Brewing up good ethics: Ethics as a process

April 25, 2008

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, front page, a report on a fascinating journalism/blogosphere artifact, BrewBlog. Written by an employee of the Miller beer company, James Arndorfer, the blog is dedicated to news and arcana mostly about Miller’s competitors, mainly Anheuser-Busch. And Arndorfer consistently scoops news organizations, including the beer trade publications, and, on new product announcements, even the companies themselves. I am intrigued.

So what we have here is a completely biased, lone voice in the blogosphere committing not-so-random acts of journalism, which makes it very delicious for us in Intro to Digital Communication. He antagonizes news media by beating them to breaking news. He bothers the trade press because his site is free (and because he beats it to breaking news). He ruffles Miller’s competitors’ feathers by spoiling their publicity pushes and by bringing attention to otherwise obscure information in their financial statements and SEC reporting. And he makes Miller very happy, though you’ll notice no ties or tether to the Miller Web site, just a “sponsored by” line in the logo.

Nut graf from the WSJ article:

The corporate marketing battlefield has long been strewn with pithy digs in ads and selective news leaks about others’ business woes. But it’s unusual for a company to go to the trouble of creating its own media arm to grind out news on the competition. While the site lets Miller tweak its famously tight-lipped rival, it also gives the company a platform to take a first crack at spinning industry news.

“They are trying to aggressively go around the gatekeepers” in newsrooms and the trade press, says Stephen Quigley, an associate professor of public relations at Boston University. “It’s something you couldn’t do five years ago,” before the proliferation of blogs.

A first crack at spinning the news. Going around traditional news gatekeepers (and their news organizations, the editing process, filters and the discipline of verification). And yet the blog has value. What do you think? Are blogs like Arndorfer’s a good thing? A step toward truth? Or just another layer of spin? What do you think Arndorfer’s ethical responsibilities are, if any? Does BrewBlog have credibility? Objectivity, fairness and balance clearly aren’t goals here. As the Journal notes, “Brew Blog’s coverage of Miller was rosy. One entry highlighted how Miller won four ‘hot brand’ awards from trade journal Impact.” Note that Arndorfer, though employed by Miller, was hired away from trade newspaper Advertising Age to “cover the sector like a beat reporter would.”

(Forget for a moment that it’s all merely about beer; it just so happens to be about beer this time. Next time, it might be about cancer research or human rights in China, so the questions here still are important ones.)

Onto this week’s reading and discussion, on the ethics of hyperlinking. Perhaps we can agree that the continued separation in news between church (editorial) and state (advertising) is an important one, one that should inform when and what to link. The key is for readers/viewers to be able to easily, quickly discern which is which, making ad-within-editorial text unethical and a disservice to readers. Any misrepresentation, all misrepresentations are unethical for news organizations of integrity. The question becomes, then, how to maintain separation, the division, while serving readers and paying the bills.

Amanda highlighted for us the Washington Post philosophy on linking, which, from Online Journalism Ethics p. 195, said linking to outside sources and sites is “the right thing to do. It seems limiting to tell people about something . . . and not point to them to it. It goes against the Web’s DNA.”

What’s your reaction? How do you determine or discern your own organization’s DNA with respect to openness? What types of information and sites should news sites routinely link to and from, and what sites and sources should be avoided?

Lastly, as I mentioned, it’s important that we recognize ethics as a process rather than thinking of ethics as a set of moral values you either possess or don’t possess.. It can’t be a gut reaction or instinctual response. A process of ethical decision-making can be justified, internally as well as to readers and viewers. (In fact, writing out how you plan to explain your decision can help make the decision, forcing careful consideration of multiple factors, constituencies, pros and cons.)

A process can guide decision-makers past conflicts of even their own core journalistic values and ethical imperatives. For journalism, these imperatives include journalistic independence, maximizing truth, minimizing harm and serving the public interest. As a process, it can be learned, which also is critically important to recognize. So I will ask, in determining what or whether to link, what kind of thinking process should be followed?

To help us, here’s an exercise we used last year in COM 303 (Editing). It is a Word .doc download. Poynter also has a very valuable Ethics Tool, which guides us through the deliberation process in a general way. More specifically, this Poynter guide on the Principles of Linking.

Cellphones: Social goods or a sign of the end of times?

April 22, 2008

I point our attention to a new book by Rich Ling, New Tech, New Ties from MIT Press, which, among other questions, asks whether cellphones in the aggregate are a good thing for society or a device whose use detracts from the social good, from social cohesion, from civility and our notions of social etiquette.

As you all know, I do not own a cellphone, mainly because I enjoy the option of being an island, untethered to the social mainland when I choose. Just today, I had lunch with someone for whom our face-to-face conversation in my office at his request at times seemed like an interruption of his cellphone “life,” or seemingly continuous series of calls taken without exception. Most of these calls were of fairly long duration (several minutes). It felt functionally as if I were but one channel on his remote that he every few minutes would land on before hitting channel up or down to attend to something else, another phone call, another cry of the urgent over the demands of the important.

The overheard conversations of others in public places, conversations about in-laws, recent doctor’s visits or the even more mundane and, therefore, uninteresting, to me are unwelcome societal noise, social pollution. This blurring or blending of public and private spaces has been harmful in my view, at least for society at large (and me in particular).

Ling’s take is very different; he sees cellphones as in the aggregate contributing to social cohesion, at least among small groups of circles of friend — cliques. I’ll buy that, but at the expense of the overall noise pollution level and breakdown of civic etiquette. How many times walking across this beautiful campus, passing students between buildings, are we who are available for a “Hello!” or “How’s it going?” outnumbered by cellphoners, isolated and unavailable. In other words, these noisy, ubiquitous brain cancer-causing things help some people some of the time, but at a cost to the larger tribe.

In short, I don’t want to hear what someone is doing this weekend, or what he did this morning, or that he hates his job, or whatever, particularly while I am urinating in a public restroom or waiting in line at the coffee shop. What happened to solitude? To quiet? To privacy? One book reviewer calls these inane conversations we have to hear, that we have no choice in experiencing short of stuffing in ear plugs, “colonial raids on the public space.” I like that. It is the tension between “the clique and the broader group,” in Ling’s description. (My biggest pet peeve: Waiting on a train platform or in an airport lobby and being forced to listen to someone else close by tell a caller, “I’m waiting on a train platform” or “I’m waiting for my flight” or “We just landed.” Calgon, take me away!)

My hero is a security guard at New York University last March. A young collegiate approached him to ask for information about a meeting in the building, while maintaining cellphone contact with a friend. “Not until you put up the phone,” the security guard said. “You talk to them or you talk to me. Your choice.” Then he turned to me, “How can I help you, sir?”

When the journalist is a campaign contributor: Tales from the blogosphere

April 19, 2008

As the week ends and we re-set for a new one, I feel compelled to react to two very different events: the news from a blogger that Obama had referred to Pennsylvania’s small-town voters as clinging to guns and religion; and a Minnesota Public Radio contributer using his blog to deliver breaking news.

I am so weary of the “are bloggers journalists?” question that I am beginning to get angry about it. As we’ve said so many times in Intro to Digital Communication, blogging is nothing more (or less) than writing. It just happens to be published on the Web. When that writing is journalism, the blog writer could be referred to as a journalist, or at least as someone who committed an act of journalism. When the writing is fiction or “what I did at the mall last night,” then obviously the blog writer should not be considered a journalist. That person’s blog was used as a sort of diary.

The blog itself is neutral, in other words, just like a pen or a computer or a camera. It’s the content that defines the writer, and it is the audience that matters. Where the content represents original reporting to which the discipline of verification (corroboration, fact-checking, triangulation) has been applied, the writing — be it on a blog or in a pamphlet or, though rare it might be, on TV — should be considered journalism.

The first event

Earlier this month, Obama was at a fundraiser in California to which news media were not invited or allowed. He referred to the small-town or rural voters in the state as “bitter,” as clinging to guns and religion, and as having antipathy to people “who aren’t like them.” Obviously, when publicized, this didn’t go over well nationally. But what is interesting for us is that the news of his remarks was broken by a blogger, a 61-year-old Obama supporter who deliberated for four days whether or not to publish what she heard. Declaring herself a “citizen journalist,” Mayhill Fowler determined to publish, which she did on OffTheBus.Net, a cooperative news blog launched by Adriana Huffington and, you’ll recognize this name, Jay Rosen at NYU.

Since then, commentators have discussed how digital is changing campaign coverage in unpredictable ways. This is a welcome discussion, because the democratization of publishing, a trend fueled and enabled by the Internet and that includes blogs, inevitably alters our political process, and in fundamental ways. Obama didn’t think his remarks would reach beyond the ballroom; he didn’t know he was being blogged.

One of the questions in this discussion: DId Fowler’s post represent journalism? As an eyewitness account of remarks at a campaign event that I think we can all agree are important to the race for the party nomination, yes, the post must be considered an act of journalism (she also videotaped the entire thing in plain view, begging the question of why the Obama campaign was surprised or upset with the coverage). Is Fowler a journalist? As an avowed contributer to Obama’s campaign (and Clinton’s and even Fred Thompson’s), Fowler presents some real problems. The four-day delay is a sign of these problems, or conflicts. A journalist doesn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of publishing news in the public’s interest, at least not in the circumstances the California fundraiser presented.

Objectivity as a process goal (not a product goal)

We seem to agree that pure objectivity in journalism is impossible. I think we can also agree, however, that striving for as objective a news-gathering process as is possible still is noble and good. Contributing to candidates we are covering clearly threatens, even mocks that objective process. The fact that Fowler has been criticized both by media and by her fellow Obama supporters points to this inherent conflict, bringing to life the biblical paradox of trying to serve two masters.

Jay Rosen’s own take on the episode.

The other event I call our attention to is Bob Collins’s deployment of his blog for breaking news. Also a pilot, he’s focused first on the impending mergers in the airline industry. Collins is reporting and writing, publishing to a blog, for a radio station/network. This is cool, convergent stuff. As a single voice, he has fairly wide latitude to express himself. As a pilot and a newsman, he has credentials and credibility to cover a complex area of big business. I won’t be reading (mention of the terms “airlines” and “mergers” make me sleepy), but I applaud the initiative.

Hanging out online is big busine$$

April 17, 2008

We had an awesome week in Intro to Digital Communication. Andy Johns of the Anniston Star led us Monday on a tour of multimedia journalism as he’s practicing it covering Anniston. I found it most groovy that he is using many of the tools we’ve been experimenting with this semester — map making software, Audacity, Soundslides, blogging, including live blogging, and video.

Ross McDuffie, assistant director of new media at the Rome News-Tribune, then joined us Wednesday for a discussion of the role of video in and for the future of print journalism. As if to prove his point, the newly re-vamped Web site of Major League Baseball. Video EVERYWHERE, and it’s all high quality. (The class might remember me celebrating MLB Internet for being a leader in digital communication, as progressive as MLB is retrograde.

We closed out the week discussing the origins of Facebook and the ways in which humans are organizing, socializing and networking online, trends that have re-made the Internet from a mostly commercial medium into one that is above all social. As followups to our weekly Friday morning confab, led ably this week by Hannah and Elizabeth, I pose these brain ticklers:

John Cassidy’s “Me Media: How Hanging Out on the Internet Became Big Business” in the New Yorker describes how Harvard forced Facemash to be taken down after some students and professors complained the site was offensive. I’m curious: Do you think Mark Zuckerberg violated students’ privacy and steal the university’s intellectual property by downloading pictures without permission? We haven’t discussed intellectual property rights and their evolution online much this semester. This is a good opportunity for us.

Venture capitalist Jim Breyer was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s not that the Googles and Facebooks are going to suddenly make the old-media companies obsolete. However, three to five years from now, the very best media companies will have Facebook- and Google-like characteristics.”

This article was written almost two years ago. Since then we’ve seen exactly what Breyer predicted >> big media buying or adding social networking (News Corp. bought MySpace, Microsoft bought 1% of Facebook, and news sites everywhere are seeking to leverage or add in their own domains social networking spaces. (This week I linked to a Times article on “business adopting social networking” and the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper “Cllippings” social bookmarking feature.)

Which media companies do you think are going about this in the most prudent ways?

Changing subjects, and getting a little psychological on you, if voyeurism and exhibitionism are the real reasons why Facebook-like sites are so popular, why do you think young people today are so eager to reveal themselves?

A related question, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes seems to be saying in Cassidy’s article that you need an online identity in order for there to be traces of your existence in a college community. How do you feel about that statement?

We also read “From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm,” which had nothing directly to do with anything digital. From the Times‘s Science pages, the article describes how advance many species of animals are relative to humans in terms of swarm behavior (don’t believe me? how much time do you spend stuck in traffic? ever see a flock of birds stuck in traffic? a school of fish? an army of ants? a swarm of bees?)

The commonality for these species is the ability to form out of the many one collective brain, allowing them to move and act as a single organism. “The behavior of swarms emerges unpredictably from the actions of thousands or millions of individuals,” the author, Carl Zimmer, writes.

Feedback in these systems is central, as is the willingness on the part of any one node to subjugate itself to the greater or common good. Hmmm…. I believe we are seeing lots of indirect connections to things we’ve been discussing all semester in terms of human behavior online. Nodes. Pheremones. Sugar. Word-of-mouse. Feedback. Do you think, after looking at Facebook, wikis, the blogosphere, digg, etc., that we (humans) can learn from our lower-order animal neighbors? How can our feedback mechanisms be improved to better inform the greater or common good, creating fast swarms rather than gridlock?

Next week we pass through the gates of digital communication DisneyWorld to ride the wonderful rides you’ve been developing for us. I’m looking forward to it.

Roster of live blogs from David Brooks’s Q&A

April 15, 2008



Laura P.





Chelsea Hauk

Live blogging David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times

April 10, 2008

OK, so perhaps it isn’t exactly live blogging. I arrived at SCI 115 with about half of the Intro to Digital Communication class (which rocks, btw! I was so pleased with the turnout and the impression that this army of laptop-toting bloggers made in taking up the back row of the room, computers fired up and ready to roll).

I opened up my laptop and immediately discovered that my space bar had been rendered inoperable by fingers much younger than mine (my kids sometimes borrow the unit for school). Oye vez. In my fumbling to quickly repair the computer whilst Dr. Frank introduced Mr. Brooks, I’m sure I annoyed the otherwise placid Dr. Lawler sitting next to me while shipwrecking my part in the live blog experiment. Fortunately, Chelsea, Laura Price, Leigh, Stephen, Hannah, Katie, Ashton and Rebekah had my back. Hannah I am doubly proud of — she live blogged the event for Hometown Headlines (a Patty for her!). She did a great job providing a running account of the session and reacting to both Brooks’s style and content.

So, from memory, I do want to pass along a few takeaways from the Q&A, which lasted about 50 minutes in a classroom half-filled with about 40 students and a few odd faculty (“odd” in both senses). Two of the early questions — Caitlin Carroll‘s and mine (no relation) — regarded John McCain’s viability as a presidential candidate, specifically in the area of foreign policy. I was surprised to hear of Brooks’s long-time friendship with McCain — 15 years — and, therefore, an access and intimacy with the real McCain that gives Brooks a unique credibility on the subject.

In short, Brooks offered as bona fides for McCain’s candidacy the senator’s mastery of foreign policy in general and the Iraq problem specifically, his rapport with world leaders, people he — unlike Bush — takes seriously, the diversity of ideology and perspective among his advisors (also a significant departure from Bush) and the fact that McCain, unlike Bush, had a plan for Iraq after the military offensive. That said, Brooks, a self-proclaimed “progressive conservative,” said he puts his odds-on bet on Obama, a gifted orator who embodies the change most of America so desperately wants (80% by a recent poll cited by Brooks).


Our speaker had several interesting observations on journalism, though I think it’s important to point out that Brooks’s role is a peculiar type of journalism. He is a columnist, and a conservative one for an otherwise left-of-center newspaper, the New York Times. He is not a reporter, or at least not primarily so. His observations, therefore, do not come from inside the newsroom, any newsroom. Opinion writers live and work outside the newsroom, which is a place dedicated to rooting opinion out of its product. This is not to disparage him, but to qualify his remarks.

Rebekah asked a question we’ve been wrestling with all semester, which is, “When can blogging be considered journalism? What distinguishes journalistic blogging from all the rest?” Brooks immediately identified the key criterion or quality of journalism in blogs or anywhere else >> original reporting. Interestingly, Brooks’s form of journalism — column writing — is, as I mentioned, a hybrid of journalism and pure opinion. He does do original reporting; he told us he talks with at least three politicians or officials (sources) each and every day, to keep a steady stream of new information flowing into his commentary. But he uses that reporting to inform what is opinion, perspective, his unique take on politics and American life.

He then acknowledged that there is a lot of good commentary in blogs, including some written by 12-year-olds, and of course a lot of crap. I liked his description of blogs as having joined in “the national conversation.” We will return to this notion of journalism as conversation in class, and very soon.

Valuable was Brooks’s description of himself, a print journalist, as someone in “the whaling business.” My digital communication students should have found this doubly interesting because of our discussions in class describing the newspaper business as a whale, or in other words a large, slow-moving mammal in and around and by which an entire ecosystem depends (the little fishes, plankton, barnacles and whatall — blogs are the barnacles in this metaphor). His point is that his medium is about to become extinct, and he was candid in admitting that he knows little of how it will all shake out other than to say that people will still need, want and value good journalism.

An interesting media-related distinction Brooks made in responding to Rebekah’s question is how different his persona or ethos is depending on the medium. On TV, he’s much more free in his oratory, in what he says and in the claims he makes. Talk Radio is “no holds barred,” while in print, “I feel it is more permanent,” and, therefore, worth more time to get it just right.


Laura Price asked for advice for students looking to break into journalism, specifically editing. Brooks’s answer here was really interesting. In his very colorful (and accurate) metaphor, writers are the narcissistic little children who have to be coddled and cared for, coaxed into sitting in a circle and playing together. Editors are the nursery workers doing the coddling and coaxing. Being an editor takes real people skills, in other words. “I found I didn’t care for it,” he said. “As a writer, you really get involved with a subject. As an editor, the stories just sort of pass through you. I couldn’t remember the stories from week to week.” (Brooks was an editor with William F. Buckley’s National Review.) Earlier he called students who go into journalism “suckers,” presumably because of the typically low pay and long hours.

In expanding his premise, he described the Times as a place with 500 reporters (WOW!) who all are gunning to make page 1. If they think they are going page 1 and don’t, they cry. (This, by the way, explains why otherwise intelligent people work long hours for low pay — byline envy. Well, this and a hunger for truth, accountability in government and a vibrant democracy.)


I’ve read Brooks for years and years, and I find that his take on politics lines up very much with my own. In the Q&A, I really only disagreed with him on one point. Someone sitting next to Stephen, I think it was Blair, asked if negativity is indemic to journalism? Brooks answered that journalists want to prove that they’re smarter than the people they are interviewing or covering and that this competition breeds negativity. Criticism is viewed by most readers as “smart,” or at least smarter than a piece that isn’t critical.

I disagree, though the description might fit journalists who cover politics; I know little about this breed. But to apply this description to journalists in general I think is wildly inaccurate. The negativity and cynicism that some find part and parcel of a lot of journalism in my view comes from the mission of journalism, which is to uncover truth, check power, hold government accountable and serve the public interest.

This means asking really hard questions, questioning authority, demanding evidence and documentation, and being cynical enough to even imagine how power might obfuscate, manipulate, deceive and evade. To catch a thief, you have to think like one, or something along those lines. I know that in my 15 years as a reporter, I can’t remember a time when I was trying to “outsmart” a source. This motive to me is entirely alien. (Gunning for page 1, now that is totally accurate, as is crying when I didn’t get it!)

That’s plenty for now. I encourage readers to compare my reactions and commentary to those of my very sharp digital communication students. I have Hannah’s URL because it’s posted at HometownHeadlines. Start there; Hannah did a great job distilling the session. I’ll post those of my other students when I get them tomorrow.

We live blogged as a class as an experiment, to get first-hand experience with the demands of keying in words while listening to the speaker while thinking of questions while hitting “publish” while hoping it works while trying not to annoy anyone in the room with all the key clacking. It’s quite a rush. I hope we gained an appreciation for the strengths and limitations of this format and style of reporting, and again I was so pleased with the class turnout. It has been a great day for this journalism prof!

Citizen journalism: Part of the problem or part of the solution?

April 9, 2008

Having Druck in the class proved great fun. I appreciated him bringing to us real-world experience, a journalist’s perspective on digital, and a sense of how advertisers and audience are maturing in their approach to digital. He didn’t get a chance to show us his new baby, Mobile HometownHeadlines, so take a look. This blog is to enable content to be delivered by HH directly to handhelds and mobile devices, as he told us news was heading.

One topic he and I could have actually debated in class is this post’s title, whether citizen journalism (a.k.a., participatory journalism, distributed or distributive journalism, pro-am journalism, user-generated content) is part of the problem, for some of the reasons Druck mentioned (libel, lowest-common denominator commentary, among others), or whether, as I strongly believe, it is part of the solution. What is the problem? The consolidation of media into fewer hands, fewer voices; the rush to all things visual at the expense of attention to the linear, the logical, the textual; and the decline of original, on-the-ground, blue-collar reporting, particularly on complex process questions and issues.

I say pro-am marriages of professional journalists and regular folks with blogs, vidcams and recorders equal part of the solution because, if our book is correct when it states: “The more that citizens participate in the news, the more deeply engaged they tend to become in the democratic process,” then more people doing journalism is a good thing. Yes, there will be disasters, like Teresa Watson’s “journalism,” but on the whole, more people writing, looking, asking, reporting is a good thing, in my opinion. It’s the Long Tail applied to journalism. Yes, we will still have and need the hits (NYTimes, WashPost, CBS and CNN), but more voices is part of a solution to ever consolidating big media, a check on that vastly consolidating power

Our text this week gets at this issue, asking us how citizen journalism should be handled. I put before us three models, realizing there are far more.

First, CNN’s approach is to completely segregate the UGC (user-generated content) into a separate site with little to tether it to the CNN newsroom.

Another model is OhMyNews, probably the world’s largest pro-am news site, with tens of thousands of paid “citizen” reporters. This model layers on top of and around the UGC the discipline of verification via professional journalists — editors who read, fact-check, filter and publish.

Finally, there are a growing population of sites entirely devoted to citizen journalism. New West Network in Montana is one of my favorites, collecting contributions from its “citizens” in several cities and towns. Every day, the site features a new contributed photo (you’ll see it in the middle of the home page; this site’s photography is awesome). Another, newer example of this last category: Rafter Jump On, for reporting on culture.

(A disclaimer: I abhor the term “citizen journalism” for two reasons. First, journalists are citizens, too. The term implies two false categories of journalists — citizens and non-citizen professionals. Second, the term implies that non-citizens, folks like my wife, a green card holder from Japan, are excluded. Of course that’s ridiculous.)

  • Which model holds the most promise?
  • Of the typology on pages 155-58, which ones make the most sense?
  • How are these models supposed to make money?
  • How do we ensure that they achieve the purpose of journalism, which, according to the book (p. 152), is “to enable citizens to have the information needed to more fully participate in society and to be free and self-governing”?
  • A delicious question introduced at the chapter’s beginning: Do we need some sort of prescriptive rhetoric for reporters who blog? In other words, for journalists trained to be objective, at least in process, do they need a new rhetoric that accounts for, that accommodates and utilizes the interpersonal dimension of blogging, of online communication? I love this question, and I’m interested in your reactions.