Cyberethics: The Emerging Codes of Online Conduct

Will the Internet make newsprint obsolete? Will the Internet make newsprint obsolete?
CREDIT: Amanda Graham (CC).

Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, describing the progression of science not as gradual accumulation of knowledge but as serial equilibrium punctuated by revolutionary changes—paradigm shifts that rapidly transform all subsequent inquiry.

The Internet presents such a shift in the domain of human communication, with special consequences for media and publishing.

Last week, a Carnegie Council Workshop for Ethics in Business explored the codes of online conduct that are emerging as new media gain more influence in political and business affairs. The event was cosponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton's strategy+business magazine and the NYU Center for Global Affairs, and was part of the Ethical Blogger Project.

As a distributed and open-system technology—with no central location and with operating codes that are not proprietary or hidden—the Internet has distinct advantages, primary among which is its interactivity. Traditional media rely on one-to-many publisher-to-audience relations, while the proliferation of online information outlets has created a more dynamic many-to-many discussion. The unique contribution of weblog technology is the instant and inexpensive ability to own a virtual printing press.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen gave a survey of the new media landscape. He quoted New Yorker journalist A. J. Liebling's famous line about how "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." The advent of blogs in 1999 enabled users to publish, edit, and perfect webpages, displaying whatever facts and opinions they desired. This facilitated the flow of information between individuals, building on the Internet's most essential feature: "People, connected by computers."

The reputational currency of blogs, according to Rosen, is the "ethic of the link"—connections between articles that serve as footnotes, fact checking, identifiable sources, and personal recommendations all with one click.

Rita J. King of Dancing Ink Productions discussed Internet media's ability to report on topics that traditional newspapers have trouble covering. Because of the relationship between corporations and newspapers—whether proprietary or through commercial advertising—there is a built-in disincentive for investigating corporate malfeasance. From her experience reporting on post-Hurricane Katrina profiteering, Ms. King learned that blogs and online communities have enabled fairer reporting on corporations.

Online communities also allow individuals to explore their passions and not be limited by geography, genetics, or socioeconomic status, said King. Her media research firm is exploring the newest of new media—virtual worlds such as Second Life—and their role in promoting public diplomacy and intercultural and inter-religious dialogue.

Steve Clemons, publisher of The Washington Note, commented that one power of blogs is their ability to focus on a single topic and "own an issue," potentially inducing policy change. For a period of time, Clemons dedicated his blog to combating the "pugnacious nationalism" and controversial recess appointment of John R. Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, an institution that the diplomat publicly disdained.

Clemons also made the distinction between blogs targeted at mass consumption and those intended for an elite audience, noting that bloggers now regularly participate as journalists in conference calls with influential people in finance and politics.

PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler argued that blogs add to the body of public knowledge, but are not an alternative to independent newspapers. Just as blogs are quick and responsive when it comes to correcting journalistic mistakes such as coverage of George W. Bush's air national guard records, they can also disseminate false information faster than ever, and it is up to the media consumer to sort through the onslaught of information.

The main difference between newspapers and blogs, for Getler, is the writer's connection to the reader. In newspaper journalism, either print or online, the writer is connected to the reader through an editor. Getler sees "editors at the center of what is right and wrong in journalism." Good editing, he argued, is central but often overlooked. He envisions major papers making a "high quality move to the Web," but without editors acting as gatekeepers—protecting the reader from inaccurate information—the "depth and quality of reporting in the future is a concern."

Yet collective wisdom can have power. Open source programming has been with the Internet since its inception and is a perfect example of collective wisdom in action. Open source programs or websites are created by people working in a collaborative and evolutionary way. Through an informal trial-and-error process of sharing ideas and manipulating each others' code, programmers usually guide projects to better performance.

The blogsphere operates in a similar manner. Unlike the limited letters to the editor found in traditional print journalism, blog readers have an unprecedented ability to comment on the content. Alex Koppelman of Salon.com argued that traditional print columns were read because of the legacy of the paper in which they appeared, but meritocracy prevails among bloggers as a determinant of reader volume.

When it comes to questions of integrity and accountability in blogging, readers now ensure accuracy as they take an active role and dialogue with the author. Clemons called high-traffic blogging "the most self-correcting mechanism in the world."

Getler, along with Koppelman, sees another problem with the new medium—the stress that it places on journalists. Journalists are required to do more in less time for less pay. Internet journalism demands multimedia and rapid performance from writers. Koppelman cited a hypothetical journalist who is required to post eight times a day on a blog rather than spend four weeks on a story. Beyond risking inaccuracy or burning sources when they aren't consulted for comment, the pace of 24-hour blogging can create unhappy (or dead) journalists.

The next successful form of information organization and dissemination remains unknown, but the tradition of fair and free reporting is indispensable, even to itself. The power of the press, physical or virtual, cannot be forgotten. As Kuhn writes, paradigm shifting is "an intrinsically revolutionary process that is seldom completed by a single man and never overnight."

 

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