Ethics on the Web: Is Truthful Journalism Facing a Crisis?
October 31, 2007 2:00 PM
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An old British IT hack speaks out!
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a new medium, although new things always have their critics. But rapid, radical change will often shake up the status quo, and not always in a good way. File sharing has scared the living daylights out of the music, film and TV industries, with
draconian knee-jerk consequences
. It’s a historical thing – in the early days of UK radio broadcasting, the newspapers stopped the new medium from carrying news until 7pm, fearing it would spoil their market otherwise.
But the Web has a much more profound implication for journalism. In
We the Media
gushes with excitement
about the potential of blogging to democratise news reportage. And it is indeed very exciting. However, giving everyone the chance to become journalists could potentially have a very negative effect on the quality of information available.
Before all you Web-evangelising readers get your hackles up, I should explain a few things. I come from a print journalism background. I’ve been writing about the IT industry for over a decade, and spent five years editing the UK’s number one-selling computing monthly,
. So you’re immediately going to look at the sorry state of IT print publications, mostly thanks to the Web, and make the assumption that I’m a bitter old hack itching to have a go at the young lions who have caused monthly IT magazines to halve in circulation, and forced many to close.
But you’d be wrong. I’m not arguing that the Web is ruining the quality of writing or the ability to find a good story. I actually believe there is more chance of a meritocracy on the Web, where good writing and clever scoops can prevail over corporate interest and politics – because readers have more chance of deciding directly which stories make quality journalism.
Although I might bite my own head off if I read another over-excited article about the "wisdom of crowds" (Surely they’re teaching James Surowiecki in kindergarten now?), it is pretty common sense that the more people there are trying to do something, the more chance it has of happening. It’s just the million monkeys and typewriters cliché all over again.
There’s a much more dangerous threat from online journalism, however. As
rather convincingly a few months ago
there are some pretty well established websites out there which will go to much greater lengths to win advertising than print ever would have when I was a magazine editor. Whilst print titles have become increasingly desperate in the last few years as advertising revenue drops through the floor, and their standards might well be slipping too, this still doesn’t make it a good thing. In fact, it’s a crisis which could destroy the whole idea of truthful product review journalism.
Let’s look at all this from the varying perspectives of the major parties concerned, starting with the advertisers. If you’re an IT company with X amount of money to spend on promotion, and a website with a few million readers is offering not only to run your banner ads for a given fee, but to publish a certain number of articles as well, that sounds like a great deal. If another website will give you favourable coverage for merely sending a product in and
subtly forgetting to ask for it back
, why bother advertising at all?
This is all brilliant for an advertiser –- you can use your money to influence the market, and get coverage for your products so they sell better than those of companies with less money to spend. The IT company will be happy, and the website will be happy as it wins ad revenue away from other more scrupulous sites -- and print magazines too.
The websites in question don’t see this as unethical at all, in large part because their first job in journalism was on their own website. Here is the argument given to explain how they don’t quite see the line between editorial and advertising -- and this is quoted virtually word for word from one website editor I’ve discussed this with in the past:
"You’re sent two products, and you only have time to review one. Surely it makes sense to review the one from the advertiser who supports your website financially, rather than the one which doesn’t?"
Sounds quite reasonable, right? Well, it makes some commercial sense. But it’s already well on the way down a slippery slope away from editorial content you can trust. If you’re going to do your readers a proper service, you really should review both products, and not be afraid to publish even if the non-advertiser’s product is better. That is your job as a journalist.
Anything else is morally reprehensible on a number of levels. From a journalist’s perspective, having to write articles because of the deal a salesperson has made, rather than because the topic is newsworthy and of interest to the audience, is at its very best a reversal of the way things have traditionally been in journalism. The articles are quite likely to be boring for the reader, too.
At its worst, though, this arrangement is a complete enslavement of the truth to the corporate purse and industrial interests. Sure, you can say that you will still print the truth, whether it annoys the advertisers or not. But how is that really going to work if the advertiser was sold editorial coverage as part of their advertising deal? The advertiser is definitely not going to pay their bills if the articles they were promised turn out to be against them. So, in reality, there will be pressure on the journalist to pull their punches, rather than report things as they are and provide the audience with an unbiased article.
From a reader’s perspective, the situation is even worse. You won’t be able to trust that the products, which you are being told are the best, aren’t just those from the company which paid the website for the most coverage. Why should you trust anything these websites say? And, unfortunately, if enough websites have this attitude, how will you know which ones to trust, if any at all? You might become entirely disillusioned with the Web.
This is the crisis journalism currently faces, and it needs to be rooted out. Right now, some advertisers are regularly favouring websites which sell editorial along with advertising. Why wouldn’t they? They get more for their money. But in the long run this is selling the product-buying public down the river.
When reading information from the Web, it’s very easy to treat it as a level playing field, because you can’t always tell if one very well-coded website is actually run by a clever 19-year-old in his bedroom, whilst another more clunky one is the result of a respected publisher which hasn’t quite got grips with Web technology yet. And the 19-year-old really could be doing more thorough testing and writing better articles than the lumbering old publishing company.
Nevertheless you, as web readers, need to be aware of what could be going on behind the scenes, and if a website looks fishy, make sure word gets around. Post on forums, blog it, make your own YouTube video. But this linking of editorial and advertising must be nipped in the bud before it’s too late. Otherwise, this fantastic democratic Web medium will actually be a puppet of the company with the biggest bucks, and you won’t be able to trust anything you read at all.
This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled
10/31/2007 4:05:33 PM
James, I remember reading your print stuff in the not so distant past. It's great to see a familiar face.
I have a deep respect that you're speaking out like this.
11/2/2007 8:41:11 AM
Thanks for the kind words! I'm definitely still around - writing more and more for the Web now. That's kind of how this article came about. The culture shock in moving from print to Web!
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