The Internet has brought so many wonderful things: instant access to information, near-immediate communication with anyone in the world, the opportunity for individuals to share whatever crosses their mind at any given time.
At the same time, these same things that are wonderful also have a downside, particularly because the code of ethics we embrace as members of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and that we were taught in journalism school doesn't exist for a large number of bloggers.
When I facilitate blog-writing workshops for individuals and small businesses, ethics and etiquette always are on the syllabus. With the number of emotion-filled blogs appearing in growing numbers, this is the perfect time to remind current and potential bloggers and blog-readers alike about blogging basics and their relationship to fact-based journalism.
The following is a condensed version of the Journalistic Code of Ethics (source: Society of Professional Journalists. For the full version, visit www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp):
Seek Truth and Report It - “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”
Minimize Harm - “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”
Act Independently - “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.”
Be Accountable - “Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.”
What is a blog?
A blog (combination of the words “Web” and “log”) is essentially an online diary. As with a traditional diary entry, blogs are filled with personal observations, individual perspectives, opinions and conjecture. Blogs may include facts, but generally speaking, the more emotion-charged a blog entry is, the less reliable those facts become.
Who can post a blog?
Blogs can be posted by anyone with access to a computer, an online diary template and something to say. Most blog posts to online journals or news feeds require the writer's name and contact information, but many blogs are written anonymously or using a pseudonym.
How reliable is the information in a blog?
Depending on the subject matter, a blog post may only be as reliable as gossip on the street. Often, information included in a blog has traveled through many channels – much like the game of “telephone” we played as kids. The farther the information travels from its source, the less likely it is to contain all of the facts.
I never trust blogs written by anonymous authors or those whose writer doesn't contain some sort of contact information. And I'm not someone who uses the word “never” lightly.
How does a blog post differ from a news article?
Blogs, as stated earlier, can be written by anyone with access to an online blog site. News articles are – most of the time – written by people who have been trained to research, interview and cite sources, and who adhere to a strict, voluntary code of ethics in regard to journalistic integrity.
How are blogs the same as news articles?
As with any communication about an individual, business or subject, the information in blog posts should be as accurate as possible. Should a blogger knowingly post false or misleading information, they are subject to the same laws of libel (or slander, in the case of a video blog), as are other defamation of character situations. And because there is written proof of the offense, bloggers should take care to research facts and present evidence to support their claims.
Should a blogger offer an opinion, the most ethical way to handle such subject matter is to state that it is the writer's opinion – preferably not in fine print. And a good rule of thumb when writing an emotionally charged post is to put it aside, do something else, then come back and re-read with fresh eyes before posting.
We live in a civilized society, in which each of us is bound by a responsibility to treat one another with respect. Invoking proper etiquette and the SPJ Code of Ethics will only serve to maintain our civility – online and off.