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In the digital world, newspapers find themselves routinely facing situations they never saw before the advent of the Internet. Almost 400 years of newspaper history didn't necessarily prepare journalists for the digital future.

Among the questions raised by these new situations:

- How do print journalists effectively, appropriately and ethically use video? (We had a real-life example to discuss in the case of the Ratcliff video.)

- If journalists should blog, how should they handle expressing their opinion when readers expect their news articles to be fair and balanced?

- If anonymous readers are allowed to comment on news articles, how does that alter the standard of accountability? (Here's a link to our guidelines for online moderation.)

These are just a few of the dozens of questions journalists have been asking themselves for the past decade. That's why Advocate journalists devoted a full day to training by Steve Buttry of the American Press Institute. The training was partially underwritten by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

The Advocate was the first newsroom in the country to host this seminar called "Our Readers Are Watching." Members of our in-house ethics board, including principal owners John Roberts and Kay McHaney, devoted most of the day to the fascinating and important discussion.

As we wrapped up the day and rushed to get the next day's edition out, we agreed this was just a starting point for the discussion. Together, we need to face the challenges of the future while preserving the principles that enabled newspapers to build a 400-year tradition.

I don't expect you to read all of Buttry's lengthy handouts, but I'll share them below in case you're interested in learning more about our daylong discussion:

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Engaging the public and maintaining standards
Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards
Victoria Advocate, March 27, 2008
An API Tailored Programs seminar funded by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation
 
Digital media companies need to host the community conversation. They also need to consider what the standards for that conversation and how they can enforce those standards and how they distinguish the community conversation from journalism that is held to higher standards. As Kelly McBride, leader of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, says, we need to want to strive more for dialogue than diatribe: “An Internet mob is generally ruthless, fueled by the ease and anonymity of posting.”
 
News organizations are seeking and accepting content provided by the public in three primary (and overlapping) ways:
·        Opinion. Just as newspapers have long welcomed opinions expressed in letters to the editor, we are welcoming opinions online in a variety of ways, including comments on stories, discussion forums, community blogs, comments on staff blogs..
·        Citizen journalism. Increasingly we are inviting the public to help us tell the story in a variety of ways, helping produce news content that in many ways is barely distinguishable from our own journalism: entering calendar items, sharing their accounts of news events, submitting photos and videos of community events, posting their own stories about neighborhood events that journalists are not covering.
·        Conversation. In niche sites focused on moms, young adults, sports fans and other audiences, we are inviting people to seek and give advice, trash talk, share humor, argue and otherwise share their lives online.
 
Some of the ethical challenges of community content are peculiar to the type of content and some are universal in the whole field of user-generated content.
 
Identity vs. anonymity
 
We are at an odd and contradictory time in journalism ethics when the credibility of our journalism has been harmed by journalists’ overuse and abuse of confidential sources. And yet anonymity is common and expected in many online exchanges, and we want to build online audience, so we explore what is the right balance between transparent identification and complete anonymity. As with many decisions, this is a matter of trade-offs. Anonymity brings more participation, and perhaps more traffic. But it also brings more objectionable content and more unsupported statements, which can harm your credibility and turn some users off. You can consider various levels of identification:
  • Require people to register by verifiable names and use those names in any comments or contributions on the web site. This decreases participation but raises accountability and helps people judge the credibility of comments and tends to elevate the level of civil discussion. This also requires some work on your part to verify identity. In the context of online conversation, where anonymity is prevalent, a requirement of identification might keep your site from gaining the traffic and the level of conversation you want, especially if other sites in the community allow anonymity. You may need to promote harder to generate discussion if you require identification in all instances.
  • Require people to register with a verifiable name and email address, but let them use a screen name. This allows you to warn people about misconduct or contact them for interviews if they indicate they have significant knowledge.
  • Encourage people to create user profiles. The profiles may not disclose actual names, but tell more about the user, or include a photo that some people will recognize.
  • Link to previous comments by a user (these can be a link from the user profile or from each comment). Even without identification, this gives users a way to judge the credibility of a user’s contributions. If this person has reviewed a dozen restaurants and liked a couple that I like, but doesn’t like every place, I will place more credibility in the review of a place I’ve never eaten before. And I’ll be more confident that this is not a chef reviewing her own place.
  • Require different levels of identification, depending on the context. For instance, you might require full name and/or a user profile for bloggers, calendar contributors or people who contribute news content, but allow more anonymity in story comments or conversation sites.
  • You might allow anonymity online but require contact information so you can seek identification if you want to reverse-publish some online comments for a print product.
 
What about staff members? If you allow the public some level of anonymity, you need to determine also whether to allow your journalists then to comment anonymously. If your answer is no, is it no in all circumstances? Or are you blocking them only from commenting anonymously on their own stories or on your own site? Can a staff writer have a personal blog on a personal site that has nothing to do with his beat, writing under a pseudonym? Can a government reporter comment anonymously like any other sports fan on a sports site?
 
User-generated content
 
Citizen journalism and user reviews. User-generated content presents opportunities to use your web site for partisan, promotional or commercial purposes. Consider how you want to guard against this or to disclose contributors’ interests to your readers. Is it OK for the spouse of the high-school drama teacher to submit a review of the high school play? Can restaurant employees review their own restaurant? Do these relationships need to be disclosed? If so, how do you police them, especially if you aren’t requiring identification? You may not cover the meetings of the Kiwanis Club with your staff, but welcome online accounts of the meeting submitted by the president or secretary. Does that require any sort of disclosure or disclaimer? Political interest groups routinely send out mass-produced letters to the editor that editorial pages can screen out pretty easily. If you let readers post to your web site, is this sort of plagiarism acceptable? Do violators get banned? Is it enough to post a disclaimer that you don’t vet reader contributions the same way that you vet content provided by journalists? If you invite people to post events to the calendar, how do you ensure accuracy? How do you contact the contributor if a user points out a contradiction or possible error? Can you improve accuracy of calendar postings and citizen announcements or news stories by automatically emailing them a request to reread and verify the finished product online?
 
Comments and discussions. Should you allow anonymous comments by web site visitors? If so, how should you police them? What won’t you allow – vulgar language, personal attacks, unsubstantiated allegations? You can screen for objectionable content in a variety of ways: You can read comments before they appear online, though this slows the flow of discussion. You can moderate discussions and remove objectionable content, but this takes staff time. You can use software that screens for foul language, but trolls can foil the software by using asterisks and look-alike symbols – 0 for o, $ for s, @ for a, You can ask readers to flag objectionable content, which you can then review and decide whether to remove. You can empower users to remove objectionable comments themselves – at least until you can review them. You can appeal for civility. You can let the users police themselves and let the trolls know they aren’t welcome. You can have different areas with different levels of moderation, so that people who enjoy the free-for-all gather in one corner of your site and the civil discussion carries on in another corner. None of these solutions is perfect. Discuss these issues in an editor’s blog, on some of the discussion forums and in public appearances, so you find the right level(s) of transparency or anonymity for each kind of exchange on your site.
 
You have legal considerations as well as ethical and logistical considerations in deciding whether to monitor and edit reader comments. Your legal liability grows if you edit material. But legal considerations are not the same as ethical considerations. Don’t let the law force you into a free-for-all if you believe that will undercut your credibility.
 
When comments become news
 
Should you report about anonymous comments on blogs – whether your site’s blogs or someone else’s – if they might play into a news story? Do these comments have to meet the same standards as other unnamed sources? If you require registration so you actually have a way to contact people, you can verify (or refute) newsworthy disclosures or assertions, so you can deal with them in your news content.
 
A 2006 Poynter Institute conference on online ethical issues, as reported by Rick Edmonds, listed these questions to ask in assessing how to handle specific user comments and user comments generally:
·                Are there personal safety and privacy issues?
·                Will it increase the flow and exchange of ideas or enhance the diversity of conversation by allowing anonymity?
·                Do you have the capacity to monitor or clean up inappropriate posts?
·                Are there categories of content where anonymous, user-generated content is essential? Where it is unacceptable?
·                Is the community clear on the conditions under which the anonymity is granted/limited?
·                Does anonymity damage the credibility of the information or debate?
 
Protect your credibility
 
If you are not holding all your content to the same standards, explain your standards frequently in a variety of ways – editor’s notes, editor’s blogs, warnings, disclaimers. You also might separate the journalism that meets high standards from the comments that meet lower standards. Instead of allowing (and publishing comments on the same page as a story, you have a link to the comments (and a disclaimer there, explaining that your standards for fairness, identification of sources and verification of information for the story are not the same as for the comments.
 
When reporters are interviewing people about sensitive or controversial topics, especially if the sources don’t deal regularly with the media, you should discuss whether the reporters should warn sources that they might become targets of unkind anonymous comments.
                       
Online polls
 
Online polls are fun but they aren’t scientific. How should you characterize the results? Should they always be labeled as unscientific? If you don’t block repeat voting from the same computer, you should not report the results as the number of people voting, but as the number of responses or votes for a particular point of view.
 
Helpful resources:
 
Guidelines on user-generated content, developed by a 2006 Poynter conference:
http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=117350#ugc

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 Online Ethics – Do the Same Rules Apply?

Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards
Victoria Advocate, March 27, 2008
An API Tailored Programs seminar funded by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation
 
Online editions are changing so swiftly that journalists’ attention frequently focuses on issues such as mastering technological tools or learning new writing styles or meeting constant deadlines. Ethical standards deserve attention, too. Do readers on the web deserve or demand the same standards of accuracy, independence and propriety as print readers? Or does online journalism need different standards? Do these standards apply only to journalists contributing to the web site? Or do they apply to users, too? What about “citizen journalists”? If some kind of standard applies to citizen journalists, then who qualifies? What guidelines should govern the gathering of news online? As your online edition grows in importance, news staffs need to decide what your standards are and how to apply them.
 
Consider the arguments both ways. On the one hand, some might argue that you apply the same standards to your online edition because it’s still your brand and your credibility. If you publish information online that is unreliable, that hurts the credibility of a platform that will only grow in importance. And it can tarnish the reputation of your print products, too. On the other hand, the medium is different. Interactivity and immediacy are important online, and editing and verification are time-consuming. An error in your print edition remains uncorrected for 24 hours, for all your readers to see. You can fix online errors right away, limiting their exposure. Weigh the various considerations and make the decision that is right for your staff and your readers.
 
Apply journalistic values
 
Traditional journalistic ethics still provide a good framework for making ethical decisions in digital journalism. Remember the fundamental principles of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:
  • Seek truth and report it
  • Minimize harm
  • Act independently
  • Be accountable
The basics of the Guiding Principles for the Journalist developed by Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute are nearly identical:
  • Seek truth and report it as fully as possible
  • Act independently
  • Minimize harm
 
These time-tested principles remain sound in the changing technology and new dilemmas that the digital marketplace presents.
 
Blogging
 
Blogging has proliferated on newspaper web sites more rapidly than the industry has been able to consider and develop standards. You need to decide what goes and what doesn’t for your site and your staff. Part of the appeal of blogging is the rough, interactive, gritty nature of the material. But is a staffer’s blog still part of the content of your publication? Should it undergo the same sort of editing as other content? Some definitions of blogs say they are unedited. Is that acceptable for your site? Should blog updates go online right away, to be timely, with an editor reading and making corrections? Is it acceptable for editors to read stories after they are posted? Do you allow reporters to express opinions in blogs that wouldn’t be acceptable in stories? Do you allow staff members more leeway in using foul language and other matters of taste online than you would in print? Do you want (or can you accept?) a more informal tone, with humor, sarcasm or gentle wit that might not be acceptable in reporting? What about comments from readers? Does someone edit them for taste, accuracy, libel, grammar, fairness or any other standards before they go online? Or do you allow readers to post directly and read them afterward and remove those that are objectionable? Is it acceptable or advisable to allow readers to monitor blogs – so you don’t read for objectionable material but invite readers to let you know if objectionable material appears? Is each blogger responsible for monitoring comments on her own blog? Many newspaper sites host blogs by people in the community, too? Do they face the same standards as staff members? If not, how do their standards vary and why?
 
What if a blogger in the community makes an unsubstantiated allegation or spreads an unverified rumor about a public figure in a blog? Does the fact that the rumor or charge was published on the web make it more newsworthy than if it was simply circulating by word of mouth? Or is blogging the new word of mouth? What if the community blogger making the allegation is a non-staff member who blogs on your web site? Or if the rumor is spread in a reader’s comments on a staff blog?
 
What about staff members with personal blogs on other sites or with personal web pages or entries on sites such as MySpace and Facebook? Do you have any rules for them and what they may or may not write? Are they not allowed to discuss matters they cover in private blogs? Are public statements of political or religious opinions allowed or forbidden? Are any kinds of personal disclosures unrelated to work allowed or forbidden?
 
You can’t anticipate every dilemma that blogging might present. But as blogging grows in your community and on your web site, you should anticipate possibilities and decide your standards and how you will apply them.
 
Social networking
 
Social networking is a valuable reporting tool and has great potential to help journalists and news organizations gather and disseminate news and commentary, promote our digital products and generate revenue. We should, in fact, be developing community social networking platforms. But social networking presents ethical dilemmas, too.
 
If journalists on your staff have personal Facebook and/or MySpace pages, what sort of comments about work are (or are not) acceptable? Should they have separate personal and professional pages? Would some applications they might choose or groups they join compromise their journalistic independence? Should a journalist write, request or accept a LinkedIn recommendation from a source (or former source)? Do the stories, blogs and other sites that a journalist Diggs or bookmarks on Delicious have any potential to compromise independence? Can a journalist network socially under a pseudonym? What about Second Life? Does the creative life a journalist spins for his avatar undermine the credibility of his factual journalism? What if someone has some fun with PhotoShop and posts a doctored family photo to Flickr that would never be acceptable in a news photo? Social networking is unfolding so swiftly that it’s foolish to lay down many hard and fast rules. But it’s essential for news staffs to discuss the issues and disclose their networking activities and desires so that you can make informed decisions and develop guidelines as new choices present themselves.
 
Watch the sarcasm
 
Sarcasm in slugs and in notes, a dangerous area in print, becomes more dangerous in online publishing. If you give a photo a sarcastic slug and write a straight cutline, you’re OK in print. You might look OK online initially, too. But when a reader right-clicks to save the photo to her hard drive, there’s your sarcastic slug as the name of the photo she’s saving. Don’t count on things you write in notes mode never making it onto the web either. Web publishing in some situations might strip out the coding that hides your notes from print readers.
 
Online chats
 
Online chats happen in real time. If you sponsor online chats with staff members, community leaders or guest columnists, the immediate interactivity of the process makes editing impossible. You can still set standards for your staff members. Are they allowed to express opinions? If so, do you limit their opinions? For instance, can they comment about policies or actions, but not about people? Can they express views on the actions of political candidates but not endorse the candidates? Can they comment on stories that you haven’t published yet? Can they comment on rumors or tips they are checking out? Can sports or entertainment reporters who don’t write columns or reviews give their opinions in an online chat, either unprompted or in answer to reader questions? You want to have these discussions and set these standards before the staff members are online, fielding questions from the public and answering off the cuff.
 
Online chats present news-gathering issues as well. When and how should reporters identify themselves in online chat rooms at other sites? Is it OK to lurk and eavesdrop without identifying yourself? Must you identify yourself if you join the conversation and ask questions? How would you use information gathered in a chat room, however you decide the identification question? Would you under any circumstances misrepresent yourself online? Does disclosure of such misrepresentation to readers make it acceptable? Is it OK for reporters to watch over the shoulder of a person using a chat room?
 
Consider explaining your standards
 
In some ways, your specific decisions about online standards are not as important as your readers’ understanding of them. If you distinguish between journalism and community interaction in your standards, you should tell readers. Tell them how to tell when something on your web site is journalism and what that means in terms of verification, independence, etc. Tell them how to tell when you are publishing spontaneous interaction among members of the community who may have vested interests or who may pass along rumor, speculation or wishful thinking as readily as they do fact. Perhaps your editor should write a blog explaining (probably more than once because may readers won’t see or remember the first explanation) to readers that any news story with a byline is expected to be fully verified by the reporter and read skeptically by an editor but blogs, chats and forums are freewheeling community discussion. Does the transparency justify varying standards? Does the nature of the medium require varying standards? 
 
Email interviews
 
Increasingly reporters gather information through email exchanges with sources. What issues does this present? Can you use information from a source you know only by email? How should you verify that the source is legitimate? Should you take any steps to verify emails from regular sources, or are they as trustworthy as telephone conversations?
 
Multi-tasking
 
The web is requiring increased multi-tasking of many journalists and news staffs. You need to have candid conversations among your staff and managers about the trade-offs involved. Can you cut out some less important tasks to make time for the new tasks? Can you automate or streamline some processes to make more time for new tasks? Do you risk cutting corners in areas such as accuracy, verification or originality if you ask the staff to take on too many new tasks without setting priorities?
 
Responsibility for links
 
How responsible, if at all, are you for links you provide to outside sources related to your stories? If the page you link to directly does not have material you would find objectionable, are you responsible if that page links to other pages on the same site that do have objectionable content? Is it acceptable to link directly to some content you decide not to post yourself, such as a video of a beheading by terrorists? Does a disclaimer warning of objectionable content make the link acceptable? Sex and violence aren’t the only topics that might make content objectionable; should you avoid links to sites that don’t meet your standards of verification or independence? Might a page that has no objectionable content when you link change to something offensive in an update? If you link to a site that provides a one-sided view of an issue, do you have an obligation to provide balance, either in your content or in a link to a site presenting an opposing view?

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 Standards for digital breaking news coverage

Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards
Victoria Advocate, March 27, 2008
An API Tailored Programs seminar funded by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation
 
Accuracy, verification, attribution and deadlines
 
Discuss – off deadline – your newsroom’s standards on breaking news. You want to get the news online as quickly as possible, but in the opening minutes or hours of covering a breaking story, you are still sorting fact from rumor. You know something happened, but you’re not sure yet what. Some guidelines that might help:
·        Standards for completeness change with digital editions, but not standards for accuracy. The first bulletins alerting readers to breaking news aren’t full stories and online readers understand that. Tell just what you know and be sure not to speculate or assume. An accurate story is more important than a complete one.
·        Attribute everything you didn’t see first-hand, especially in the early hours of a story. Don’t say “12 miners were rescued miraculously.” Say, “family members say state officials told them 12 miners had been rescued.” And say that you’re seeking verification.
·        Acknowledge what you don’t know, such as that company officials have not yet confirmed the rescue. Tell readers when you area seeking verification or when you’re receiving conflicting reports.
·        Seek verification and get the verification online as quickly as possible to bolster the initial bulletin.
·        You can update the web at any time. A brief story or even a one-sentence bulletin will suffice when that is all you know. Brief and frequent updates of breaking news, publishing facts only as you verify them, help drive traffic in addition to protecting credibility. 
·        As soon as you learn that something you have posted online is inaccurate, fix it. And note that you are correcting inaccurate information posted earlier. Readers checking your web site frequently will notice the conflicting accounts. You hurt your credibility more by publishing unexplained inconsistent information than by acknowledging mistakes.
·        If you’re liveblogging an event and then post a writethru to the web after you’ve written the print story, someone should read both the liveblog and the writethru to check for and correct inconsistencies.
·        Discuss your standards for reporting, if at all, about calls you hear over a police scanner. Is it acceptable to report that dispatchers have sent emergency crews to a particular site for a particular purpose? Or do you wait till you have a reporter on the site?
 
Editing provides a valuable backstop
 
Online coverage of breaking news presents lots of trade-offs: If reporters can post directly to the web, you can cover events in real time. Yet you lose the benefit of editing not only to improve grammar and the smoothness of copy but sometimes to uphold standards on issues of taste, accuracy, privacy or fairness. This is not a case where one answer fits all situations. Some reporters need more editing than others. Some situations demand more caution. Consider at least these factors as you decide the appropriate level of editing:
  • Type of story. If you are writing about crimes or other issues that might damage someone’s reputation, you might need more editing than a weather story or a sports game story.
  • Reporter. Newsrooms need aggressive reporters who are willing to take chances. But those reporters need good editors to backstop their judgment. Editors may decide that one reporter has exercised consistently good judgment and can post directly to the web, while another needs editing or at least consultation first.
 
Consider the full range of possibilities. If you decide that reporters should post directly to the web for some types of stories, you can have editors read back behind them, so that any errors or questionable judgments are addressed quickly. You can authorize reporters to post directly to the web, with instructions to confer with editors before posting anything that would raise issues of taste, privacy or fairness. You can invite readers to alert you to errors they spot. You can decide that the editor and reporter should discuss a story as it is unfolding and then decide whether editing is needed. You can authorize the reporter to post routine news or developments directly to the web but either confer with editors or send copy to editors in any borderline cases.
 
Fairness
 
Does the rush to get news online right away change your responsibility to present fair content and to give people a chance to respond to charges or criticism? Does fairness come over time, rather than in each story? For instance, is it OK to rush a partial story online, making a charge or criticism, with the presumption that the response will get lead position in a later story or update, balancing your coverage over time? How do you ensure that this really happens? What if the response comes at a time when other developments in the story are breaking and it doesn’t get as prominent play as the original accusation? Are some situations so serious that you need to apply your standard of fairness from the first bulletin?
 
An approach that recognizes urgency and fairness would be to present a charge, allegation or criticism when it breaks and report at the time that you will be seeking comment from the person in question. Then, when you get the response (or the no-comment), that should receive similar prominence on your web site. For instance, if the charge was promoted as “breaking news” or led a “latest news” listing, the response should be featured the same way.
 
Crowdsourcing
 
Interactive media give you a chance to improve the accuracy of breaking news coverage by seeking verification, documentation and detail from the public. They also present dangers of mixing rumor, speculation, exaggeration, unsubstantiated attacks and unsupported boasts with your serious journalism, which could undermine your credibility.
 
When you are seeking eyewitness accounts of a story or photos or videos from the public, consider whether you want to invite the public to post directly to the web or email their contributions to you for your consideration. Some questions to consider in deciding this: Might the contributions from the public invade someone’s privacy? Might the contributions from the public degenerate into arguments or insults about a controversial issue? Even if you value the arguments as healthy public conversation, this might not be the place where you want people with personal experience in the issue or story that is breaking.
 
Consider the immediate impact
 
The immediacy of online coverage of breaking news requires some consideration of the impact of your coverage beyond what you consider for the delayed coverage of print. You may get identities of victims or hostages before their families have been notified. Try to learn whether family members have been notified and consider whether you should wait until they have been to release names. If you are writing during a military operation, police manhunt or hostage situation, consider whether enemy troops, fugitives or hostage-takers may read your coverage as the event is unfolding and whether your coverage might influence the event in some way. Amber alerts or other news about missing young people can present a dilemma when you publish the alert, with the name and photo of the missing child, then learn hours later that the child has been recovered and was sexually abused. Discuss how some of these concerns might shape your coverage in all stories, in special cases or in specific stories.
 
Evaluate how you’re doing
 
Discuss how you did after each major breaking news story that you cover (and probably after some lesser breaking stories). If you rushed to get some news online and some things turned out to be wrong, discuss whether you need to be more demanding of verification or whether you need more editing. If you got beaten on a story, discuss whether you were too cautious and can be more aggressive the next time and still be sure to get it right.
 
Consider explaining your decisions
 
As you write and report in different ways, consider explaining to your audience in editor’s notes, an editor’s blog and/or an editor’s column what you are doing and why. If you just covered a big story and you did pretty well, explain what you’re doing differently and how you managed to uphold standards as you changed. If you made some mistakes, admit and explain them to readers and explain how you plan to do better in the future. Transparency is helpful as you deal with unfamiliar territory.
 
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Digital dilemmas for visual journalism ethics
Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards
Victoria Advocate, March 27, 2008
An API Tailored Programs seminar funded by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation
 
Video and audio reporting
 
Make it genuine. A journalist gathering video and audio material for a story should try to reflect reality in the same way that a reporter or still photographer does. Shoot and record as unobtrusively as possible. The very presence of the camera influences behavior in front of it, so watch for instances where people are performing for you and seek to capture genuine scenes and sounds. Avoid staging events, whether you direct the staging or whether the people you are shooting are staging their behavior for you. Staging applies to sounds as well as visuals. When you collect ambient sound from a racetrack, ballgame, festival or other event, collect only genuine sound, not sound effects. For instance, collect the actual crack of the bat in a baseball game, rather than having someone hit a few balls so you can record the crack of the bat.
 
Disclose circumstances. You will not always be able to avoid staging. When this happens, use text or voice to describe the situation accurately, such as saying that someone “demonstrated” or “re-enacted” for reporters how something happened, rather than allowing the impression that you are showing genuine or spontaneous action. In this way, text and voice become like video cutlines, giving context to the actions you show.
 
Editing digital visual journalism
 
Video and audio should belong together. Digital technology gives you the opportunity to shoot video and conduct later interviews and edit the video and audio together for effective storytelling. You don’t need to present video with the sounds that occurred simultaneously with the very images on the screen. But you should not present images and audio that do not go together. For instance, you might walk through a disaster scene with a victim, shooting video, and the audio of her voice would be weak, because your microphone was in the camera and she was walking around, pointing out where she was and where she found a member of her family and so on. Then you continue the interview later, with the victim sitting down and speaking more audibly about the disaster. The audio from the sitdown might make fine voiceover with the images of the walk-through, because she was talking about the images you were showing. But those same images with audio of a Red Cross official describing emergency shelter efforts would not be appropriate, especially if the person shown on the video stayed with relatives, instead of in a Red Cross shelter. The audio of the Red Cross official would be appropriate audio for general video of disaster damage or of the emergency shelter, however. This doesn’t mean the person shown needs to be the person speaking. Perhaps you’re doing a story on a court sentencing. If you start with an establishing shot of a member of the victim’s family speaking and then continue with his voice over some video of the defendant entering the courthouse or standing in the courtroom, that’s appropriate because the image and audio content go together.
 
Consider sequence. Most edits will not require explanation of what happened when. For instance, if you shoot a variety of clips at the county fair, you can edit them together is almost any order without misleading about anything. But a sensitive story may need more thought to transitions. Consecutive clips may give the impression that they happened in immediate sequence, when the truth is that this person wasn’t responding to that person (or whatever). Use text or voice to explain the passage of time or the relation or sequence of events if these things are relevant and are not evident.
 
Don’t enhance reality. Photography has always reflected reality imperfectly. When a scene is too dark, we use a flash to introduce artificial light and shadows that weren’t there until the photographer intruded. Back in the darkroom days, we used techniques such as burning and dodging to help a photograph better (but still imperfectly) reflect the reality of the scene the photographer shot. Years ago, artists painted on photographic prints to improve the contrast between a person’s hair and the background. However, digital technology gives us the opportunity (and the temptation) to “enhance” photos or videos in deceptive ways. You cross a line when you alter the content of an image – still or video – beyond routine adjustment of brightness or contrast to reflect the actual scene more accurately. This means adding, removing or moving content of an image, changing colors, touching up faces and so on. When you cross the line, you need to acknowledge by labeling as a photo illustration or simulation or by explaining in the cutline or audio what you did.  
 
Think about your music. You’re not producing a movie of the week. You’re covering the news. Light music that fits the tone of a feature story can enhance a video ethically. Using music for dramatic effect in a serious drama may be manipulative or emotional in an inappropriate way. The more serious or sensitive the story, the more careful you should be in using background music. Ask some colleagues to review a video if you have any doubts and discuss whether the music is used appropriately. Be sure someone plays devil’s advocate and asks the tough questions.
 
Ensure accuracy
 
Unless you are strictly a videographer, the juggling of video with other duties such as reporting and photography will affect your ability to take notes that provide accurate stories, cutlines and voiceover. This will require some double-checking and verification. Multitasking makes accuracy more demanding, but it is not an excuse for inaccuracy. Video can help you improve your accuracy, though. The truth is that too many reporters don’t quote people accurately. You can use the video to check the quotes in the text. This is especially important if you are using video that uses the same quotes. You don’t want a story and video clip that use what is clearly the same statement, with the wording different in your story. That undercuts the credibility of the story.
 
Attribution remains important
 
Plagiarism is no more acceptable in visual journalism than in writing. If you use a clip from a YouTube video or another source, such as clips provided by an agency you cover, you need to attribute. If you use an animation, photo or other visual creation from another source, you need to attribute. Even if you use material of unknown origin that is in the public domain, you need to attribute as accurately as you can and acknowledge that you did not create the content.Acknowledgement can be with text, logo and/or voice.
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Digital journalism ethics resources
Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards
Victoria Advocate, March 27, 2008
An API Tailored Programs seminar funded by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation
 
Guidelines for online ethical decisions developed by a 2006 Poynter Institute conference
 
Rick Edmonds’ “Online Ethics: The Beginning of the End of the Ad Hoc Era,” reporting on that Poynter conference
 
Ethics of Online Journalism,” Online Journalism Review
 
A Blogger’s Code of Ethics,” Cyberjournalist.net
 
Howard Owens’ “Real identity helps foster online communities” (browse through Owens’ blog for more posts on the issue of identification vs. anonymity)
 
Kelly McBride’s “Dialogue or Diatribe
 
Edward Wasserman’s “Making online news sell
 
 
Steve Outing’s “Reporters need two Facebook pages
 
 
 
 
 
Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
 
Wired Journalism Ethics discussion group at Wired Journalists