Saturday, February 6, 2010

Squishy ethics on the web and what it means for your career

A 17-year-old intern for TechCrunch was fired recently for shaking down startups for equipment in exchange for a positive blog post. The kid's only 17, and is probably headed to Stanford, where he will not have the GO UMASS advantage of taking an ethics class with Professor Karen List or Professor Nick McBride. So for that, we might forgive him. Even if he did use that heinous passive-voice, Reaganesque apology technique, noting in his mea culpa that a "line was crossed."

The incident highlights a growing problem for you folks as you head out into the workworld, and that's the squishy ethics of blogs and websites.

We're strictly "old school" when it comes to journalistic ethics. At most newspapers, the ethos was simple: Don't take anything from anyone. Ever. That's what we pass on to students.

I still think this is the best policy for lots of reasons, and I hope you'll carry that with you into web publishing, because I think it's one way we, as journalists, can bring some level of integrity and credibility to our web-based publications. Plus, it serves readers well.

If that's not the hard and fast rule where you work, then transparency is the next best thing: let the reader know who's paid for what.

But this stance seems almost quaint in online publishing, where websites and blogs routinely publish "sponsored content," which a newspaper editor would call -and label-- exactly what it is: "advertisement."

In these cases, the sponsor pays for the story. Many websites, including some good ones, use this as a revenue generator. You may write for a travel site writing "sponsored stories." But will this affect your chances of writing for, say, the New York Times travel section, which prohibits their freelancers from taking freebies? You got me. I just don't know.

The action of paying for access to a medium's audience used to be called "payola." It's a word that evolved in the late 1950's and early 1960's, when record companies were found to be paying DJ's to play their records on the air.

Today the term is "blogola," and it's a hot topic. Some bloggers accept cash for posts. How do you know which ones? Here's a post from the Technology Liberation Front blog about the issue, and the Federal Trade Commission's proposed guidelines (read all the way--the comments really add to the post.)

Michael Gray explores the issue in a post about the ethics of another TechCrunch writer, Sara Lacy.

Here's one of his major points:

Two things need to change:

  • Bloggers you need to decide to you want to be journalists or bloggers? Journalists are held to a higher standard of ethics, which they are required to follow all the time. They don’t make an exception if it helps bolster their career, if someone is giving them something really cool, or even if it’s a gift they really want. They also don’t have a selective memory when it comes to disclosure.

So what do you think? Have you faced an ethical dilemma on the job? What did you do?

No comments: