Online Media Ethics:
A Survey of U.S. Daily Newspaper Editors


By M. David Arant, University of Memphis and Janna Quitney Anderson, Elon College


                    To be presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Convention, Phoenix, August 2000
 

        The Internet is a runaway train, and journalism professionals with a healthy concern for the value of its cargo of information and the people to whom it is being delivered must tug the emergency-stop cord hard enough and long enough to allow ethical thinking and planning onboard.

        The number of Americans getting their news from the Internet at least once a week more than tripled from 1996 to 1998, leaping from 11 to 36 million (Pew Research Center, 1998), and by December 1999, there were a total of 74.1 million active Internet users in the U.S. and nearly 119.2 million U.S. users with Internet access. The average user visited 12 Web sites and spent 7 hours, 38 minutes online that month. A "user" is defined as all members (2 years of age or older) of U.S. households which currently have access to the Internet (Nielsen/NetRatings, 1999).

         About 99 percent of the nation's largest newspapers and most medium-sized papers now have an online presence, and more than 4,000 papers are online worldwide, about half in the United States (Haring, 1998). Most leading radio and television broadcast entities are also offering an online counterpart.

        Online publishing raises many challenging ethical concerns for managers and educators in the new media, including issues in the areas of privacy; advertising/business relationships; copyright; attribution; linking; posting supplemental materials; immediacy; manipulation of data and graphic images; plagiarism; community publishing; and potentially harmful content.

        Black (1994) was right on track when he wrote, "The bottom line (is that) new media technology and delivery systems make it necessary for individual journalists to develop more sophisticated ethical decision-making skills" (p. 134).
        Traditional print rules, such as the formal separation of editorial and advertising content, do not exist on the Internet, where the lines between news and advertising are often invisible. Correcting mistakes may be a fact of life at most daily newspapers, but how many new media managers are going to assign their teams to point out errors online when they can simply wipe them out and set the record straight by immediately publishing a new version of a story? If a news organization simply publishes everything it can get its hands on in its bottomless online news hole, is it covering an issue in a way that best serves its audience? Should the archival details an organization has gathered about individuals in a community be packaged and sold as yet another information product? Should links be provided to sites of questionable taste when they also offer vital information to news consumers? In a medium built for speed, should the old methods of fact checking remain, or can shortcuts be allowed, and if so, how can an organization possibly regulate them to avoid costly errors? (Mann, 1998)

        There have been so many questions about online errors, a Web site was established to bring some of them to light. Frank Sennett, editor of the alternative-press portal Newcity.com, regularly updates www.slipup.com, featuring an archive and slipup of the day, plus links to corrections.

         Anecdotal evidence indicates that few new media outlets have formalized ethics protocols built to deal with the issues of online publishing. What kinds of codes of ethics are in place to guide online news publication?

        This paper examines the practice of online newspaper journalism. First, the paper reviews the academic and trade press literature that addresses the opportunities and challenges of publishing news on the World Wide Web. Then, the paper reports the findings of a survey of U.S. newspaper editors about the practices and problems they face each day publishing online. Finally, the paper discusses the problems with online publication and suggests procedures for improving online news practice.



Newsgathering and the World Wide Web


 
        Journalists are entrusted with the role of gatekeepers of information in society, a term first applied directly to the media by White (1950) in a study of the choices made by a wire service editor at a small Midwestern newspaper.  He said the gatekeeper acts as "the representative of his culture" (p. 390). Subsequent studies have indicated that the journalist's self-perception as the person who decides what people need to know is deeply ingrained. Indeed, the identification and dissemination of what is worth knowing is considered to be the journalist's key task in a democratic society(Janowitz, 1975).

         The number of pages available on the World Wide Web was estimated to be 320 million in 1997, and the number had surged past 800 million by February of 1999 (Time, 1999). The number of Web sites on the Internet in June 1999 was estimated to be 6.6 million, and by January 2000 the number had risen to nearly 10 million (Netcraft Web Server Survey, 2000). The overwhelming mass of fact and fiction presented by digital communication makes gatekeepers more vital than ever before.

        A study by Singer (1997) indicates that newsroom employees are modifying their definition of the gatekeeper function to incorporate notions of both quality control and sense-making. They see themselves as the trusted interpreters of an unprecedented volume of available information. These findings are in line with the most recent survey by Weaver and Wilhoit (1996), who found that journalists continue to see their primary role as interpreters, rather than mere gatherers and disseminators, of information.

        A study by Arant and Meyer (1997) indicates sensitivity to ethical concerns is increasing in today's college-educated newsrooms. The study by Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) also found strongly held ethical beliefs ? beliefs that may be challenged by the ease of shedding constraints online (Singer, 1998).

         In today's new journalism, gatekeepers make their decisions in an environment that is in a constant state of flux. In the wide-open, fast-paced world of online publishing, interpretation can become incredibly complex. Anne Stuart (1997), senior editor of WebMaster Magazine, says, "Because publishers can't plan for every scenario, they must develop blueprints to guide ethical decision-making, keeping their missions and their constituents firmly in mind. Like building a Web site, it's a job that will never be finished."

        Over the past three years, most of the daily newspapers in the United States have hurriedly expanded their operations to include a World Wide Web site. Many such sites are equipped with bare-bones staffs. One survey found that typical full-time staffing includes one advertising employee, one technical employee and two editorial employees (Fitzgerald, 1997). Numbers have risen only slightly since that time.

         "Take it as a given that within five years, networked computers in the workplace and the home will compete on an equal footing with the existing news media as a routine source of news for over half the public and the industrialized world," writes Neuman (as cited in Fulton, 1996). The rapid growth of online newspapers has been called the most important challenge facing newspaper publishing (Bittner, 1996).

         Has enough attention been paid to the vital issue of ethics online? As Fred Mann (1998), general manager of Philadelphia Online - the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News' Web site - writes, "To allow a diminution of values online such as accuracy, credibility, balance, accessibility, news judgment and leadership would be to risk undermining the good name - and the economic value - of the mother ship. Print and broadcast properties are getting on the Web to enhance their good names, not to lose them."



More Pressure for Media Managers

        The arrival of the digital age has fostered dramatic change in the way information is gathered, processed and presented in the United States. The mass media today are far different than they were even one year ago, reshaping demands on media managers and significantly magnifying the potential content of journalism school ethics courses. The digital age has been chiefly responsible for:
 
        * The creation of short-staffed "corporate" newsrooms where the bottom line often takes precedence over civic responsibility and level-headed devotion to accuracy and fair reporting (Hickey, 1998).

        * The fragmentation of the media audience and perceived need to be the first to break stories of scandal and tragedy to attract and retain consumers, leaving little or no time for fact-checking and vital ethics discussions prior to the airing of a story (Online Newshour, 1998).

        * The crushing demand for fresh news items to fill up air time 24 hours a day, making accuracy and balanced reporting more difficult to achieve on a consistent basis (Online Newshour, 1998).

        * Negative changes in consumer attitude toward the media and the advent of a more savvy, suspicious, cynical information consumer (Pew, 1998; Center for Media, 1997; "Fallout from a media fiasco," 1998: ASNE, 1998).

        * Short-staffed online operations that are expected to mimic the excellence of the print product and produce profits out of thin air (Singer et al., 1999).

        Jane Singer, Martha Tharp and Amon Haruta (1999) report in their recent survey of United States news operations that online staff size increases with circulation size, but with considerable variation. One of the largest papers had 55 full-time permanent employees on its online staff, plus another 250 stringers. Another daily in the same circulation category had only three full-time, permanent online staffers. The smallest print newsroom reported four full-time, permanent employees; the largest had more than 500. Median staff sizes by circulation category were 23 print, one online (under 50,000); 68 print, three online (50,0001 to 100,000); 198.5 print, five online (100,001 to 250,000); and 350 print, 34 online (over 250,000). A number of the online editors surveyed expressed frustration with their small staffs and the lack of time to do things right. Some cited the "burnout and long hours faced by one- and two-person staffs" (Singer et al., 1999, p. 42). One editor commented, "So much to post, so little time to do it" (Singer et al., 1999, p. 42). Many expressed concerns about being able to keep their sites current and accurate. They also expressed a concern most print managers do not have - making an online publication with an uncertain advertising and readership base profitable or at least a break-even proposition.

        Conclude Singer, Tharp and Haruta (1999): "Both the closed- and open-ended survey results indicate staff sizes are too small to adequately support a quality online product, even without the compounding difficulties of fast-paced technological change" (p. 45).

        In a study exploring trends in United States Web newspaper publishing, Foo Yeuh Peng, Naphtali Tham and Hao Xiaoming (1999) found that representatives from about a third of the papers surveyed reported their online operations were making a profit, but admittedly not much in relation to their up-front investments nor to the double-digit profits on the print side. Some said they were accomplishing this by keeping both expenses and online staff sizes to a minimum.

        In such an environment, a framework of clear, constantly updated ethical standards can be a key component in successful news gathering and presentation. But most news operations have yet to seriously and consistently address ethics in a formalized manner in their traditional or online products.

         In 1999 the Ethics and Values Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors published an analysis of 33 current daily newspaper ethics codes. It found that most of the codes served two functions: as public relations tools and as a very basic education for staff members on newsroom values and norms. Few of the codes specifically address online ethics. The most popular subject in the codes is conflict of interest, including junkets, gifts, political involvement and community activity. In conclusion, the analysis says, "It seems that in most of these newsrooms … the solution to ethical dilemmas lies much more in deference to a rule book and the official voice of supervisors and less in critical thinking, discussion with peers and effective protocols for decision-making" (ASNE, 1999).

        Many news organizations offer no ethics protocol, perhaps operating under the theory that because ethics are taught in journalism school, there is no need to introduce formal guidelines in the newsroom. The digital age has indeed brought some changes in journalism curricula, but are they adequate? Computer-assisted reporting classes have been established (Lee & Fleming, 1995), and a number of universities have introduced Web publishing and multimedia production courses (Friedland & Webb, 1996; Thompson, 1995). However, only a handful of institutions offer or plan to offer courses devoted to the ethical and legal issues tied to online journalism  (Smethers, 1998).

        In his online essay, "Journalism Ethics and New Media," Pavlik (1998) examines the four questions he considers to be key: 1) What are or should be the ethical standards of digital news gathering? 2) What are the ethical rules of digital news production? 3) What are the ethical boundaries of online news content? 4) What are the broad ethical issues confronting journalists in an interactive, global news system? Pavlik concludes, "It is incumbent on schools and departments of journalism to play an active role in educating the public to act responsibly in creating electronic content and in serving in a leadership role in shaping public behaviors on the Net."

        Michael Oreskes (1999), chief of the Washington Bureau of the New York Times, says the way for journalists to meet the challenge of public criticism and the changes being wrought by the Internet is a movement "to reassert our highest standards."  He explains journalists in the new media need to look backward, not just forward, because the organizations with the best reputations will win the largest audiences. "Standards are not about new technology," he points out, "they are about basic rules and values … We should establish and then explain - both to ourselves and to the public - why we do the things we do. What are our central values?" (p. 22).

        Jonathan Hart, an online media attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm Dow, Lohnes & Albertson PLC, says employee handbook-style codes of ethics may not effectively cover all online issues. "I'm a fan of seminars, workshops, roundtables and the like, which I believe can be very effective in helping young journalists learn when to ask questions, when to consult more seasoned journalists or a lawyer," he says (Palser, 1999, p. 26).

        Doug Feaver, the editor of washingtonpost.com and a veteran of the Washington Post's traditional newsroom, says that while some routine ethical issues lend themselves to a written policy, spot decisions demand individual judgments based on experience. He encourages editors to exchange stories and solutions. "A lot of what good journalism is about is making decisions based on facts that are in front of you at the time," Feaver says. "A hard-and-fast rule is not going to address the enormous range of issues that you confront in a good newsroom. If we're good at our jobs, we need to be addressing these things all the time" (Palser, 1999, p. 26).

        If they choose not to codify their policies, says Nora Paul, an online reporting expert at the Poynter Institute, online managers should at least have "specific and concrete discussions" with their staffs on a regular basis (Palser, 1999).

        Representatives from some of the nation's leading news organizations formed the Online News Association in 1999, with the purpose of encouraging "the highest possible journalistic standards in this new medium." Its president, Rich Jaroslovksy of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, says, "It isn't enough to merely be a provider of information; we also have to be a broker of information, a filter, a moderator - and sometimes even a referee … Honesty, accuracy and fairness don't go out of fashion because technology has changed" (Online News Association, 1999).

        William F. Woo, former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and now an educator at Stanford University, recently addressed the status of traditional newspapers' ethics, saying the best way to improve the handling of ethics "lies in adopting a methodology ? a delineated procedure, involving certain consistent steps that lead a newsroom to make decisions" (1999).

        Boeyink's study (1998) of the Louisville Courier-Journal, a daily paper known for its ethics, found that a critical factor in a code's effectiveness is an ethical culture in which editors support ethical standards vigorously and foster a process that encourages newsroom debate over controversial cases.

        "We believe newsrooms need to adopt protocols for ethical decision-making," says Bob Steele (1998), director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "A protocol is a process and a framework for making good decisions. A protocol includes key principles and important questions."

        Zoe Baird, president of the Markle Foundation, a not-for-profit philanthropy focusing on the media, writes, "We are now entering a time in which new commercial, cultural, social and institutional norms will begin to be established for the long term. This is a period of definition for the communications industry and its influence on society at large. The decisions made today will have lasting impact" (Oreskes, 1999, p. 23).

        The myriad ethical concerns raised by the very nature of online communication would appear to require that today's journalists formulate, utilize and regularly update ethics methodologies.

         A media-specific ethics code was assembled at the 1997 Poynter Institute Journalism Values & Ethics in New Media Conference. The conference was sparked by the ASNE's project to revitalize journalism's core values. The group of 39 media professionals gathered at Poynter created an outline for code building, identifying six core values around which new media organizations can focus their efforts: leadership; news judgment; credibility; accessibility; balance/fairness/wholeness; and accuracy/authenticity. The five discussion-starting areas suggested for new media ethics are: content reliability; linking; database information; potentially offensive or harmful content; and journalistic integrity and commercial pressure (Poynter, 1997).
 


The Survey of Online Newspaper Editors

         The topic of ethics in the new media has received much attention in the literature. Most of the discussion, however, is based on anecdotal evidence. The few quantitative studies of online newspaper journalism have focused mostly on operation of the web sites. They have not dealt with the ethical issues raised by online news publication. To determine with greater precision what ethical dilemmas journalists face in publishing online, the researchers did a more comprehensive survey about ethical values in online newspaper publication.

         The research questions were:

         1) What are the current practices and policies at online news sites offered by U.S. daily newspapers?

         2) What are the current issues of ethical concern for online news managers at U.S. dailies?

         3) Are the ethical standards of traditional print journalism currently being upheld in publishing online versions of daily newspapers in the United States?

         4) Are online practices affected by staffing levels?

         5) What expectations do media managers have for ethics curricula in journalism schools?

         In October 1999, 686 editors of the online editions of U.S. daily newspapers received by way of e-mail the online newspaper practices survey. The names and e-mail addresses of respondents were obtained from a Newspaper Association of America listserv of the online editors of U.S. daily newspapers.

        Response was encouraged through the promise of a copy of the results of the survey for those who completed the survey. Response was further bolstered by an e-mail memo alert about the project posted on the NAA listserv of online editors a week before the first round of the survey. The survey was attached to the cover letter explaining the purpose of the survey and assuring the respondents that individual respondents would not be identified. A month later, a second e-mail with the attached survey was sent to those editors who had not responded.

        Atotal of 203 editors responded for a 30 percent response rate. Seventeen percent of the respondents were female and 77 percent male. Six percent did not indicate gender. The average age of the respondents was 43, and 89 percent had completed college. The editors had worked on average 17 years in the newspaper business and nearly three years in online publishing.

        Twenty-eight percent of the editors worked at papers with 15,000 or under average daily circulation, 41 percent at papers with circulations between 15,001 to 50,000, 16 percent at papers between 50,001 and 100,000, 10 percent at papers between 100,001 and 200,000 and 5 percent at papers with more than 200,000 average daily circulation.
The respondents had various newsroom titles: publisher, 16 percent; new media manager, 12 percent; editor, 12 percent; online editor, 12 percent; and managing editor, 9 percent. The other 40 percent of the respondents had a wide variety of titles, including: online content coordinator, online news manager, Web content editor, online manager, online administrator, online services manager, Internet services director, director of online services and electronic information editor.

        When asked to whom the editor of the online edition directly reports, 36 percent said the online editor reported to the publisher/CEO; 31 percent to the top print editor; 7 percent to an officer in marketing; and 3 percent to the production manager. The remaining 23 percent of online editors had a variety of bosses: the president of a wholly owned newspaper subsidiary, assistant to the publisher, general manager, metro editor, news editor, operations director, president of the interactive publishing division, director of new media, director of technology, technology manager, online director, new media manager and corporate director of online content.


Publishing Newspapers Online

        All but 3 percent (six newspapers) of the respondents said they do publish an online edition of their newspaper on a regular basis. The editors reported an average of six full-time staff members working exclusively on the online product. However, 27 percent the respondents said they had no full-time staff members working exclusively on the online product and another 19 percent had just one (Table 1). As one would expect, the online staff size correlated positively with the average daily circulation of the newspaper (correlation = .664, p < .0005).

 
Table 1: Average Daily Circulation and Full-Time Online Staff Members
Circulation
n
Zero
One
2-3
4-6
7 plus
Total
15,000 and under
55
56%
27%
15%
2%
 
100%
15,001-50,000
80
23%
24%
34%
15%
5%
100%
50,001-100,000
31
10%
10%
13%
48%
19%
100%
100,001-200,000
20
5%
 
15%
40%
40%
100%
200,000 plus
9
       
100%
100%
All papers
195
27%
19%
22%
19%
14%
100%
Correlation between full-time online staff and circulation is .664. Eight respondents did not indicate staff numbers.







        Of those who had an online edition, 31 percent said they updated their online editions more than once a day and another 65 percent of the editors said they updated their papers daily (Table 2). Frequency of updating correlated positively with circulation size (correlation = .343, p < .0005). The ten newspapers with more than 200,000 circulation all updated the content on their Web pages more than once a day. One respondent said that as a breaking news site, the newspaper published wire service news stories throughout the day.
 
 
Average Daily Circulation and Frequency of Updates
Circulation
n
Weekly
More than weekly
Daily
More than daily
Total
15,000 and under
56
3%
4%
75%
18%
100%
15,001-50,000
80
 
2%
75%
23%
100%
50,001-100,000
31
 
3%
68%
29%
100%
100,001-200,000
19
 
5%
26%
69%
100%
200,000 plus
10
     
100%
100%
All papers
196
1%
3%
65%
31%
100%

Correlation between circulation and frequency of updates is .343. Seven respondents did not indicate frequency.

        Asked how much of the news content of the print edition they published online, 21 percent said all of it, 23 percent said at least half of the print edition, 39 percent said select headline stories, and the remaining 16 percent indicated other. Of those checking other, half said that they publish all or most of the locally generated news stories. One wrote that the Web edition published all front-page and sports stories from the print edition, plus daily record material such as obituaries and police and court reports. Another respondent followed a formula: the top five news stories plus obituaries.

        Editors were asked about the changes they made to print-edition material before putting it online (Table 3). Sixty percent of the editors said they added hypertext links; 13 percent said they changed the wording of the news stories; 23 percent changed the story structure; and 30 percent changed the artwork and photographs. Fifteen percent of the respondents said they made no changes to the material from the print edition that was published online. One respondent wrote that reporters write Web versions of stories that are shorter and more concise. Another published only the first three to five paragraphs from the page-one news and section-front sports stories.
 
 

Table 3: Changes to Print Content for Web Editions
Add hyperlinks 60%
Changed artwork and photos 30%
Changed story structure 23%
Changed wording of new stories 13%
Made no changes to print edition material 15%

        One editor wrote that online staff did not alter the content and style of stories written first for the print newspaper. "However, when writing exclusively for the Web, our style is a bit looser, more conversational, allowing for a quicker read."

        When asked about unique content published online that had not appeared in the print edition of the newspaper, 20 percent of the online editors said they published no unique content online (Table 4). Other editors said their online papers included news content not appearing in the print edition (31 percent), additional photographs and artwork (44 percent), special feature packages or sections such as city and restaurant guides (53 percent), and additional entertainment content such as polls, games and quizzes (47 percent). Two respondents said the online paper included audio and video clips; another had streaming media; and still another had MP3 sound files and Quicktime movie clips. Forty-eight percent of editors said the online newspapers carried e-mail links to reporters who write the online stories.
 
 

Table 4: Unique Content in Web Edition of Newspaper
Additional news stories 31%
Additional photos/artwork 44%
Additional features/Special sections 53%
Entertainment content: polls, quizzes 47%
No unique content on Web 20%

 

        When asked whether news is posted online before it is published in the print edition of the newspaper, 18 percent of the respondents said they regularly publish information online before it appears in the traditional print publication, and another 49 percent said they occasionally publish breaking news online before print. Thirty-three percent said they publish news online only after it is released in the print edition. One editor wrote that the compromise his editors reached was to release the material online as the newspaper is loaded on the trucks for delivery.
 


Online Newspapers and their Readers

         Online newspapers have varied requirements for readers of Web editions. Twelve percent of the respondents said their papers require readers to accept cookies to read their Web papers. A mere three percent require readers to register before they can use their site, and four percent ask readers for demographic information, such as age, gender, zip code and interests. Two percent of the papers use the demographic information to shape news content of the online site, and three percent use it to direct advertisements to readers as well as to sell to advertisers.

        Thirty-eight percent of the respondents provide readers community Web pages at the newspaper site to post community notices and organizational information. Of those providing readers' pages, 63 percent of the editors said they monitor the pages for inappropriate or offensive content. Twenty-six percent of the online journalists said their papers provide chat rooms for readers. Of those providing chat rooms, 40 percent say they monitor the chat rooms for inappropriate or offensive content. Forty-three percent of the respondents said the paper’s Web site provides readers' message boards and, of those, 66 percent monitor them for offensive or inappropriate content.

        Several editors raised concerns about having to monitor chat rooms and discussion boards. One editor wrote of having to delete inappropriate and derogatory comments in the online paper’s guest book. When confronted with inappropriate comments, the paper informs the submitters of the inappropriate use of the guest book and asks them to discontinue such postings - which most did. Another paper dealt with individuals who posted personal attacks by "identifying and denying access privileges to users who did so." One editor wrote that some users posted defamatory material about local residents on the electronic bulletin board and the paper had to provide documentation of those posts to a court of law. One editor said that the paper posts a disclaimer regarding the content of its readers' forum and reserves the right to remove offensive material. Another said that when people post inappropriate material, the staff simply removes the offensive material.

        One editor said the reader postings had raised concerns for his online staff. His solution: "We take the stance that the users need to be held responsible for moderating the forums, and should someone complain about a particular item, we will act accordingly."

        A problem in protecting readers from offensive content occurs when online news stories include links to information outside the newspaper’s control. When asked whether an online newspaper should provide links to sites of questionable taste, i.e. hate groups’ sites in a story about hate groups, 70 percent of the respondents said they should not. Only 22 percent of the newspapers have a policy limiting such links. One editor reported that his online paper did not link to Web sites in the news that deal with pornographic content, but did provide links to other sites that are mentioned in the news.

        Editors were asked whether their sites warned readers when leaving the newspaper’s site for linked sites. Only 13 percent said their papers provided such warnings. One editor raised a linking issue just the opposite of the issue when newspapers link to other sites; that editor was concerned about other sites using their frames around the newspaper’s content.
 


Ethical Concerns in Publishing Online

        Editors were asked to compare standards of practice in traditional print media to those practiced in the new online publications. All but two percent of the editors agreed that journalism ethics and standards should be the same whether publishing online or in print. The online editors were asked about fact-checking and editing in the online version versus traditional publishing. Eighty-six percent said the standard methods of fact-checking and copy editing apply in both traditional and online publications but the other 14 percent said the new medium requires a new style.

        One editor made a case that online and traditional print newspaper publications should be treated the same:
 

        "Online news copy should be handled the way traditional copy is handled; there is no difference. Good print copy makes for good online copy. Bad print copy makes for bad online copy. The standards should not vary. If a story is well-written, interesting and compelling, the user will read it online or in print. It is a fallacy that Web readers are different from print readers."


        Another respondent agreed that online copy needed the same editing and fact checking, but "in the writing of the story, the story style and structure need to be different for the medium and attention span." Another editor said that the online edition put the local newspaper into more of a wire service mode: "Get as much information out there as fast as you can." Another editor wrote: "The standard copy desk runs on a daily cycle; new media require a totally different news cycle. The eyes should still be on the copy [but] the traditional model simply doesn’t allow for the flexibility of breaking news around the clock."

        The editors identified a couple of areas that posed problems for online publications. Forty-seven percent of the respondents agreed that the ability to publish information immediately online has led to an erosion of the standards of verification for online publication versus the print version. One editor wrote that everything produced for the online edition "should be checked for accuracy with the same zeal as it is in print," but admitted that because of immediate posting, "obviously the way copy is handled must be changed - it’s gotta be faster." Another editor wrote that because of the need for faster turnaround, the paper does not wait for all the details on breaking news stories but goes with the best information available at the time.

        Editors at smaller circulation newspapers were more likely to agree that immediacy erodes standards. While 54 percent of respondents at newspapers with circulations of 50,000 and under agreed that the ability to publish information immediately online has led to an erosion of standards, only 32 percent of the respondents at newspapers with circulations over 50,000 agreed (Chi square = 7.6, d.f.=1, p < .001).

        And 30 percent of respondents agreed that online newspaper journalists are not as likely to follow traditional journalism ethics/standards as are their traditional print colleagues. One respondent wrote that the same standards of accuracy, fairness and balance still apply but "the speed of the medium prevents a traditional copy-editing process. Every piece of copy can’t be touched by a copy editor - only select content."

        Thirty-seven percent of the online editors said that it would be easier to strictly adhere to specific ethical standards if they had a larger staff. Recall that 27 percent of the responding editors said they had no full-time staff devoted to the online operation. However, size of respondent’s online staff did not predict whether the respondents agreed that it would be easier to strictly adhere to specific ethical standards if they had a larger staff.

        The editors were asked what the corrections policy for online newspapers should be. Twenty percent of the respondents said that online newspapers should run a correction after publishing a mistake. Seventeen percent said that they should replace the incorrect story with a new, corrected version. Sixty percent said that they should run a correction and replace the incorrect story with a new, corrected version.

        When asked whether their online newspaper had a formal corrections policy, only 36 percent said yes. Of those who have a policy, 23 percent run corrections after publishing mistakes; 17 percent that they replace the incorrect story with a new, corrected version; 57 percent that they run a correction and replace the incorrect story with a new, corrected version; and 2 percent indicated another option. One respondent reported that the online edition runs corrections in a specified place and also inserts the correction into the original story, indicating it is a correction. He wrote: "To simply replace an ‘incorrect’ story with a ‘correct’ smacks of ‘1984’ and the wholesale revision of history." One editor said his paper posts a correction but does not go back and correct the original article "because our staff time is limited."

        The survey inquired into the role advertising plays in the online news product. Respondents were asked to choose from three general statements about the role of advertising at their online news operations.

        Only 3 percent agreed with "advertising in the online product is our primary reason for being on the Web and thus must come first in any decision-making regarding content." Sixty-four percent checked "advertising in the online product is a key to Web profitability and should be worked in wherever possible." One respondent added to the statement: "wherever possible within certain standards." The remaining 33 percent agreed that "advertising in the online product is always secondary to the function of informing the public and is carefully and visibly separated from news content."

        The survey inquired about breaks in the wall separating news and advertising. Twenty-six percent of the respondents said that their news editorial online staff members also write and design ads for the online site. The survey also asked the editors whether online newspapers should publish links to preferred advertisers, for instance, a book review page from which you can instantly buy from the advertising retailer the books being reviewed. Fifty-eight percent said it was fine for newspapers to publish such links to preferred advertisers, but only 19 percent of the respondents said their papers have such links. And of those that have links to advertisers in related news copy, 30 percent (only 10 percent of the total respondents) indicated that the newspapers received commissions for every purchase made through the link.

        One editor wrote that the newspaper has had to clarify that advertising and promotional copy in the online edition must be clearly labeled and kept separate from news content. However, the respondent said, "Really, it is no different than the troubles or controversies involved with the print edition. The rules should be the same."
Another avenue for online revenue was explored. The editors were asked about whether archival details news organizations gather about individuals in their communities should be packaged and sold as an information product. Forty-four percent of responding editors agreed, but only 10 percent said that their newspapers sold this information.
 
 


Codes of Ethics and Other Concerns

        Respondents were asked about their news organization’s code of ethics. Twenty-three percent said they had no formal ethics code. Another 42 percent said they had a traditional ethics code but it did not address new media issues such as linking. Another 35 percent said they had both online and traditional codes or one code that covered both areas well. Larger circulation newspapers (50 percent of those with greater than 50,000 daily) were more likely to have a comprehensive code than smaller papers (only 29 percent of papers 50,000 and under).

        If the organization had an online ethics code, the editor was asked how the code operated. Fifty-eight percent said every employee was aware of the details of the code and its influence was an important part of the operation. Another 20 percent said their employees knew of the online code but it really did not influence day-to-day operations, while the remaining 22 percent said the code was not in active use in the newsroom.

        Editors indicated that journalists should come to their jobs already understanding ethical journalism practices. Most editors (98 percent) said they expected journalists they hire to have a good grasp of news ethics. Ninety-seven percent agreed that journalism schools should require students to take an ethics course that included specific online issues. However, only 47 percent of the editors indicated they had a journalism ethics course as part of their formal education. Of course, only 53 percent of the respondents had majored in journalism at either the undergraduate or graduate level or both. One respondent said he was troubled because the staff working in the online edition had little or no newspaper experience.

        An open-ended question gave the editors a chance to relate any other online ethics issues that they have faced at their online operation and that were not addressed in the questionnaire. Twenty online editors responded to the question. All but two related to issues discussed above. Two responses presented novel issues.

        One Web newspaper site carried a photo of a victim darkened in Photoshop to blur her identity. After publishing the photo, the staff realized that anyone with Photoshop could download and lighten the image and recognize the subject. The online staff pulled the photo.

        Another editor said that the newspaper had published in print and online the name of a woman who was held hostage for a few days during a trip to the Caribbean. The woman started receiving unwanted e-mail messages and phone calls from people who had read the story online during the year after it was published. She asked the newspaper to kill the story from its online site. After conferring with the paper’s editor, the online staff pulled it. "A story can have a life of its own on the Web and can be circulated for many months after it is written," the editor wrote of this incident.
 


Discussion and Conclusions

        Are the ethical standards of traditional print journalism currently being upheld by online versions of daily newspapers in the United States? Many news professionals say they are not.

        Among the online managers surveyed, nearly half - 47 percent - say the speed of the Internet has eroded the key standard of accurately verifying the facts of a story before putting it before the public. Nearly one in three - 30 percent - reported that online print outlets are not as likely to follow the general ethical standards of journalism as are traditional newspapers.

        The speed of the Internet medium is not held entirely to blame by the news managers polled, since 37 percent indicated that ethical standards are easier to meet when there is an adequate number of employees working in the online operation. Forty-six percent of the daily newspaper online operations polled are staffed by one full-time worker (19 percent) or all part-timers (27 percent). Those surveyed reported an average of six full-time staff members working exclusively for the online operation in one capacity or another. This is only slightly higher than the average of four reported by Fitzgerald in 1997.

        Ahealthy majority of the online managers in the study report they make at least some changes to material from their print editions when it is published online, and 67 percent report they are publishing at least some breaking news online first - before it goes through the traditional print-edition editing regimen. Online teams - many of which are operating with no full-time staff or a skeleton staff - are asked to constantly remake the news stories in their Web editions to keep them fresh, and they are expected to push hot, breaking-news items online quickly. High standards of responsibility and ethics are difficult if not impossible to uphold in this sort of environment.

        Ninety-eight percent of the respondents in this survey indicated they expect the journalists they hire to have a good grasp of news ethics, and 97 percent support the idea that journalism schools should require an ethics course that covers issues specific to online operations. A shortcoming of relying on journalism schools to teach ethics to online journalists is pointed out in the fact that only 53 percent of the people surveyed in this study majored in journalism at the undergraduate or graduate level. Even if online ethics courses were required at all of the nation's communications schools, a great number of online professionals would slip through untutored. Because many people who work in online operations are not trained journalists, they not only lack training in ethics; they have little or none of the background in editing, fact-checking, theory and media history expected of most journalism school graduates.

        The public has expressed doubts about online media, and so too do media professionals, yet 45 percent of the online managers surveyed either have no ethics code in place (23 percent) or said their ethics code is not in active use (22 percent).

        New issues are part and parcel of the new media, and concerned people in newsrooms everywhere should be addressing the idea of establishing an ethics protocol at their operation. Mistakes are made and negative public perceptions are formed when there is no structure in place for heading off ethical problems or efficiently correcting such problems.

        Planning is key. Managers in the information industry should agree to some uniform codes. For example, take a look at correctives. News managers have yet to work out a reliable method for alerting online audiences to mistakes in stories. The industry could clear up some public doubts and win themselves some public relations points by working to find a universal solution to this thorny problem. Readers navigating news sites should not be required to hunt around for varied correctives and clarifications. The solution could come through the industry agreeing to adopt something as simple as a clearly marked link placed, for instance, in the top-left hand corner of the home page near the masthead of every Web news site. The key would be to have the C&C button placed in the same location and look the same graphically on every site. In addition, it would be expected that each correction would be clearly labeled in any archival edition of each story.  Of course, implementation of such a protocol would depend on adequate staff resources at the online newspaper.

        Ethics issues in the new media are and will be in constant flux. Mass media managers would be well advised to involve all staff members in the process of establishing and maintaining a viable ethics framework. Each individual organization must shape its ethics protocol for the correct fit, keeping in mind the product, its producers and its consumers. The framework must be updated regularly, when new issues of the new media or changes in society's norms make themselves evident. Goals of any ethics code must be attainable and situational ethics discussions expected.

        Leaders in the news industry must discuss and come to some consensus on an array of general issues, including staffing and ethical decision-making - both key to the ultimate audience perception of the information product. Vital areas in need of scrutiny include: online staff sizes and expected workloads for online employees; the establishment of active ethics protocols specific to online newsgathering and Web publishing; retention of regimens of pre-publish fact-checking and careful editing in the rapid-fire world of instant e-news; the obvious and consistent placement of correctives and clarifications that change the complexion of a news story; the use of product placements beside corresponding editorial material; the policing of chat rooms and community bulletin boards; the sale of archival information; and the manipulation of images.

        Newspapers bring to the vast Web of information pages brand names that people trust for reliable information. Although the new medium demands some changes in protocols practiced in print publishing, newspapers cannot abandon any of the rigor of their standards of accuracy and integrity as they move from print to the online product. Otherwise, the online offspring could damage the newspaper’s reputation and squander the immense value of the parent’s good name.
 

*The Summary of the Online Ethics 2000 Survey: Online news managers say small staff sizes and the Internet medium's demand for speed and scoops erode traditional ethical standards.

*An Ethics Appendix: A summary of ethics suggestions for content providers, provided by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, ACM, American Society of Newspaper Editors and the American Society of Magazine Editors.

*Ethics Discussion Points: Valid points for discussion inspired by the work of Richard Mason and an Impact Computer Science steering committee comprised of 25 professors of management, sociology, computer science, philosophy, psychology, mathematics and religion from 25 of the finest institutions of higher education in the United States.
 

If you have a story you would like to share, a point you think should be made or a criticism or suggestions that should be voiced, please e-mail Janna Quitney Anderson, andersj@elon.edu. Your responses are appreciated. Thank you.



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*The Summary of the Online Ethics 2000 Survey: Online news managers say small staff sizes and the Internet medium's demand for speed and scoops erode traditional ethical standards.

*An Ethics Appendix: A summary of ethics suggestions for content providers, provided by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, ACM, American Society of Newspaper Editors and the American Society of Magazine Editors.

*Ethics Discussion Points: Valid points for discussion inspired by the work of Richard Mason and an Impact Computer Science steering committee comprised of 25 professors of management, sociology, computer science, philosophy, psychology, mathematics and religion from 25 of the finest institutions of higher education in the United States.


This page was updated June 11, 2000. For more information, contact andersj@elon.edu