Blogging, Journalism and Credibility

There is some disagreement in the Northampton blogosphere about the rules for citizen journalists. Bill Mitchell and Bob Steele suggest some guidelines in “Earn Your Own Trust, Roll Your Own Ethics: Transparency and Beyond” (2005).

[Quoting blogger David Weinberger:] “We need professional journalists. But for most blogs, we want to know what the writer’s starting point is. That’s not because we’re subjective journalists. It’s because a blog is a conversation among friends, and when you’re arguing politics with your pals, it’d just be weird to refuse to say where you stand.”

The blogger and the journalist had arrived at the heart of the matter: trust, the cornerstone of credibility for blogging as well as journalism, and transparency, a reasonable starting point for any discussion of trust.

…blogging and journalism are not dogmas in opposition. And they share a common aspiration: credibility with their audiences…

Both groups–traditional journalists and bloggers–face significant challenges in terms of credibility and ethical conduct. For the traditional journalist, it’s a matter of measuring up to existing, generally accepted standards. For bloggers who have not yet addressed the issue, it’s first a matter of figuring out what their standards might be–and then measuring up…

Transparency can alert the audience to important information. It addresses the critical question of how the work is created. Transparency by itself rarely reveals much of the why, though, and that’s a critical dimension for any audience. That’s why we urge bloggers–as we urge journalists–to be transparent about the principles they stand for and the processes they follow in the course of upholding them.

…you’ll never achieve accountability unless the audience actually counts.

More conversation than lecture, blogging presumes a relationship between publisher and audience. It’s a relationship that, to be successful, demands mutual respect…

Ethical concerns are emerging in the blogosphere as well, some of them linked to conflict of interest, others to questions of rumor and fact…

As issues have arisen recently about blogging for pay, for example, some bloggers have entered posts declaring their own policies. Why not add such material to a standing page that remains easily accessible over time?…

At the point bloggers make their work public, the public–and anyone the blogger is writing about–become stakeholders. That’s a matter of ethics…

Journalists who fail in their duty create negative consequences. Citizens are uninformed or misinformed. Poor reporting can produce apathy. It can create rumors and cause fear. Incompetent journalists cause harm, sometimes damaging reputations and victimizing vulnerable people. Bad journalism fails to serve the public good…

If [bloggers are] hoping to be compensated by advertising, that will depend, in some measure, on advertisers concluding that their readers trust what they find on the blogs in question…

Blogging has emerged as an important element in at least a couple of ways as mainstream media wrestles with its credibility crisis. As Jeff Jarvis reminds his media colleagues periodically on his Buzzmachine blog, it’s foolish to do journalism without realizing that bloggers are going to “fact check your ass.”

Many journalists are also beginning to realize that an editorial stance of arrogance or aloofness from readers cannot be sustained for long…

Magee noted that many news organizations base their codes on one adopted by the Society of Professional Journalists. Among the sections most relevant to bloggers are those requiring staffers to “avoid conflicts of interest real or perceived,” and to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility…”

Some bloggers have included basic disclosure statements on their sites for some time. Dave Winer, who describes his Scripting News blog as “the longest continually running weblog on the Internet,” offers a two point guide to integrity as necessary and sufficient:

     “1. Disclose all pertinent information about your interests.

       2. Never state as fact something you know not to be true…”

David Weinberger…takes the narrative approach… “No one pays me to write this blog or to say particular things in it. That includes all forms of compensation, including offering to shovel my walk or tell me that I look like I’ve lost some weight…”

Read the complete paper.

19 thoughts on “Blogging, Journalism and Credibility

  1. Shut up. You lost. Andrew went on the radio and said he’s not being compensated by Capital Video. No one thinks there’s anything to this but you. No one thinks that Capital Video pays small-town bloggers to argue with other small-town bloggers. Get over it.

  2. I didn’t mean to suggest that paying a blogger to argue with another blogger would be somehow *beneath* Capital Video. I meant to suggest that it would be a totally pointless way for an admittedly business-savvy company to spend its money. It would be really stupid to pay a small-town blogger to argue with another small-town blogger.

    Why do you bring up this bit about Kenneth Guarino’s friend’s death under mysterious circumstances? Are you accusing him of murder? What are you talking about?

  3. Kenneth Guarino is a convicted criminal (conspiracy to evade taxes). While I’m not necessarily accusing him of conducting an Astroturf campaign in Northampton, it’s unreasonable to assume his company would never try such a thing. Plenty of other companies have.

    Kenneth Guarino’s record is such that The Boston Globe felt he merited an in-depth investigation even as early as 1983. Aggressive questioning is appropriate in any affair that his company is involved in.

    If you have special knowledge about the goals and methods of Capital Video, please share them with us.

  4. I don’t have any special knowledge of K. G.’s methods or anything. My point is merely that it would be a total waste of money to hire a small-town blogger to argue with another small-town blogger. Rich people don’t stay rich by wasting a lot of money. That’s all. He may well be conducting an astroturf campaign. But since anyone can make up a name and post on your blog for free, it seems to make more financial sense not to hire a podunk blogger to do it for him. The other instances of astroturf that I’m aware of, such as Armstrong Williams, took place on a much larger, national scale, in which the cost-effectiveness of the operation was in less doubt. You’re obviously more up on the astroturf news than I am, so maybe you know of small-scale instances. If you do, please let me know.

    So, why did you bring up this bit about K G.’s friend’s death under mysterious circumstances, again? Are you accusing him of murder? Is that why the Globe investigated him in 1983? Do people who have friends who die in mysterious circumstances often also engage in astroturfing? What are you talking about?

  5. We’re bloggers, journalists, and activists. I’m not sure exactly what you’d call it, but we try to make it clear who we are, how we’re funded, and where we stand.

  6. I question your status as journalists. The Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which you cite, says that a journalist should be vigilant about fact checking, such as ascribing something as fact only if it has been confirmed by two independent sources. But the disclaimer at the bottom of the sidebar says you are “not verifying the content of this material.” That suggests that you do no fact checking beyond ensuring that they are correctly copied and attributed. That’s fine for a non-journalistic blog, but it is unacceptable for a journalistic blog; this is a serious breach.

    The SPJ CoE says you should avoid conflicts of interest. This includes not just refusing bribes, but also “not reporting on stories that affect the reporter’s personal, economic or political interests.” You’ve stated that you’re worried that your property value will drop if C/V is allowed to open a large store on King St. This is a serious conflict that threatens your objectivity. The SPJ says you shouldn’t be reporting this topic in any journalistic capacity.

    Also, though it isn’t unethical, it is poor form to use the wikipedia as a source, as in your Linda Lovelace story. A real journalist would have investigated the sources cited by the wikipedia and made references to *them.* The problems with wikpedia are well-known: it is susceptible to vandalism since anyone can edit it, its articles often don’t cite sources, and they often fail to have neutral point of view. It’s a great *personal* resource, but a poor *journalistic* one.

    I’m not sure you fully appreciate what journalists actually do. The standards they must meet go far beyond finding stuff on the internet and posting in on a blog, and answering credibility questions if they’re asked. They must be vigilant about collecting and citing reliable and independent sources, and avoiding all conflicts of interest. It’s not just a matter of citing sources, accurate copying, and refusing bribes.

    For example, in the Lovelace story, you quote her as saying that she was an unwilling participant in D/T, and telling Meese that when someone watches the movie he watches her being raped. I’m not saying that this isn’t true. It probably is. But a real journalist would have included these details: Lovelace wrote four autobiographies. In the first two she says D/T was a liberating experience. Then she met Andrea Dworkin. In later books she describes her involvement as unconsensual. Her Meese testimony was also given after she met Dworkin.

    I’m not saying that L’s first books are true, or that Dworkin made her lie. Maybe Dworkin got her to finally be honest. But a real journalist would have reported that she wrote two books in which she says D/T was liberating, and that she changed her mind only after meeting a radical feminist. Since you didn’t, and you have a clear conflict of interest, and you rely on the wikipedia, not on actual sources, I question your journalistic credentials.

  7. We have disclosed the relevant facts about ourselves and our limitations so people can ascertain our credibility for themselves. We link to sources whenever possible so people can investigate on their own.

    We are doing the best we can with the resources available to us. All bloggers and journalists have limitations and influences, and that’s fine. They just need to be out in the open.

    We are aware of Linda Lovelace’s earlier work, and so are many other people, but we felt her later work to be more compelling, relevant, and believable, so that’s what we discussed. We’re happy to publish your comments here, however, so readers can judge for themselves.

    It’s no secret that we’re against porn, and that we’re trying to build a case against it. That’s why we call ourselves “NoPornNorthampton”.

  8. Hey, by the way, you never answered my questions about why you brought up the bit about K G.’s friend’s death under mysterious circumstances. It sounds like you’re trying to suggest that the friend was murdered and that K. G. had something to do with it. Is that what you’re trying to do? If not, it’s hard to understand what relevance your comments could have. You also say that this event took place in Capital Video. You say, “…Capital Video, a company where, among other things, one of Kenneth Guarino’s closest associates was ‘killed under mysterious circumstances when he fell out of a moving car’.” Was the company directly involved? Is that why the Globe investigated him in 1983? Do people who have friends who die in mysterious circumstances often also engage in astroturfing? Do people who are convicted of tax fraud often get involved in murder? What are you talking about?

  9. You say: “All bloggers and journalists have limitations and influences, and that’s fine. They just need to be out in the open.” That’s false. When the “influence” is a financial conflict of interest, it is unacceptable whether it is out in the open or not. As journalists you shouldn’t be writing about topics you have a financial stake in. According to the SPJ CoE, a journalist should “shun political involvement.” Being a journalist is inconsistent with being an activist. Since you are clearly politically involved—you argue your political views at city council meetings—you have a clear conflict of interest. The BBC CoE says that its reporters “must be independent of both state and partisan interests.” According to them, it’s not enough for the partisan interests to be out in the open; they must not exist at all. If you’re journalists, you shouldn’t be writing about this topic.

    You also say, “we felt [L’s] later work to be more compelling, relevant, and believable, so that’s what we discussed.” That may be true, but if it’s true it’s a violation of journalistic ethics. It is not enough for a journalist to provide a link to a website that tells the whole story. A journalist strives to tell the whole story herself. A real reporter would have gone beyond wikipedia, actually read L’s four books, and made an effort to contact Andrea Dworkin for comment. That you allow people with competing viewpoints to comment on your blog demonstrates a modicum of objectivity, but is far from all that is required. You must tell the whole story.

    When the SPJ CoE says to “Seek the truth and report it,” they do not mean to report just *some* of it. They mean *all* of it. They especially don’t mean that a journalist may report only those portions of the truth that support her viewpoint. That you find L’s earlier work not to be relevant or believable is precisely the problem. L’s later work supports your viewpoint in a way her earlier work does not, so you didn’t report on her earlier work or bother to dig any deeper. It is clearly relevant that L changed her mind only after she met Dworkin. This is a clear failure to be objective—this is your conflict of interest at work.

    You haven’t even addressed the fact that you don’t do any fact-checking. The first sentence of the SPJ CoE says that a journalist should “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” It’s the first thing they say. If you’re a journalist then you should be diligent about fact-checking. Disclaimer or not, that you don’t check your facts is a serious breach of journalistic ethics.

    If you two are journalists, you are extremely poor ones. You have a clear conflict of interest. You don’t fact-check, report the whole story, investigate avenues that are inconsistent with your views, shun political involvement, avoid writing about topics you have a financial stake in, or keep an objective POV. You don’t operate at all like responsible journalists.

  10. Our website contains an enormous amount of facts about porn from many sources. They paint consistent patterns, which reinforces the credibility of the parts and the whole. Our claims are far better supported than those of Capital Video, Andrew Shelffo, Talk Back Northampton, Mopornnorthampton, or Libby Spencer.

    The standards you appear to want us to adhere to are so extreme and unreasonable that just about no one would be able to advocate on anything unless they had the resources of The New York Times.

    If you believe we have made a material misstatement of fact, please do let us know, and give supporting evidence.

  11. Here’s what happened: I suggested that K. G. wouldn’t pay Andrew to argue with you because it would be a total waste of money. You said, ‘Actually, he might. After all, he had a close friend die under mysterious circumstances when he fell out of a moving car.’ I said, ‘Huh? What’s that got to do with anything? How is that relevant? Why do you bring this up?’

    You’re free to answer or not answer any question you want. I have no power to compel you to answer anything. But since you, the big journalist, brought it up, I think it’s reasonable for a citizen like myself to ask you why. What’s the relevance?

  12. The point is that Capital Video is a company where unusual things happen and the owner is a convicted criminal. They should not be given the benefit of the doubt where doubt exists, such as a plausible question of Astroturf. Your assertion that Capital Video wouldn’t bother with Astroturfing is not backed by evidence and I don’t find it credible. Ultimately, of course, you entitled to hang on to your opinion.

    You can ask questions forever, but after a certain point I doubt this is enlightening to our readers. Perhaps we can get back to the fundamentals. What are your goals for this discussion? How do you feel about the general impact of porn on society, the conditions of porn workers, and the impact of adult businesses on communities?

  13. Let me get this straight. You think it’s “unreasonable” and “extreme” for citizens to expect a pair of people who describe themselves as “journalists” to be vigilant about fact-checking—about making sure that they report only the truth, to avoid financial conflicts of interest, to maintain an objective point of view, to refrain from political activism in topics on which they report, and to shy away from using an open-forum internet encyclopedia as a primary source? What planet are you from?

    The standards I expect you, as journalists, to adhere to are neither extreme nor unreasonable. I got them straight from the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, a document that was first used as a resource in this debate by you, not me. This is the same document that you used as a weapon against Andrew Shelffo. All I did was read it when you brought it up.

    As you know, the SPJ CoE is voluntarily accepted by thousands of writers, editors, and news professionals, not just by people who work for the New York Times. You’re the ones who say all journalists, even “citizen journalists” who claim not to be journalists at all, should follow this code. I didn’t make you say that, and I didn’t make you start describing yourselves as journalists. But if you’re going to call yourselves journalists and demand that even bloggers who don’t describe themselves as such follow this code, I think it’s fair for us citizens to demand that *you,* who do claim to be journalists, follow it, too.

    Journalism is a tough job. If it’s something you aspire to, you should take it seriously and do it right. When you call yourselves journalists, you take on a huge set of responsibilities and obligations. You’re obviously not up to it, but no one said it was going to be easy. Nor should it.

    The way I see it, you have three choices: 1. Persist in your claim that you are journalists and clean up your act: begin to comply with the SPJ CoE, and delete material from your blog which is not in compliance. 2. Rescind your claim that you are journalists: if you’re not journalists, then almost anything you could do short of slander and libel would be ethical. Then you wouldn’t be obligated to be objective, do a lot of fact-checking, report facts that don’t support your political position, avoid reporting on issues in which you have a financial stake, eschew wikipedia, etc. You only take on these extra obligations if you are journalists. If not, not. Or, 3. keep doing what you’re doing: persist in your claim that you’re journalists, don’t make any pretense of objectivity, do any fact checking, avoid financial conflicts, etc, and persist in the delusion that in so doing you’re behaving responsibly and ethically.

    Number 1 is the hardest. I don’t expect it. Number 2 is the easiest. I don’t expect it, either, although it’s the one that you probably ought to do. Number 3 is the least responsible and ethical, and the most hypocritical. It’s the one I expect. Please prove me wrong.

  14. We have never pretended to be neutral on this subject. We are advocates for a certain point of view. It would be more accurate to say that we are activists as opposed to journalists, as these terms are commonly understood today. Andrew Shelffo is also welcome to be an activist. However, if he had been secretly accepting money to advocate for a corporation on a journalism site like MassLive, that would have been improper and deceptive.

    Like journalists, discovering and reporting the truth is our goal. We promise to give the other side a fair hearing, to only cite material we feel is relevant and credible, to disclose our major sources of funding, and to be clear about our motivations.

    Are we going to phone up every person quoted in a 1986 newspaper article? No. That’s neither reasonable nor necessary. Are we going to try to find evidence from multiple sources for our claims? Yes, and we have done so. Sometimes this does include first-hand research, such as our visits to Capital Video locations in Kittery, Wethersfield and Meriden, and the Bookends store in Enfield. When the opposition tried to spread fear that censorship would follow adult-use zoning, it was us who spoke with WMass librarians to determine these fears were groundless.  Let’s be clear about which side gets the facts and which generally relies on supposition.

    If you disagree with us, your major responsibility is to find facts that support your point of view. It’s easy to sit around and ask a lot of speculative questions and set up some maze of logic for us to get lost in, but that doesn’t make for an effective rebuttal.

  15. I know you’re not neutral. I know you have an agenda. That’s obvious. That’s my *point.*

    The activism in which you engage would be completely improper for a journalist. Journalists are neutral, passive, impartial reporters; activists are partisan, interested players—there’s no other correct way to understand the terms. Mixing these two roles together is irresponsible and dangerous. A “free press” must be free not only from governmental and private interference and influence, but also from bias in the form of activism.

    That doesn’t mean that activists are prohibited from presenting evidence or from conducting original research. It means that activists are prohibited from functioning as journalists, and that journalists are prohibited from participating as activists. It would in inappropriate for a journalist covering a city council meeting to stand up and give an argument at that meeting, or for a reporter covering a trial to stand as a witness at that trial.

    Calling up every person who appeared in a 1986 newspaper article is only unreasonable an unnecessary if you’re not journalists. The SPJ CoE reminds journalists not to assume that other journalists have done their jobs correctly. A responsible journalist ensures that his reporting is accurate and up-to-date, even when he relies on and is reporting the work of some other journalist. The corresponding duties of activists are much less rigorous.

    If you think that questions about the ethical implications of your role as journalists are just speculative, or a “maze of logic,” I don’t know what to say. You’re educated people who should have no trouble navigating the “maze” I’ve constructed: You say you’re journalists, but journalists would have a huge set of obligations that you’re even trying to meet. So you’re in a dilemma. If you insist that you’re journalists, you’re being irresponsible. If you back away from your claim that you’re journalists, you have to admit that you were wrong or that you didn’t understand what being a journalist really means. For most adults, the second horn is no problem. You two, however, seem to have a real problem with admitting it when you’re wrong.

    As for your suggestion that this issue is immaterial: you have yourselves to blame. You made this an issue. You spent weeks doggedly asking Andrew Shelffo about his alleged journalistic ethics violation. You posted several articles concerning journalistic ethics and ethics for bloggers. You suggested that bloggers should adopt some or all of the SPJ CoE. You claim to be journalists yourselves. But if I suggest that you’re not entirely innocent, the issue is suddenly unimportant.

    A lot of other people seem to find this interesting, too. Your “S. Stonewalls” post has 34 comments; the only post with more is the one in which you asked him about his relationship with C/V. I would like to know precisely what *your* role is. Please state for the record whether you are journalists. If not, why did you say you were?

  16. Let’s say we’re bloggers, then. I am not attached to the label “journalist” if you find it confusing. What’s important are the logic and facts behind our arguments.

    Obviously the ethics of blogging and citizen journalism are still gelling. I think bloggers should be aware of journalistic principles and conform to those that are relevant and serve the truth.

    Activists and bloggers, due to their focus and motivation, have the ability to explore issues in greater depth than most journalists can. Reporters at most newspapers, for example, have to follow many different stories.

    Our blog has over 115,000 words on the subject of porn and the porn industry, many times what has appeared in our local newspapers to date. We have traveled across the region to collect information. Bloggers can thus play an important role in moving debates forward, whether or not they can be called “journalists”.

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