I noticed Erik's <a href="http://nslog.com/archives/2003/03/05/ethical_blogging.php">post on weblog ethics</a>, referencing various interesting articles. Seems to be one of the hot topics of the moment, so in I jump.
Amongst the articles referenced by Erik, one of the most interesting to me was <a href="http://www.rebeccablood.net/handbook/excerpts/weblog_ethics.html">Rebecca Blood's post</a>. The primary gist of the others was: you should disclose any commercial/financial links to entities you're writing about, so that your readers can make a judgement about conflict of interest. That doesn't seem like a very difficult or unintuitive point to me. Of course you should. Rebecca's post, however, really got to me (which is great, so thanks to her for making me really sit down and think, despite the fact that I don't much agree with her). My reading of the post basically boils down to this: the primary weakness of weblogs is that they lack ethical standards guidelines such as those purportedly adhered to by the mainstream media, and thus lack perceived integrity. The value of weblogs as journalistic outlets and sources could be vastly increased by the codification of such guidlines, a (fairly facile) few of which she then goes on to suggest. My first issue is that, to say the least, Rebecca seems a bit caught-up with the ideals of standards of journalistic ethics. In fact, she could probably say the phrase "journalistic ethics" out loud without laughing. She says: "<em>Journalistic codes of ethics seek to ensure fairness and accuracy in news reporting</em>." If you're going to suggest that bloggers in general aspire to a standard of ethics, you'd best have a bloody good one to hold up. Ethical journalism has, on the whole, never been my experience. (Interestingly, Rebecca's <a href="http://www.rebeccablood.net/">front page</a> at time of writing references <a href="http://www.sierratimes.com/03/02/28/arpubmg022803.htm">this article</a> in the Sierra Times. Makes you think.) Nevertheless, Rebecca continues:
News outlets may be ultimately beholden to advertising interests, and reporters may have a strong incentive for remaining on good terms with their sources in order to remain in the loop; but because they are businesses with salaries to pay, advertisers to please, and audiences to attract and hold, professional news organizations have a vested interest in upholding certain standards so that readers keep subscribing and advertisers keep buying. Weblogs, with only minor costs and little hope of significant financial gain, have no such incentives.
I find that to be largely backwards. News outlets are eminently corruptible, and for the most part indeed corrupt. The journalist has a slant, as does the editor, as in particular does the owner. Personal politics and back-room deals saturate the media, because in the end the purse-strings are always held by the money- and power-hungry few, primarily including advertisters. Even alternative news sources are usually owned and controlled by a larger organisation somewhere further up the chain, out of sight. That's not to say that there aren't truly ethical journalists and publications out there, who don't hide behind "freedom of the press" in order to publish sensation and scandal for monetary gain and social or political control. Just that they're sadly in the minority. Conversely, we have weblogs. For the very largest part, weblogs are spare-time labours of love, usually diaries or themed observations or compendiums in some topic area dear to the author. This blog is an example. Now, I have an internal compass which guides my actions. With some exposure to my writings, you'll begin to see it, and begin to feel you know me a little better. I'm not a disingenuous person; I'd say that what you see is what you get, for better or for worse; but you need to be the one to make that decision. So given that I proclaim to uphold some form of code of personal ethics, why haven't I leapt into the discussion of blogging ethics before? Rebecca has an opinion on that. "<em>There has been almost no talk about ethics in the weblog universe: Mavericks are notoriously resistant to being told what to do.</em>" That's shockingly short-sighted and contrived, and part of an unsettling "us-them" dichotomy running through Rebecca's post. She seems almost to feel that she's some kind of "Outreach Programme" coordinator, courageously living rough in the blogging community to try and bring civilised values to us lowly wannabe-journo cannibals and stereotypical misfit hackers and social outcasts. To that, I can only say both "yawn" and "Bah." Her explanation is also completely and totally wrong. The reason that adoption of codes of ethics is topical at the moment is due to recognition of the fact that big business is becoming extremely interested in blogging. Blogging is the best realisation yet of the "markets as conversations" premise of <a href="http://www.cluetrain.com/">the Cluetrain Manifesto</a>, as mentioned by <a href="http://www.ratcliffe.com/bizblog/2002/10/15.html#a57">Mitch Ratcliffe</a>. The key point is that, by and large, blogging is <strong>genuine</strong>. That is, we already have what they want in that area: we speak our minds. We're not mired in the politics and bureaucracy of mainstream media. Blogs are the living pulse of the zeitgeist; the wellspring of memes. Therein lies our value to business: as trend-predictors, and the biggest and most potentially lucrative fucking focus-group even conceived. Erik is right on the money when he says "<em>As far as I can tell, this is clearly one of those 'talk the talk or walk the walk' situations</em>". I think that Rebecca's idea of imbuing a canned "standard of blogging ethics" upon the weblogs community so that "<em>news organizations may someday be willing to point to weblogs (or weblog entries) as serious sources</em>" is rather sidestepping the phenomenon. <em>We</em> are the roar, and mainstream media already quietly agrees. The other large point here, which Erik's post addresses, is that, um, we already do that anyway. He says "<em>If you're an ethical person, your ethics leave their mark on everything you do in life, everyone you know</em>", and much more importantly, "<em>most times I've seen people draft a list of 'ethics' they've felt as though they have something to prove</em>". Yes, and often something negative. Rebecca's list of principles are fine for "Blogging for Dummies"; they're just the most basic common-sense stuff for any public writing, slightly dressed up in hyperlinks for the web. Big deal - no problem, right? Well, actually there may be a problem. Codification of a list of blogging ethics, especially for the reasons Rebecca cites, is little more than an approval mechanism. In turn, it's a path to narrowing the weblogging arena to "acceptable" sources. The very value of blogging is that it's not endorsed, it's not certified, it's not approved. Your posts don't need buy-in or sign-off, and you're not massaging your outlook to fit your desired mass-media outlet. Instead, it's honest, and genuine - and therefore valuable in a way that the 6 o'clock News on TV can probably never again be. Now, I'm not claiming that Rebecca's principles are masked censorship; that's ludicrous. What I'm saying is that the construction of some formal list of blogging ethics for people to state their adherence to is an inevitably corruptible process, no less so than the "journalistic standards" she holds so dear. For the true value and character of blogs to be maintained, the idea is a non-starter. It always sounds like such a good idea, and it's always the beginning of exclusion. If you're reading my blog, you're giving me a little chunk of your time and your head-space. You're at least entertaining the possibility that my thoughts and arguments have some merit. Maybe I'm just making you angry, and you're mentally crafting a rebuttal as you read this paragraph - that's good too. Whether you agree or not, you're getting the real deal: this is Matt Gemmell unedited, coming to you live from BBEdit somewhere in central Scotland. It's up to <strong>you</strong> to impose your bullshit-filtering mechanisms and indeed your own personal veil of biases in order to judge the quality and value of my writings, detect and bring to light any bias, and generally make your own informed choice. If you'd instead prefer the comfort of me <strong>telling you</strong> I adhere to a certain set of standards, and you'd then just take me at my word since "that Gemmell guy prominently says he sticks to Blog Ethics 1.2, so hell, it <em>must</em> be true", then I have a bridge you might be interested in. Didn't you ever hear the advice "don't believe everything you see on TV"? If I come to your site and read your blog, I'm going to make the choice for myself. I'm going to check up on you, and I'm going to form an independent opinion on your impartiality, ethics or otherwise. If you tell me up-front that, hey, you're a really honest, ethical person who follows principles x and y, then you've probably just lost a reader. Generally, I've found that those who want to explicitly tell me they're honest either have emotional problems, or are the most morally-dubious individuals you could ever find. Thanks, but I'll make my own choice - and so should you.
Footnote 1: I've torn into Rebecca's post quite a bit here, though in fairness many of my points derive from an aggregation of the various articles referenced in Erik's post. Rebecca annoyed me with some of her attitudes, and I disagreed with the bulk of her thinking. It got under my skin enough to make me write this post, which is a fairly long one by my standards. Naturally, I'll be reading her blog a lot more in future.
Footnote 2: If I had to list a single suggested standard of proper behaviour with respect to blogs, it would be this: if you leave a comment on someone's blog, also leave an URL or email address (if you have one), so that the blog's author has the option to follow up with you on your thoughts. Otherwise, you seriously dilute the value of your opinion by just shouting from the darkness. For that reason, trackbacks are preferred.