistic standards a priority, put enough resources behind their web operation and be willing to adjust the rules to fit the medium.

If a traditional news organization also expects to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon and invite readers to contribute, it needs to be willing to ease those standards for user-generated content.

I think for many traditional news outlets, both of these goals are a major culture shift. The loosening of control is easier said than done.


  • Glaser, Mark. (2004). On the wild, woolly internet, old ethics rules do apply. Online Journalism Review. August 8. [ html ]

  • 1 Comment

    ahoving on November 20, 2006 at 10:26 am.

    great post, Marie!

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