Special Report: Online Ethics 2000
Online news managers say small staff sizes and demand for speed and scoops erode standards

             Editors of online newspapers in the United States say their products are not as accurate or reliable as their parent print publications. In a new study, nearly half of the online editors polled say the ethical standards of traditional print journalism are not being upheld by online versions of daily newspapers.
         Forty-seven percent of the more than 200 online editors responding to the survey 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 reported that online print outlets are not as likely to follow the general ethical standards of traditional print journalism.
          The survey was conducted via e-mail in October-November 1999 by journalism faculty members David Arant of the University of Memphis and Janna Quitney Anderson of Elon College in North Carolina. It is the first major study to scrutinize ethical issues raised by online news publication. More than 680 online news managers were contacted.
            The speed of the Internet medium is not held entirely to blame for the lowering of standards. Thirty-seven percent of the news managers participating in the study said that high ethical standards are easier to meet when there is an adequate number of employees working in the online operation.

            Twenty-seven percent of the online daily newspapers taking part in the survey had no full-time staff members and 19 percent had just one full-time worker. The overall average staff size, including sales and technical positions, was six full-time positions. This is only slightly higher than the average of four full-time jobs reported by a study published in 1997.

            A majority of the online managers in the current 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 journalistic responsibility and ethics are difficult if not impossible to uphold in this sort of environment."
-Janna Quitney Anderson
co-author of online study

         Ninety-eight percent of the editors polled said 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. However, the study revealed a major shortcoming of relying on journalism schools to teach ethics to online journalists: about half of the news managers surveyed in this study did not major in journalism at the undergraduate or graduate level. This is despite the fact that they average 17 years in the news business, three of those years with online operations.

          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.

"New issues are part and parcel of the new media. 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."
-David Arant
coauthor of online study

          Arant and Anderson also suggest that publishers should agree to some uniform method for alerting online audiences to mistakes in stories. Currently, readers navigating news sites are required to hunt around for varied correctives and clarifications. Some sites run no corrections at all.

          The researchers suggest that the American Newspaper Publishers Association recommend the adoption of a clearly marked hyperlink placed, for instance, in the top-left hand corner of the home page near the masthead of every Web news site. This Corrections & Clarifications button could look the same on every news site for every U.S. news operation. In addition, it would be expected that each correction would be clearly labeled in any archival edition of each story.

            "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," Arant said.

            The researchers identified the following key areas in need of scrutiny by the online news industry:

            "Newspapers tread in dangerous territory if they abandon any of the rigor of their standards of accuracy and integrity as they move from print to the online product," Arant said. "Without care, the online offspring could damage the newspaper’s reputation and squander the immense value of the parent’s good name."

            This study will be presented in August in Phoenix, at the 2000 meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Please follow these links for more details.

*The Online Ethics 2000 Survey: 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.

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

*Ethics Discussion Points: Valid starters 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.

About the authors of the study

Prior to becoming a journalism faculty member at Elon College in 1999, Janna Quitney Anderson enjoyed a 20-year career as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota, handling everything from obit writing, slot and rim work to the police beat to features and sports writing to opera and movie reviews. She served as features editor at The Forum (Fargo) the largest daily newspaper between Minneapolis and Seattle, where she received dozens of national and regional editing, reporting and design awards, and was instrumental in two major newspaper redesign projects, including one with Mario Garcia of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. She earned her master's in journalism at the University of Memphis. She now teaches writing and reporting.

David Arant is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Memphis. In addition to his Ph.D. in mass communication research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he holds a theology master's from Emory University and a journalism master's from the University of South Carolina. He began his career as a United Methodist pastor, and got into journalism when he became the associate editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate. Later he worked as a general assignment reporter at the Union (S.C.) Daily Times. He now teaches ethics, media law, research methods and media writing. He has been a member of the national ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists.

        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.

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