February 21, 2005

The Big E: Ethics, Bloggers, and Independent Media

(An RFB dialogue with Larisa Alexandrovna of RawStory.com)

The question remains wide open as to whether ethics manifest in a standard, a protocol, or best practices; must apply to bloggers' content. Readers have no way of gauging the authenticity of content since for blogs there is no ethical benchmark or standardized processes for posting publicly.

Raw Story, for example, was one of a very small number of independent media outlets that covered the 2004 election fall out in great detail (examples: 1, 2, and 3). Mainstream media had forsaken the mass irregularities in Ohio and sat completely silent on Florida; even bloggers followed these independent media for the truth.

Larisa Alexandrovna, associate editor and journalist for Raw Story, has been in the thick of it, and sees the middle way between blogging and mainstream media quite clearly. She shares her thoughts on indie media with us at RFB.

What's your take on this, Larisa?

Well, you have the problem of diarists, journalists, and journalists who are also diarists. Citizen journalists I would include in the "journalists" category. It lends to a great deal of confusion. Journalists are required to adhere to standards of ethics and reporting principles. In that regard you have the independent/Progressive press both online and through other channels, such as publications, radio, etc.

Journalists who also happen to be blogging, I would think, have more leeway in their personal diaries, as long as they make the distinction that they are simply expressing personal opinion and do not violate any journalistic principles outright. In other words, openly discussing an ongoing investigation or outing a source would not be something a responsible journalist should do.

Diarists/Bloggers, on the other hand, face a different set of issues entirely. It also does not help that the mainstream has labeled all Web reporting as "blogging."

Both genres are extremely essential to getting information out to the people and both rely heavily on one another. The bloggers/diarists are, collectively, the voice of the masses. That voice cannot be and should not be "controlled" nor should that voice be held to standards that limit its freedom. Also, bloggers can say things journalists cannot, they can simply express a certain view; work on research; and most importantly they can work using one another's skill set in groups in order to achieve a particular goal. This is democracy, the voice of the people.

In a group environment, where many personal blogs are hosted, there should be a blanket statement explaining to would-be readers that the sentiments expressed are not vetted news stories. There are bloggers who would make very credible journalists to be sure, but they also have to take on the responsibility that comes with the turf. So yes, I am concerned on many levels because the Web can spread rumor, conjecture, etc., at the speed of light and inadvertently devalue the independent press. The Web is also a hot-bed for disinformation, which diarists might spread unknowingly.

Creating the benchmark, however, should not be up to the individual diarist as they should be free to express themselves. The benchmark should be set for how blogs are quoted, used, sourced, etc., by the media. One other item of note is that blogs are sourced in the mainstream for a story when in fact the blog may just be providing a link to the actual story. Again, these issues should not be addressed on a personal level; rather, they should be addressed by clearly separating diarists from journalists. I think of citizen journalists as in fact journalists, assuming they adhere to the basic ethical standards, report responsibly, and thoroughly vet their information. I think blogs are highly important and influential, but I think their biggest contribution is research (careful research) and open discussion. They are also key in grassroots mobilization, but again, there has to be an understanding that the independent progressive press is different from blogging.

At the same time, there's been brouhaha over journalism and ethics. Three and possibly many more professionals in mainstream media have taken payments from the government that might be construed as payola for propaganda. Payola is not only unethical but illegal; if mainstream media will breach the law by accepting payola, in what other questionable, borderline activities have mainstream media members?

Right, but you are talking about a fourth estate so corrupt and bloated with corporate driven identities that all ethics questions and/or responsibilities are a moot point. That is why the independent press is so essential, as it is the only real fourth estate left. When you have major broadcasters leading the US into war for ratings that is generally called Yellow Journalism and it seems the Pulitzer has finally come full circle. More importantly, is that it is not just war, or No Child Left Behind, but absolutely insidious on every level. That is what I find frightening. I was on the phone with a source at the AP national desk on election night. Now while the networks would have you believe there is suspense and they are all competing to break the latest state to turn blue or red, the fact is they are using a single source, pooled together after the 2000 debacle. When in journalism have you heard of anyone using a single source and in such blatant disregard for reporting principles? I would say that the election reporting and the WMD reporting are beyond questionable, they are criminal. [The MSM] are playing with people's lives, not just toting the No Child Left Behind public relations banner, for example.

I think we can expect to see even worse standards from the mainstream, with the exception of a few reporters who are working against a brick wall, but are nevertheless trying to get real news out. In my opinion, I do not think this can be corrected because it has seeped into the very fabric of the mainstream journalistic structure. Short of throwing the whole bunch out their collective bottoms and starting from scratch, there is no salvaging the credibility of the mainstream media.

We, the reading public, were ignorant of these payments, failing to question mainstream media's ethical practices until too late.

That is what I mean, it is too late. The mistakes have made the individual journalists and the networks all culpable in criminal activity, although there is no one to hold them accountable. I think Dan Rather's trial in the public arena was an absurd display of pretense by other journalists. Rather made an error, to be sure, but his error hardly cost anyone their life, their family, their basic rights as citizens of this country. It is hypocrisy at best and really, again I hate to use this term over and over, but quite criminal in my opinion.

Will the possibility of other less-than-ethical practices be questioned? (This interview took place prior to the breaking of the Gannongate story)

Not unless they are scandalous, sad to say. Prostituting campaign slogans is sensational and sleazy, all the makings of high ratings. Who should be held very accountable are the people like Blitzer, Novak, and the entire Fox propaganda machine. What these people have done is not only unethical in terms of journalistic principles; they have violated basic ethics of human decency. I cannot believe for the life of me that while our soldiers are dying, so called reporters are actually paying attention to Dobson's psychotic obsession with cartoon characters. Or, on the day when nineteen of our soldiers died, Chris Mathews did an interview with Lynn Cheney and her new book about our fore founders. That was his entire show that evening. Lynn might be an indignant mother, but I am indignant citizen.

What about the stranglehold that corporate interests -- either as consolidated owners or as paying corporate advertisers -- have taken over mainstream media?

Yes, well that is the crux of the problem in large part. There is also the marriage of media with political motivations. Your wording is really what sums it up, the "take-over" of mainstream media. How then do we "retake" it? I think the Internet is to MSM what TV was to Yellow Journalism.

Where do we get the straight poop, something as highly individualistic as bloggers and yet subject to ethical practices?

What you are talking about is independent press, which has always been around in one way or another. It has, however, become the only real press left. Bloggers, as I stated earlier, are important and some journalistic do blog as well. It is important to understand the difference between the independent press and diarists, however. It really is imperative that we support the independent press, because that is all we have left in terms of a legitimate fourth estate. I would say Truthout, Raw Story, Buzz Flash, and Common Dreams are the ones I would single out as representative of indie press online (or at least the ones I go to every single day for news).

In terms of publications I think Mother Jones, Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, and Vanity Fair are the ones I really value and respect. In terms of television, well, other than John Stewart and Keith Olberman (most of the time), there is really a large gaping hole. I would say if you have to get your news from television, then John Stewart’s Daily Show, Countdown with Keith Olberman, and PBS when it feels like being, well, what it used to be. That is all there is on television. The great thing, however, is satellite and radio, give us still more options, especially Air America. Although it peeves me that they use CNN for their wires on local stations, the actual shows are very valuable in not only getting news out but providing a reality based discussion. It is like the Twilight Zone, however. One minute I am screaming along with Randi Rhodes and the next moment CNN interjects its commentary called "news". It really gives you a sense of a dual reality: one in which there is truth and one which is all smoke and mirrors.

Again, you can get the straight poop, as you say, from bloggers if they are taking on the responsibility of citizen journalists, but then they lose their individual freedom as part of the peoples’ voice. Like I said earlier, the people need an unhindered, unrestricted venue through which they can not only express themselves, but work together toward a particular goal. They need funding as well, but more importantly, they need the room to move around from one blog to another; especially when there is a group blogging environment.

Some of the blogs I visit daily are Democratic Underground, Watching the Watchers, Atrios, Americablog, Blogactive (which has merged with Raw Q), Brad Blog, Bloggerman, and Randi Rhodes/Mike Malloy blogs. I have my coffee in the morning and I run through the blogs. DU has an astonishing collection of citizen journalists, bloggers, and all sorts of highly skilled people who could probably run this country better than our three branches of government put together.

There is at least another option, a third way. How about independent, small media?

True and that would be the above mentioned. The problem is the independent press is highly under funded, highly niche structured and highly disconnected from one another. I have been working on a project, well really two projects, but they compliment one another very well. The first is the Open Source Press Association (OSPA), which would bypass the Associated Farce (sorry, can't help myself) and take back the wires as well as provide an umbrella of ethics and allow for the credentialing of journalists. In providing a solid credentialed independent press corps, we can pull our resources, connect to one another, and share funding.

The most important factor, however, is that we "the people" ask the fourth estate to get the truth out to us, risking all sorts of issues and problems. Should we, the people, not be responsible to our journalists so that they can do their jobs? Some good reporters in the MSM stay simply because they have families to think of; especially with healthcare at such high costs. My goal is to organize the OSPA into four branches, one of which would deal with the security issue: working member freelance writers, editors, etc., would be able to either get their health benefits for free or pay a small fee. Member organizations, publications, and so forth would pay a small fee. Health insurance is gold and more people stay in horrible jobs for health insurance than for any other reason. We also need the security arm to function as almost a union, but not fully. What I mean is that journalists who attempt to report the truth are rewarded by smears, intimidation, and all sorts of retaliatory actions. Imagine if we could active our pens all at once to protect our own? We have lost complete social etiquette even on the most basic level of discussion. Smearing has become the lighter side of propaganda, but it does a great disservice to the journalist as well as to the reader. We also need to provide our journalists with tools to do the most basic work even.

Do you know that we at Raw Story do not even have the basic tools? We cannot afford a Lexis-Nexis account or a Westlaw account. It is through literally the kindness of strangers that we are able to get the research done that we need. Or, we pay for each search ourselves, which is usually the case. I would venture that some of the other indie journalists are struggling in much the same way. Yet you have all of these lobby groups and grassroots groups sitting with filled coffers. The truth needs to get out and when it does, it is the tool around which lobby groups and grassroots movements mobilize and then you see the checks and balances really work.

We cannot complain about MSM if we do not attempt to rectify this very troubling set of symptoms first and foremost. There is much more to what OSPA will be and how it will be structured. We just put forth a press release that summarizes this a bit better. Don't want to bore you with the entire story of how, when, and what [laugh].

My second project is to create a conduit from the independent press, to the independent media, such as radio, satellite, etc. We can quickly report within a nanosecond what needs to get out and have it shouted across the airways to even a larger audience. This also is essential because our niche mentality will not work against the monolith of corporate sponsored propaganda. They have the money. They have the airwaves. They have the attention. If we continue working in a niche environment, we will never move toward real reform. I do not mean niche reporting, for example, focusing on environmental issues. What I mean is working in closed circles, in silos.

Larisa, I want to ask what it is it that indie media offers that is unique from blogging and mainstream media. We've touched on serious concerns we should have about the limitations of bloggers -- in particular, bloggers as investigators. What's your opinion on this?

I have said that bloggers are amazing investigators, but they need to remember that showing your hand in a game of cards is not a good approach. There are some investigations that need to be done off radar in order to vet the information and sources before information is scrubbed, or changed, or the sources are no longer available. Should serious investigations be done in a public arena, they compromise the story by providing the "person/ organization/ company/ thing" that is being investigated with a play-by-play of strategy, what is known thus far, where the investigation is leading, and who are the planned sources to contact. It also allows for anyone, since online one can never really know who a persona is, to contaminate the investigation by misdirecting it, confusing it, etc. Imagine Segretti online and the type of damage him and his can/have done? Of course there is also the danger of inadvertently outing a source and putting them at risk and of course the danger of outing the investigator and putting themselves at risk. The truth is, until a story is thoroughly vetted and credible, and until it is published, there is no cover. So this bothers me a great deal and it also pushes any journalist away who might otherwise take the tip. Bloggers are essential however, in getting information out, galvanizing the grass roots, fundraising and really some incredible investigative work. There are some bloggers whom I have begun a correspondence with because their work is astounding and I just write to thank them or convince them to be citizen journalists. There is also a collection of talent that is mind boggling, but again, there is so much disconnect from one another and so much competition. We really need to work together; we no longer have the luxury of being in a niche market.

What does today’s indie media have in common with mainstream media?

Nothing [laughs]. I mean we have the same heroes in common or we have the same education in common. Really though, at this point, to continue to report for an organization such as Fox is a crushing of all things ethical in journalism. CNN, which apparently claims that its new leadership will take on a different route, is still largely not-reporting or arguing fact with pundits. Fact is fact. The historical context or expert opinions are great, but fact is fact. There is no compromise on that.

CNN in canceling Crossfire is only the equivalent of cutting off the most gangrened limb; it is not solving the bigger issue. And honestly, even continuing to allow, for example, Novak to lie on the CNN Web site or to pimp his talking points on the Capital Gang is highly irresponsible. He outed a CIA agent, which if memory serves is a Federal crime. Is the mainstream in the business of hiring unethical and possibly criminal people to provide us with news? I guess so, given that anyone at Enron is still to be held accountable, we live in a felon-happy reality. Poor Walter Cronkite, what a slap in the face these people are to his work.

Progressives have had a number of problems with mainstream media content, from conflicts of interest to lack of content. Why do you think the public isn't getting a better product from mainstream media? And why isn't the public getting more of its news from indie outlets?

The public is busy watching reality TV, living in a short attention span and demanding scandal as news. The public is the consumer and the consumer has been programmed to demand certain things by the very people who then deliver those things. It is a vicious circle and it destroys individual thinking en masse. Of course, that is really the point of propaganda, no? To destroy the individual's ability to think.

What do you think needs to happen to increase the availability of indie media?

Well, I went over this earlier on in discussing OSPA and creating a conduit to other media outlets. I would say funding, from grassroots, would be nice. At the very least we could get the basic tools we need. I would also say that not bashing independent journalists would also be a nice thing. People are so quick to jump on someone one day and praise them the next. Our indie press/progressive press is not strong enough to withstand that kind of vacillating in support. It is very true that the right will start the bashing and the left will pick it up and run with it. The left has to stop contributing to these smear tactics. We have very few voices and many of them just give up out of frustration. So support in terms of funding, in terms of respect, in terms of standing behind the people on the front lines and "having their back," so to speak. Those would all be wonderful first steps.

Let us know what you think: is there room for a middle way, something as authentic and volatile as blogging yet adherent to genuine journalistic ethics? What's the business model look like that could sustain an independent media? Know anybody that might be interested in helping launch such a concept?

Be sure to check out Raw Story's press release on Open Source Press Association (OSPA); if you have questions regarding OSPA, please contact either Larisa larisawriting –at- gmail.com or John Byrne, john -at- rawstory.com.

Posted by rayne at February 21, 2005 8:54 AM

"DU has an astonishing collection of citizen journalists, bloggers, and all sorts of highly skilled people who could probably run this country better than our three branches of government put together."

That's where I stopped reading. Anyone who thinks DU contains good information is an idiot.

Posted by: Joe at February 22, 2005 6:32 AM

Great piece, but I have to point this out:

RE: "It also does not help that the mainstream has labeled all Web reporting as "blogging."

Larisa also needs to get the terminology correct. Sites like Democratic Underground andMike Malloy's place are "FORUMS" not Blogs.

Websites and Forums and Blogs and List Servs and Newsgroups all work a bit differently and we need to help educate by using the correct terms.

Posted by: Josie at February 22, 2005 5:49 PM

Sure is quiet here.... I guess I'll start then.

- Is there room for a middle way, something as authentic and volatile as blogging yet adherent to genuine journalistic ethics?

Absolutely! There is great potential for a real media revolution here. Distrust in the mainstream media is rising rapidly, the extreme right has been suppressing and censoring any dissent, and today we have the Internet, an immmensely powerful tool that enables us to communicate like never before!

We need to tap more into the Internet's technology, though. We are not using it effectively enough.

I'm not familiar with how journalistic ethics would differ from plain, everyday personal ethics. I like to think that everyone should follow these basics:

Credit your sources (give credit when credit is due)
Don't plagiarize (don't steal someone else's work)
Protect your source if that's what you said you'd do (keep your promises)
Don't disclose off-the-record discussions (keep your promises, again!)
Don't participate in cover-ups (don't lie)
Do you best to make sure the information you give is accurate (take responsibility for your actions)
Correct any mistakes made as soon as possible (we all make mistakes, just fix 'em!)

- What's the business model look like that could sustain an independent media?

I have no clue. I'm not even sure what this question means.... (not my area, can you "dumb it down" a little, please?

- Know anybody that might be interested in helping launch such a concept?

Absolutely! Count me in!

Posted by: Angry Girl at February 22, 2005 8:35 PM

Josie:

My mention of Malloy and DU as blogs and not forums is that really at this point many bloggers use forums to write their thoughts and ideas. This is not a tech analysis to be sure. It is simply a way of saying that bloggers via blogs or via blogging groups or via forums are getting their thoughts out in a very personal way. It seems to me that forums are still forums in terms of voicing. You are addressing the actual structure. I am simply addressing the "voice of the people" as a whole. Thanks for the response:) LA

Posted by: Larisa at February 23, 2005 2:19 PM

Christian, thanks for doing the interview.

Just some comments on Larisa's statements:

"Short of throwing the whole bunch out their collective bottoms and starting from scratch, there is no salvaging the credibility of the mainstream media."

Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center-- which has given birth to the Limbaughs and the O'Reillys of the right who rant on against the elite/mainstream media-- would be quite proud of your fulfilling his message here.

"The truth is, until a story is thoroughly vetted and credible, and until it is published, there is no cover."
"The left has to stop contributing to these smear tactics."
"When in journalism have you heard of anyone using a single source and in such blatant disregard for reporting principles?"
"Yes, well that is the crux of the problem in large part. There is also the marriage of media with political motivations."

I first encountered Raw Story while researching Propagannon, and that's where I discovered some truly "original" reporting-- some single-sourced speculation about alternative reasons why Gannon/Guckert was given special favors (other than simply being a foil). So I am skeptical see how Raw Story can trailblaze ahead in the field of journalistic ethics with OSPA. Have you considered working with existing journalist associations?

Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at February 27, 2005 8:52 AM

Jon, I'm more than happy to have the interview published here at RFB, but the credit for the interview goes entirely to Rayne Today. She planned the article, did the interview, and wrote and edited it herself. I'm just providing the space, and I was smart enough to ask Rayne to help me out here in Blogistan, but that's as far as it goes for me personally.

Do I need to make the bylines more prominent? I know a lot of people still equate me with this blog and vice versa - not sure what to do about that.

Posted by: xian at March 2, 2005 3:25 PM

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Far be it from me to use this space to promote my other blog(s), but over at Radio Free Blogistan, a group weblog-about-blogging (and related topics) I edit, contributor Rayne Today has posted an illuminating Sent by: Personal Democracy Forum at February 22, 2005 8:41 AM

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