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Beyond FTC Guidelines, What Else Is Happening With Blogger Ethics?

Stephen Baker, a business journalist at Business Week recently wrote about his concerns regarding the social media guidelines at the Washington Post as that company is a potential buyer for his employer Business Week. Baker wondered if he would still be employed at Business Week if those guidelines were in force there.

I’ve long been interested in how journalist’s approach writing and codes of ethics because I think the profession has hugely influenced blogging and the practice of corporate blogging. I wrote about how corporate blogging owes a debt to journalists and the profession in chapter three ‘Developing a Blogger Relations Strategy,’ of my book in the section on what journalism can teach bloggers. There’s been a convergence in styles of writing, tools, and perhaps even ethics.

Here's the snippet of what Stephen was concerned about:

Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.

When I first read Stephen's post about the social media guidelines at the Washington Post, I thought I recognized content that echoed the journalist's code of ethics. So I took another look at the code of ethics published by the Society of Professional Journalists, here's the preamble to the code of ethics:

Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice.

From the preamble:

And reading through the code I thought the section on acting independently was most relevant to the Washington Post's guidelines Stephen Baker had highlighted:

Act Independently

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

Journalists should:

    —Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
    — Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
    — Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
    — Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

I believe that it has long been the practice of professional journalists to refrain from joining community and civic organizations that may appear to compromise their journalistic credibility. The WP guidelines don't seem all that different than the code of ethics when it comes to that point. However, it is one thing to pay dues to an organization and another to retweet or join a facebook fan page for a campaign or organization. Yet, by the very action of showing support for an organization even if it is only the simple step of supporting a fan page, doesn't that journalists association open themselves to breaking the journalist’s code of ethics?

The Washington Post guidelines also called for "Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility."

In the section on Seeking truth and reporting truth, the code of ethics addresses the issue of cultural values and stereotyping.

Seek Truth and Report It

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

— Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
— Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.

Yet the section on seeking truth and reporting it is really concerned about the articles that journalist's write, rather than their private correspondence. It begs the question, isn't there a difference between the public face of a journalist and the private life of a journalist? In today's world of easily published content a person's private life becomes their public life as well. I can easily see a journalist writing an article that is unbiased, and not stereotyping in their stories, but then on a blog or twitter express a private thought that expresses their own cultural values or a stereotype. Perhaps a journalist who is a republican makes a comment about democrats in general or visa versa.

I'm wondering if we are now expecting too much of journalists? And even putting them at a disadvantage in a world were open dialogue about everything is possible. Stephen Baker made this point in his article. He wrote, "If BusinessWeek had rules like the Post's, I'd have been out of a job long ago. I've written in recent months about BW's lengthy editing process. Not everyone liked it. But Executive Editor Ellen Pollock, to her credit, came onto my blog and joined the discussion. I also wrote a fairly critical post about our parent company, McGraw-Hill. Again, it was a sensitive subject. It upset some people, and perhaps I crossed a line. But we talked about it, and I'll try to use my best judgment going forward."

I'm wondering if the Washington Post guidelines are meant to uphold journalistic ethics in line with the code of ethics for journalists, and if so does the code restrict journalists from expressing private thoughts in so public a way on a blog or twitter? And because of the development of social media, and competition from bloggers, the journalist community may have to rewrite their rules. Or were WP the guidelines just poorly written in expressing the sentiment of the journalist’s code of ethics?

It could also be that the guidelines for the Washington Post are much more stringent and in line with the journalist’s code of ethics than Business Week, after all a paper that's brought down President's might have to be even more careful about ethics to maintain credibility.

I really would like to see more of a discussion in light of the code of ethics, mainly because I believe that journalists have hugely influenced bloggers in their code of ethics and etiquette in writing on the web. If many journalists are becoming bloggers and bloggers journalists, what is the new standard for ethics across all the professions?