Ethical Values and Quality Control in the Digital Era

Originally posted: January 1, 2009

by Bob Steele,  Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University and the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute.

Greencastle, Ind. –  “Some of us feel like page-view whores, and it’s got to stop.”

With those words, a newspaper editor who e-mailed me in the summer of 2007 said what many of his colleagues have come to believe. It was an expression—an admission, really—of what many editors acknowledge has happened in the full-throttle race on the digital speedway fueled by a feverish fight for financial survival.

In my nearly two decades on the faculty of The Poynter Institute, I have fielded thousands of ethical queries from editors, reporters, producers, photojournalists and a good handful of news corporation executives. I’m generally heartened by the sincerity of the journalists in wanting to do the right thing ethically, and I cheer the remarkable reporting that is still produced in the face of considerable obstacles. Nevertheless, I’m very worried about the significant erosion of ethical standards across our profession and the resulting corrosion of the quality of the journalism. The blogs, Tweets, social networking, citizen-submitted content, and multimedia storytelling that are the tools and techniques of the digital era offer great promise. They also, when misused, present considerable peril.

Ethical Dilemmas on the Web

Situations that editors confront in this digital-era maelstrom reflect the vexing ethical challenges and the diminished quality control standards at a time when they are most needed. Several examples I’ve been involved with exemplify the importance of renewing a commitment to time-honored ethical values that will build and protect the integrity of the journalism as it morphs into new forms of reporting, storytelling and deliver

The editor who penned the “whores” self-description had asked me for input on what he termed “a not-very-good story this morning re: hate crimes.” That news story included information from a community blog, information that ostensibly described what the alleged victim of the hate crime had done to prompt an attack. The editor wanted to know my view about whether putting the news story on the site of a traditional newspaper—with this additional information in it—gives the blog content false credibility.

I read the story and absorbed many of the reader comments attached to the Web site’s version of that story. My response to the editor addressed both the blogs-as-news-content issue and the vile tone and tenor of certain reader posts to the story. Here’s what I wrote in an e-mail to the editor:

I fear that many papers/reporters/editors are so caught up in the “search for eyeballs and page views” that the default position is often “let’s put that blog stuff” in our story because “it’s out there and folks are talking about it.” We’ll then “balance” the piece with concerns expressed by others connected to the story who have a different view than the bloggers.

Too often we give unjustified credibility to bloggers who are, at best, practicing amateur journalism or simplistic punditry. And news organizations provide that false credibility by equating the bloggers’ observations and views with the rigor of news reporting. My point is similar to what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel emphasize in “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect,” when they contrast assertion with verification. The latter is a purposeful process that seeks and reports the truth as best as possible. The former merely declares something based on little or no reliable fact-finding and thin, if any, confirmation.

I also told the editor it’s bad when time-honored journalistic values of accuracy and fairness are eroded in the quest to draw eyeballs to the Web-generated stories. And it’s a bad thing when there are serious negative consequences to those who are caught up in news stories, whether it’s a dead man who can’t defend himself to the blogger’s pejorative descriptions of him or a victim’s family members who are re-victimized by the hate, scorn, mocking and ridicule that are part of the comments posted to a news story.

Some readers’ comments posted to the hate crime story—presumably ones that violated the paper’s posting standards—had been excised. But other posts remaining I believed clearly pushed beyond the paper’s standards against offensive name-calling and racist and bigoted commentary.

The editor, who I believe cares deeply about both the quality of the journalism and the ethics of the profession, responded with the mea culpa I cited above. While I know this editor does not want to be a “page-view whore,” I also recognize that he and his peers are under immense pressure to save the franchise. That means big-time risk taking and, in this era of staff cutbacks, it also means decreased editorial oversight and diminished checks and balances. Quality control suffers and quality deteriorates.

This ethical pressure cooker is reflected, too, in the thoughts of a managing editor at a metro paper who called me in October 2008. This editor wanted input on how to handle the increasing use of social networking by the paper’s news staffers. Indeed, that paper’s editors had advocated more blogging and Twittering, including on the personal sites of the newspaper’s journalists. The goal: to spur reader interest and potentially more online user connection. The alarm bells started ringing when the managing editor noticed that one staffer’s Tweets included what the editor termed “snarky” comments about a political candidate, comments laced with both opinion and obscenities.

Just as that editor recognized that loose oversight had created an ethics problem that necessitated reaffirming some core values, the editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer knew there was a serious problem when her paper’s Web site prematurely reported the death of an Ohio congresswoman. “The speed of information is causing us to make mistakes,” Susan Goldberg told a Kent State University forum on online ethics in September 2008.

Goldberg said that error would never have been made in the print version of the story because the facts would have been confirmed. “I don’t want us to be wrong. I don’t want our newspaper to be wrong,” she said. “Mistakes can be damaging to our credibility. We’re on a big stage, and we have a loud voice.” She also declared that an “experiment is not working” when their political blogger became actively involved in the campaign of a local congressman.

Other editors have called me to seek guidance when they discovered that staff journalists were touting politicians or political causes on their personal Facebook pages. In most cases, the editors had not proactively addressed these conflict of interest issues until after a problem surfaced. Then it was more challenging to respond and in some cases to negotiate new ethics policy language with the guild representing the paper’s journalists.

Tools and Tribulations

Some of the ethics crashes on the digital media highway have generated national attention. The accuracy and fairness concerns can be multiplied by the increasing use of so-called citizen journalists to provide reports that are then disseminated—often without verification—by traditional news organizations. Take the example of an October 2008 story that speaks loudly to the dangers of fast and furious reporting complicated by the minimal sourcing of the information.

For a period of time, CNN had a report on its iReport site (a user-submitted site where the content comes from the community) that claimed Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a major heart attack. The story was not true, but Apple’s stock took a quick dive with company shares off by more than 10 percent before the CNN iReport story on Jobs was debunked and removed from the site.

While many editors tout their ability to quickly take down factually wrong information or other egregious content, the damage done can be significant.

Sometimes it’s the tools journalists are using or just poor techniques with the tools that are ethically problematic. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver was roundly criticized for insensitivity in the funeral coverage of a three-year-old boy. A Rocky reporter used Twitter, a microblogging tool, to live-blog details from the graveside to the paper’s Web site.

In the wake of significant backlash, Rocky Mountain News Editor John Temple wrote to readers that he accepted responsibility for any failing in the Twitter technique used in that situation, though he felt there was justifiable news value in the event that warranted this kind of unique coverage. “We must learn to use the new tools at our disposal,” Temple wrote in his newspaper and on its Web site. “Yes, there are going to be times we make mistakes, just as we do in our newspaper. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try something. It means we need to learn to do it well. That is our mission.”

Strong Standards

Which takes us full circle back to the importance of quality control as editors and other journalists search for that “true north” point on the moral compass. In recent years, many editors across the land learned hard lessons about the necessity of vigorous oversight on staff work. High-profile plagiarism and fabrication cases at papers the likes of The New York Times, USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, and The Sacramento Bee set off alarms. And in many of those cases the sinners were not the wet-behind-the-ears, youthful journalists but long-in-the-tooth veterans who succumbed to sin.

Editors recognized they needed better systems of quality control to deter liars and sinners. They needed clear, strong standards for attribution and a checks and balances process that prosecuted the work of all reporters and columnists, even those who had earned trust over the years. Those oversight lessons can and should be applied in the digital arena where writers can be tempted to cut corners on attribution as they rapidly source stories across the Internet.

Journalists—from reporters to multimedia producers to editors—are under great pressure to do more with less. The intense financial forces, the thinner staffs, and the risk-taking culture create a mixture where heightened quality control measures are all the more essential. Now is the time to reaffirm essential core values that underpin journalism ethics and journalistic excellence. Accuracy, fairness and honesty are as important now as they have ever been.

We must not let journalism turn horrific. Nor can we allow ourselves to become page-view whores.

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