I am a frequent advocate of conversation rather than rules when it comes to guiding journalists in the ethical use of social media. But I give my enthusiastic support to Rules of the Road: Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism, released Wednesday by J-Lab and written by Scott Rosenberg.
My primary criticism of “Rules” is that the title isn’t accurate (which pleases me). This isn’t a collection of rules. It’s a conversation (and, I hope, a conversation-starter) about journalism ethics at the community level in the digital age. The misleading title might actually be a good thing, because it might attract the attention of the people who want rules, and draw them into the conversation. And thoughtful conversation about journalism ethics leads to good ethical decisions and practices.
I’ve already noted on this blog and in Quill how outdated the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics has become. While I maintain hope that SPJ will update the code, I am most interested in thoughtful conversations among journalists about how to apply ethics in the new situations of journalism. So I applaud J-Lab and Rosenberg for this contribution to the conversation.
Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, framed the need for this new guidance well in the foreword:
These “Rules of the Road” are very much a work in progress, shaped by a news landscape in which:
- The threshold for news is lower. Misdemeanors, not just felonies, constitute news.
- Stories unravel in real time. Editors post updates as they come in rather than wait for a fully baked story.
- “Google juice” makes micro news have a macro afterlife.
- Ethical decisions are as open to community feedback as the stories themselves.
- Attachment to the community is valued more than dispassionate detachment.
I disagree with some points that journalists from local news sites make in “Rules” (for instance, some of the people interviewed are too ready to withhold names from police reports, in my view). But I enjoy the discussion, I can see why that journalist decides the way he does, and the discussion challenges my own positions and helps me consider multiple views of an issue. (On the police-reports question, for instance, I tend to favor publication of names, but I think journalists who believe in publishing names of suspects need to consider the consequences and impact, and the “Rules” discussion addresses this thoughtfully.)
“Rules” is far more helpful in guiding ethical decisions than the fear-laden thou-shalt-nots that too many newsrooms and the American Society of News Editors have offered in their guidelines, policies and “best practices.”
Traditional journalists too often view and talk about bloggers with condescension. But Schaffer, in a blog post on “Rules,” wrote that the local news entrepreneurs interviewed for the project “are unabashedly setting some higher ethical standards than their Big-J counterparts.”
I should disclose here that Rosenberg interviewed me for this project and that I am one of the people quoted in some of the sections. Two other disclosures: My former TBD colleague Lisa Rowan is credited as one of the online producers of the report (and Rosenberg, Schaffer and editor Andrew Pergam are all friends). I also received two grants when I worked at the American Press Institute from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, which funded “Rules.”
Rosenberg interviewed a lot of people working with local journalism startups. He compiled the key points from the interviews in one section of “Rules” and then broke out separate discussions of such topics as privacy, social media and advocacy.
“Rules” will make a great discussion-starter for local newsrooms, especially if used in conjunction with Bob Steele’s 10 Questions to Make Good Ethical Decisions, another great stimulus tool for ethical conversations.
I hope that the SPJ members and leaders who believe the code doesn’t need updating read “Rules” and notice how far ethical discussions have moved beyond the code (which was last updated in 1996). And I hope the newsroom (and industry) leaders who like to address ethics with rules will read these “Rules” and start to see the value of conversations.