The ethics thing: do we need editors?

26Jan07

The concluding panel debate of the day was kicked off by a consideration of the Saddam Hussein hanging footage. Should news editors have chosen to use the images? Does taste and decency have a role – or a meaning – in the new media age? As bloggers are not subject to the same regulatory restraints as the press and broadcasting, do they deserve the same status as journalists? Was this about citizen journalism at all, or really regulation of the Internet?

I could make the point that self-regulation of the press is barely regulation at all, or that blogs are ‘regulated’ by a critical peer system, but perhaps the key point is this: clicking on a link and turning a page of a newspaper are very different activities.

Online, the choice to view the footage of the Saddam Hussein hanging is, for the most part, one made by the user. The choice to view still images on the front page of The Guardian, or an edited version on the BBC News, is, mostly, a passive one. If we are passive consumers of media such as printed papers and television broadcasts, then perhaps there is a case for editors to exercise judgments of taste and decency on our behalf. But when we consume news and video on the web, we are deciding what to read and see, when to see it, often on the basis of personal recommendation.

In this situation, do we need a regulator to decide what is ‘tasteful’ and ‘decent’? Probably not, given how much it would cost and the dangers of abuse. Do we need a regulator to decide what is legal? Yes, and we have one: it’s called the police.

Taste and decency are cultural concepts that differ from person to person, and each person is the best placed to make an informed decision about what will offend them. The second-best placed people to make that decision are the friends and favourite bloggers whose values coincide most closely with their own, and who ‘edit’ the content that they blog or pass on accordingly. They may not adhere to a formal code of conduct, but they are signed up to a social contract that, it might be argued, is much more powerful in regulating what they publish.

Your thoughts please.

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9 Responses to “The ethics thing: do we need editors?”

  1. Paul – I think you oversimplify – there are other kinds of law – contract, civil, copy, imaging, intellectual property and human rights, privacy – given a few more moments I could probably come up with more – where the police have few if any powers.
    If the J in CJ is going to mean anything, the new internet publishers will have to accept at least some of the same realities and responsibilities as those working in print and broadcasting (particularly the latter) HAVE to live with.
    A six figure fine from Ofcom and a public slagging off tends to concentrate the mind.
    Certainly material produced for the internet by the maintream broadcasters will conform to the same current law, ethics and regulation standards that they live by on their traditional platforms. I wish I could be as sure of this about print journalism given the News of the World’s obvious contempt for the PCC and its laughable (or at least laughably enforced) code of practice.
    The example of children’s use of the internet, mentioned elsewhere on the site, is apposite – OK parents have some responsibility, but internet publishers can’t simply duck the issue, say it’s all a matterof choice, indulge themselves in the lack of regulation and claim it as freedom. Or is recognition/approval by a group of like minded peers enough?
    I’m conscious that we’re just at the beginning of a long, long road and while the conference was fascinatiing, I think we need to turn our minds to developing some answers to the dilemmas we spent yesterday talking about.
    What about a CJ CODE? – an voluntary ethical organisation/club/society with a public, agreed constitution, by which members would work and abide. That would give the peer groups a few teeth.
    And what about some training for CJs in traditional journalistic skills and knowledge – it’s beginning to be talked about.

  2. A CJ Code sounds a good idea, although how would it enforce itself and not turn into another PCC? As it happens, there are already a number of attempts at such a code – see Cyberjournalist.net’s Bloggers’ Code of Ethics . Meanwhile, the PCC has also recently argued for a code.

    It’s funny you should mention training for CJs – we’re doing some within UCE in August, and I know Tyne Tees is planning to do the same up in Middlesbrough this summer. One of the positive things to come out of this (I hope) is that community groups will start to develop a stronger voice within the local press.

  3. Paul – I like the look of the Cyber Journalists Code – doesn’t go far enough and I assume is US based – enforcement could never be anything else (until law or eventually regulation steps in) than peer pressure and the threat of exposure by your peers, but wasn’t Tom Reynolds arguing that this was precisely how blogging operates anyway.
    There are two areas – getting maintream journalists to accept that CJ is more than just another source and preparing them for all they need to know in handling, checking and publishing it – and then doubling back and offering training to serious CJs to familiarise them with the skills and knowledge that mainstream has to qualify in.
    At present there’s nothing in the Communications Act to give Ofcom any power to regulate the internet – but how long can this last (at least in terms of mainstream brioadcast news producers working on the net) – given the forecasts about listening and viewing habits – once internet delivery of radio and tv overtakes terrestrial, there’s no way they’re going to leave it alone.
    There’s very little wrong with the actual PCC Code – the problem is the contempt in which it’s held by the press generally, obstructionist bureaucracy, lack of serious sanctions and unwillingness to use those they have got.
    I would have thought that a UK based code to which it’s likely you/we could get support from the big broadcasting organisations, would be welcomed by those bloggers/CJs who are looking for approval from beyond their own peer group.

  4. Ofcom have already said they do not intend to regulate the internet, but I think you’re right that as broadcasters and publishers move into online distribution (and out of offline distribution) Ofcom will naturally begin to want to regulate them in the new sphere.

    I think that this will happen in the same way as the PCC is planning to regulate online newspapers; Ofcom will regulate the same organisations in a new sphere, but will not regulate independent bloggers, etc. It would be like trying to regulate chatrooms and forums.

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