Reelin’ in the years

“Common sense and good judgment are required in applying ethical principles to newspaper realities. As new technologies evolve, these principles can help guide editors to insure the credibility of the news and information they provide.”
Associated Press Managing Editors Statement of Ethical Principles (1995)

“The newspaper should uphold the right of free speech and freedom of the press and should respect the individual’s right to privacy. The newspaper should fight vigorously for public access to news of government through open meetings and records.”
American Society of Newspaper Editors Statement of Principles (2001)

At the newspaper where I work I recently sat on a panel charged with formulating our first official ethics policy. It was a formidable task that required striking many careful balances: we sought to lay out broad principles in such a way that they would remain relevant in the real world; we also sought to establish guidelines firm enough to be meaningful but flexible enough to allow reporters and editors to apply their good horse sense as needed. We also realized — perhaps most importantly — that it would be good for our readers to see that we’d had these deep discussions about our core beliefs and practices, and to remind them that we hold ourselves as a group to standards far more exacting than those followed by the politicians and business people we cover.

We created what we called a “living document,” a fancy way of saying we didn’t think we’d done such a great job and thus were leaving it in the hands of our successors to modify and improve upon our work. (It’s currently more of a dead document: The Web page where it’s supposed to be permanently on display has apparently expired.) After this week’s readings, however, yet another failing occurred to me: We had neglected to discuss our special relationship with our readers, and to address how the advent of online news distribution is likely to change that relationship.

If the insights of forward-thinking observers such as the American Press Institute’s Stephen Gray (2006) are correct, the Internet offers community newspapers an opportunity to capitalize on their existing proficiencies by transforming themselves into clearinghouses for local information that isn’t available elsewhere. A newspaper Web site, for example, might provide access to the newspaper’s archival “morgue,” tagged and searchable, and photos; it might offer a comprehensive set of biographical “blurbs” about local notables, regularly updated and hyperlinked to references in news articles; it might also provide easy access to local listings; and serve as a comprehensive repository of public information. In other words, newspaper (currently classified by the Connecticut Department of Labor as part of the manufacturing sector) are likely to become information-service providers that specialize in local communities. “If we’re serious about building our franchises on local information, the opportunities are huge,” Gray gushes (2006).

Simultaneously, as the Intenet forces change on newspapers (a hidebound, change-averse group if ever there was one 1 ), it will also provide opportunity to adapt to these new roles. But this process will alter the relationship between newspapers and their readers and present ethical challenges along the way. To wit, newspaper people tend to see the Internet merely as a superior way of disseminating information on a “one-to-many” basis, which it is. And we’re beginning to tap its value as a way of exchanging information interactively (for example, through blogs — see Matheson [2004] for a fuller treatment of this issue), from “many-to-many.” But the industry has yet to exploit fully what, from the perspective of an information-service provider, is perhaps its most potent feature: as a vehicle for gathering valuable information — specifically, about individuals. This “many-to-one” capability is the Internet’s dirty little secret.

As businesses, newspapers, of course, already collect certain data from subscribers: names, addresses, phone numbers, etc. But that’s handled outside the newsroom, and the information is generally of marginal news value.2 But many newspapers now require registration to gain full access to their sites’ contents; for example, the New Haven Register asks visitors to provide not only their addresses (geographic and electronic), but also their ages and household income. Some newspapers conduct more extensive mini-surveys during registration. The use of cookies could further cull information about visitors’ habits and preferences. It’s easy to see how such a data set would be useful to others outside the newspaper —real estate professionals, car dealerships, political organizations, and other concerns that have a specific interest in local information.

So what happens when, inevitably, someone decides to marry this growing stockpile of information with content reaped from the editorial side of the operation — news “hits,” biographical blurbs, photos, etc.? The resulting database could transform the town newspaper into a localized Central Intelligence Agency, with electronic “files” on readers containing their personal data (possibly including their Social Security numbers), demographic information, viewing habits, interests, arrest histories, and news mentions. Why not throw in credit histories, too? If this seems far-fetched, bear in mind that many newspapers already collect all of this information, only they keep it in separate parts of the building.

If newspapers don’t do this, someone else will. Similar stockpiling of data is occurring in other industries, and access to it is not as restricted as one might suspect. Detailed personal information certainly has economic value, and newspapers are among the information-services providers that are well positioned to provide it. In this age of ubiquitous information, red flags are already going up over the threat to privacy. In The Control Revolution (1999) Andrew Shapiro observes that

“the growth of networked computing has allowed data compilers, direct marketers, and list-sellers to gather and sell personal information about practically everyone. The result is a broad and lucrative market for personal information that allows anyone with a buck to find out a whole lot about anyone else, just by trolling around the Internet” (p. 158)

Shapiro argues that market forces by themselves are insufficient to contain this threat, and calls for “statutory protections and government oversight” (p. 164) This sounds great until one considers the government’s Baby Huey approach to regulating the digital world (e.g., the “Fritz Chip”); one also wonders how effective government intervention will be in addressing an industry that can simply pack up its servers and skedaddle to Bermuda if it dislikes the regulatory climate.

That’s why it’s urgent that newspapers in particular, as well as other information-services providers develop their own standards and policies. (Scientists have wrestled with similar ethical issues surrounding use of personal data, as reported in an Aug. 23, 2006 New York Times article, “Researchers Yearn to Use AOL Logs, but They Hesitate.”) For newspapers, it is all the more important to reinforce the “wall” around the newsroom that separates the editorial product from other functions of the overall business. As we draw up ethics policies, we should be asking ourselves: Is it OK to locate sources using information culled from site registration? What is our relationship with readers — are they mere consumers? Participants? Or are they a resource to be mined for lucrative data? Do we have a responsibility to protect their privacy? Will the nature of our business be “one-to-many,” or “many-to-many,” or “many-to-one”?

So far we have generally failed to do so. A quick perusal of newspaper ethics codes, available on the American Society of Newspaper Editors Web site, found that these issues have been left largely unaddressed, except in the broadest of terms. Moreover, at a recent roundtable on ethics sponsored by the Online Journalism Review, journalists and editors largely ignored questions about this redefinition of the relationship between the news media and readers/viewers. In fact, the discussion largely focused on age-old ethical issues: “Should we publish this?” “How far should our reporting delve into people’s private lives?” “How do we maintain standards in the face of brutal competition?” These are the same questions that have dogged the media since long before the arrival of the Internet.

The Internet will tend to erode the natural barriers that exist between the paper product’s editorial and circulation functions. It is there important that these issues be addressed specifically in newsrooms.

1 As Matheson rather stuffily puts it: “Journalism has always had a wide margin but it also had a rather static core set of news practices” (2004, p. 448). But there’s also a strain of realism, if somewhat stoic and belated. I recently witnessed the spectacle of nonagenarian newspaper executive Dick Scudder lecturing newspaper editors averaging 40 years his junior about the central role the Internet will play in the future of the business.

2In my 11 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I’ve never once considered consulting the circulation department in attempt to ferret out a source’s phone number or address; in fact, the thought first occurred to me while writing this paper.

Works Cited:

American Society of Newspaper Editors (2001). Statement of Principles. 14 Nov. 2006

Glaser, Mark (2004). On the Wild, Wooly Internet, Old Ethics Rules Do Apply. Online Journalism Review. August 8. 10 Nov. 2006

Gray, S. (2006). “Local is the answer — but which ‘local’? Newspaper Next: The Transportation Project. 15 Nov. 2006

Hafner, K. (2006). Researchers yearn to use AOL logs, but they hesitate. New York Times, Aug. 23.

Matheson, D. (2004). Weblogs and the epistemology of the news: some trends in online journalism. New Media & Society, 6(4). 443-468.

Shapiro, A.L. (1999) Privacy for Sale (pp. 158-165). The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know. New York: Perseus.

One response to “Reelin’ in the years

  1. Looks like the ethics policy is back up.

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