A teenager in your town commits suicide. You edit a hyperlocal news site covering a lot of police news. Should you report it? Should you publish the name?
A janitor at police headquarters gets fired because you quoted her criticizing the police chief. Are you to blame – and how far should you go in helping her win her job back?
A candidate who didn’t buy ads on your website accuses you of bias towards a candidate who did. How do you respond?
You’re covering a small-town council meeting and in the middle of a lively debate the speaker turns to you and says, “What do you think we should do?”
The pioneers of the new local news online space grapple with tensions between running a business and serving the public, telling collective truths and protecting individual privacy, witnessing events and advocating causes. But on the web, they’re operating with fewer traditions and rules and more confusingly blurred boundaries.
Local news organizations have faced painful questions like these as long as there has been pavement to pound. But the rise of a new wave of independent local news websites has seeded journalism’s ethical minefield with a variety of novel pitfalls as well.
Like their predecessors at small community newspapers, the pioneers of the new local news online space grapple with tensions between running a business and serving the public, telling collective truths and protecting individual privacy, witnessing events and advocating causes. But on the web, they’re operating with fewer traditions and rules and more confusingly blurred boundaries. Their creators usually embrace most of the traditional ideals of professional journalism, but they are far more permeable to their readers, who can use the two-way medium to respond, contribute and criticize.
Often, these new online news organizations are as much a participant in the community’s story as they are its chronicler. “The difference between a very local community site like this and a metro daily is that we are writing this for the community, and we live here,” says David Boraks, founder of North Carolina’s DavidsonNews.net. “So we’re doing it for the community, it’s not about the community so that outsiders can know what’s going on here. That’s a subtle distinction, but it makes a major difference when you’re out there gathering news.”
However close to its community a local news site might be, its reports can be borne by the Internet far beyond the edge of town – and thanks to the power of search engines, its work won’t vanish into last week’s recycling pile. These factors place new spins on old assumptions about journalism ethics and reawaken dormant arguments on fresh turf.
As the landscape of local news online today changes under our feet, we set out to chart how the publishers, editors and reporters shaping it are finding their ethical bearings.
As the landscape of local news online today changes under our feet, we set out to chart how the publishers, editors and reporters shaping it are finding their ethical bearings. We conducted in-depth interviews with site founders and ethics experts to try to unearth some close-to-ground-level stories and derive some higher-level principles.
The organizations covering local communities online today run a wide gamut: from nonprofit to commercial, one-person shops to dozens-strong teams, and village-sized readerships to metropolitan audiences. That means, inevitably, that there are few bedrock rules or universally agreed-upon practices, and there’s more seat-of-the-pants improvisation than carefully mulled decision-making. Written ethics policies of any kind are scarce – either because the newsrooms are simply too small, or editors believe that no formal policy can guide them well through the wilderness of problems that can come up.
We asked local news site editors and entrepreneurs where they saw ethical dilemmas most often crop up. Some topics that are staples in this field, like plagiarism, didn’t enter the picture much. Other areas where practices in traditional newsrooms are well-defined, like the editorial/advertising divide, turned out to be full of uncertainties and questions.
We’ve divided up our research by topic, and let the interviewees speak in their own voices about what ethical problems trouble them and how they’ve tried to handle them responsibly. In some cases we’ve also turned to a handful of experts on journalism ethics to offer their perspective. (Our transcripts have been lightly edited and trimmed.)
One we talked to, Donald Heider, the dean of the School of Communications at Loyola University in Chicago and founder of its Center for Digital Ethics and Policy, drew a useful distinction. In a 2005 paper written with two colleagues, Heider described journalists’ self-image as a public watchdog sometimes conflicting with the public’s desire for the press to serve in a different role – as a “good neighbor.”
“You found that tension a lot in the small-town papers and neighborhood suburban papers,” Heider says. “Because they know everyone and they’re dependent on advertising from everyone, and so they want to be a good neighbor, they want to be the place where the community goes and feels safe. And yet at the same time, a big question is, are they going to ask the hard questions and do the hard stories?”
The tension between these roles can be confounding, but community papers have often been able to manage it well, and local news sites can, too, Heider says: “The way it usually plays out is, you give somebody a black eye and they’re mad at you for a few days or a few weeks. But they get what you’re doing overall, eventually, if you’re fair. If you’re tough on everybody. And you always give them a chance to respond.”
– By Scott Rosenberg