For all the criticism of the local blogosphere, a funny thing happens when you look at Small-J journalism from the inside out.
Many of the local news entrepreneurs who contributed to our new publication, “Rules of the Road: Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism,” are unabashedly setting some higher ethical standards than their Big-J counterparts: They limit use of Facebook information, require real names to comment, insist on civil discourse, refuse to publish names just because they show up in the daily police blotter.
This didn’t really surprise me. From my perch, seeding more than 200 news experiments with micro funding in the last 15 years, I had a unique view of how local news entrepreneurs were interpreting their roles and responsibilities in their communities – of how they defined ethical behavior. Sometimes, it’s different than what mainstream journalists do. And, sometimes, I think it’s better.
Even when their choices raise some eyebrows, these news pioneers articulate specific reasons honed from experience.
I commissioned this book because I felt it was important to chronicle changes in the local news landscape that involved more than generating content or devising new business models. And writer Scott Rosenberg, who attends to media errors on his MediaBugs.org site, did a terrific job of capturing the nuances.
In “Rules of the Road,” you can view local news site operators speaking in their own words about their experiences.
What makes a public figure? A city manager – probably. But a school teacher? “They’re not in charge of things,” said Paul Bass, founder of NewHavenIndependent.org. That’s how the line gets drawn at his site.
What are the ethics of reporting minor infractions that live on forever in search engines? “We do really have a lot of Google power and we don’t want to use it to ruin somebody’s life,” says Baristanet.com co-owner Liz George.
“To say that we’re not going to consider the impact of search is to say we don’t care about harm,” says former TBD.com Community Editor Steve Buttry.
David Boraks won’t publish names of arrestees on his DavidsonNews.net unless the charges amount to at least a felony: “All of the media that I compete against, including several weeklies … do publish names. So I look a little bit foolish. But I’m constantly trying to get people to understand that just because information’s available from a public source doesn’t mean we have an obligation to publish it.”
WestSeattleBlog.com doesn’t identify suspects until they’re charged. “Sometimes doing that, you feel like the person with their finger in the dike. I don’t know if at some point in the future, it’ll be too late. No one can enforce anything like that. It’s just all out there,” said site founder Tracy Record. “I’ll really be sad if it gets to that point.”
Few of our contributors allow unmoderated comments on their sites: “The comments on the other TV, print, paper websites are sort of like the sewer, they don’t want to spend the money [to moderate],” said New Haven’s Bass.
And social media has set a high benchmark for local accountability. “How often have editors gotten complaints or concerns about accuracy and just sort of let it be. Now you let it be and you’re in the spotlight,” cautions Scott Lewis, CEO of voiceofsandiego.org.
Almost all wrestle with perceived breaches of the line between editorial and advertising. “Sometimes we’ll write about somebody, a bad restaurant review, and commenters will say, “Oh, wow, I guess they didn’t advertise with you!” And the funny thing is, the person did advertise with us. But nobody’s sitting there keeping track. The ads move around. You refresh the page and different ads appear. And you can’t win,” said Baristanet‘s George.
There are frequent clues that readers feel that being a reporter for these sites is different from being the objective reporter who parachuted in with a notebook. “My husband might be sitting in the corner covering a community organization meeting and a person asking a question turns to him and says, “What would you guys advise us to do?” WestSeattleBlog’s Record says. “… It requires a lot of explaining to people – where you choose to draw the line.”
Visit www.j-lab.org/rules-of-the-road to see where our 15 site operators are drawing their lines. And while you are there, join the conversation and add your ethical problem – and solution.