Wick Communications

How online news discovered ethics

In Ethics on 1 Sep 2011 at 12:32 pm

I confess, I found this amusing. As you can see, hyperlocal news sites, most of them newer than my tennis shoes, have discovered the ethical concerns of covering a small-town community. How do you please advertisers and readers simultaneously? Should you publish names in your police log? What if you know of a suicide or domestic violence charge?

You know, the sorts of things we’ve been worrying with at some Wick Communications newspapers since William McKinley was president.

OK, now that I’m done feeling superior, I want to back up for a minute. This is a really worthwhile effort by the folks at J-Lab. It is a sort of crowdsourced discussion of the ethical practices and concerns of newly established news and information sites. It is true that many Americans are ill-served by their local paper – many having long ago abandoned small towns and inner cities to concentrate on chasing dollars in wealthy suburbs. So it’s important that news entrepreneurs who take the place of newspapers in these communities learn to respect the same values and ethics that have guided the best professional journalists for many decades.

But let’s not act like these are new problems, as some involved in the discussion clearly do. Take, for instance, David Boraks of DavidsonNews.net …

“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,” Boraks tells Scott Rosenberg for the J-Lab project. “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.”

I wonder where he thinks reporters for the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald live exactly?

When I’m not being arrogant about it, I can admit that there are new ethical dilemmas for all of us – whether we work for some cool new startup or the dreaded old school media. As J-Lab Executive Director Jan Schaffer notes, the Internet now archives relatively small stories forever, potentially changing the calculus on whether to report every misdemeanor in town. Community feedback presents daily trouble for editors. Real-time reporting means we are often faced with reporting online before stories are fully baked. There are new questions.

Take a look at Rosenberg’s takeaways. I can’t find much fault. I think they are a good review for all of us – regardless of medium.



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