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.