Forum Addresses Ethics Questions for Online Journalism

Standards of ethics in the emerging realm of online journalism was the topic of a forum held at Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR) UBS Forum in downtown St. Paul on Feb. 25, 2008.

The forum was presented by the Minnesota Professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and brought together representatives of the Twin Cities’ professional print and broadcast media, the local online journalism community, journalism and mass communication scholars, and members of the public to discuss the role of traditional values of journalism ethics in blogging and online journalism.

Dan Gillmor was the evening’s lead panelist. Gillmor is founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School for Journalism and Mass Communication. His book, “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People” was published in 2004. MPR Managing Editor of Online News Bob Collins moderated the discussion.

The two-hour event featured a wide-ranging discussion. However, questions and comments from panelists and members of the audience returned to the central question of how standards for online journalists and those in more traditional media might be evolving in the Internet age.

According to Gillmor, asking the question “are bloggers journalists?” is the same as asking, “are people who write on paper journalists?” He said blogging is no more than a tool.

Gillmor said “what is journalism?” is a more important question to ask than “who are journalists?” for the purposes of determining standards and principles for online journalism, as well as for addressing legal issues like special access for journalists to courts and meetings, and special privileges like reporter shield laws.

When asked whether he believed a blogger “code of ethics” or other general set of ethical guidelines would be useful, Gillmor said that responsible journalists, whether online or publishing in more traditional media, should adhere to basic principles. Reading from a small notebook, Gillmor cited “thoroughness, accountability, fairness, independence, and transparency” as important principles on which reporters and bloggers should base their ethical standards.

Gillmor also said that not only do journalists have the responsibility to work within ethical standards to report accurate information, but increasingly, the reading audience is also responsible for being more “literate” about media: knowing what information from which sources deserves its trust, and which do not meet its standards.

The audience-driven discussion returned several times to the February 22 New York Times story which alleged an inappropriate relationship between Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a lobbyist, a story which many have criticized for its questionable sources and veracity. (See “New York Times’ McCain Story Draws Much Criticism, Little Support” on page 48 of this issue of the Silha Bulletin.)

Collins asked whether the Times’ poor judgment represented deteriorating standards in traditional media brought on by a lower online ethical standard creeping in.

Gillmor responded flatly, “no,” adding that the story might be more indicative of “a National Enquirer standard moving up.”

Contributing panel experts in attendance were Chuck Olsen of Web sites and The Uptake; Michael Caputo of MPR’s “Public Insight Journalism” project; Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota; Steve Perry of political Web site Minnesota Monitor; Dave Pyle, Associated Press Minnesota and Wisconsin bureau chief; Terry Sauer, managing editor of; Wendy Wyatt, professor of media ethics at the University of St. Thomas; and Scott Libin, news director at WCCO-TV.

The forum was also available via streaming live video and audio at Metroblogging Minneapolis,, and The Uptake, Several bloggers also “liveblogged” the event, posting in real time during the discussion.

Event co-sponsors included the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, The Minnesota Journalism Center, The University of St. Thomas, The Associated Press, The Minnesota News Council, and the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor



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