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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Posner on Blogs and Journalism Ethics

The Pos has blogged interestingly on whether blogs ought to be governed by ethical standards.  There are some interesting ideas in there, as usual, but I must register a partial dissent.  I think the post muddies and conflates a number of ideas.  I agree that there is "no pressing need for imposing ethical standards on bloggers."  But I don't think that is the question, and I do think ethical standards and norms -- a multitude of them, in fact -- are emerging and will emerge in the blogosphere.

The first thing to note is that although there have been some questions concerning the status of blogs for shield law and tax purposes, no one I know of is credibly proposing "imposing ethical standards on bloggers."  How could they?  Ethical standards for blogs, as for the press, are necessarily self-imposed, given the First Amendment.  (The way these norms interact with some definitional laws, like press access or shield laws, and with constitutional norms, is an interesting question but outside the scope of this post.)  The real questions, then, are: how and why do ethical standards emerge for self-regulating professions?  Are they emerging, or should they emerge, for blogs?  And should blog ethics be the same as press ethics?

Posner has some interesting things to say about why the press developed ethical standards.  But I think he is too instrumental in his thinking.  Ethical standards are sometimes encouraged by advertisers, but in other cases ethical standards persist despite their interference with the profit motive (maintaining a wall of separation between editorial and business operations in a newspaper is one example, although in the broadcast media the separation may be becoming less firm for the national networks than it was in the last 30 years or so).  More to the point is that newspapers and other news media are institutions, which over time develop a sense of sound practices that become a norm not just enforced by the bosses but internalized by individual actors.  This is part of the phenomenon of professionalization.

Will some set of ethical norms develop among bloggers?  For a variety of reasons, I think it will.  Blogging is not just a discrete individual action but a participation in a culture, and cultures naturally develop ethical norms.  ("Hat tip," "MSM," linking, and a variety of other practices and neologisms are all a part of this culture, and some of them are quasi-ethical in nature: linking to the piece you criticize, for instance, which gives the reader an opportunity to scrutinize the basis for your criticism.)  Since I think ethical norms will develop, there's little point asking whether they should.  But the should question is implicitly addressed in answering the next question: should ethical norms for bloggers be the same as those for the conventional press?   

Posner raises a number of arguments against ethical "parity" between blogs and the press, and against suggesting any blog ethical norms generally.  He says errors in a blog "are corrected almost instantaneously," either by other bloggers or by the bloggers' readers.  This, though, depends in turn on other "ethical" norms, such as the idea that a blogger should allow comments.  And why, even if true, would this assertion counsel against ethical norms?  Newspapers correct errors quicker than pre-printing-press media such as handwritten manuscripts, but that didn't mean ethics were unnecessary for newspapers.  Posner says the "self-correcting machinery of the blogosphere is more efficient than the internal fact-checking departments of conventional media enterprises."  This is an inapt comparison, because conventional media, like blogs, not only correct themselves internally but are also subject to correction by their competitors.  Moreover, the on-line "network" he discusses is vast; errors corrected in one sector may not propagate elsewhere on the network -- particularly if the people posting don't maintain the "ethical" norm of linking.

What I find most questionable is the move he makes of treating conventional media ethics as uniform, and then suggesting that there is no way a single set of ethics could apply to the blogosphere.  But the conventional media don't observe one set of ethics; many common principles have emerged, but they differ in their details, often from newspaper to newspaper.  And it should not be surprising that common ethical norms have developed; for many sectors of the conventional media are institutions which share broad institutional cultural norms and practices.

The point I want to make is that just as there are a variety of blogs -- some that simply link to other news, some that collect reports in a specific subject area, some that spread opinions or gossip -- so we can expect a variety of ethical norms to organically emerge for different types of blogging.  The question is a functional one.  Particular kinds of blogs establish and rely on particular kinds of trust.  We may not expect much of pure opinion blogs, although even here I have suggested that some norms are emerging -- such as linking to the writing you're reacting against.  For other blogs, stricter and more numerous ethical norms might emerge.  If Howard Bashman linked to fictional appellate cases, readers would feel wronged and would reject him, or diminish his stature in the blogosphere.  Knowing this, Bashman is unlikely to do so.  And other bloggers engaged in similar endeavors, without having to ask or to count the costs, will soon have a sense of what is or isn't done, as a matter of course.  By internalizing these norms, both writer and reader establish a level of trust that is more efficient for not having to expend the time to worry unduly about reliability on each and every occasion.

The function will determine the scope of the ethical norm, but ultimately we can expect that certain kinds of online activity will breed certain kinds of ethical expectations, which will be internalized by the participants.  The novelty or immediacy of the medium isn't the relevant factor here; the New York Times meets the same ethical standards on-line or in print because its reporters and editors have internalized the same sense of how one properly fulfills the function of reporting, editing, and publishing.

So I am with Posner in saying that conventional media ethics should not be "imposed" on the blogosphere -- if there were a monolithic set of conventional media ethics, if anyone was suggesting imposing them, and if it could even be accomplished.  And because many blogs perform different functions from many conventional media outlets, we can expect that the governing ethical norms will and should be different.  But I think we can expect a variety of ethical norms to emerge in the blogosphere, differentiated according to the familial resemblances of different kinds of blogs, as the phenomenon of blogging becomes more established and routinized.  And that, I think, is not only inevitable, but reasonable.       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 25, 2005 at 10:05 AM in Current Affairs, Information and Technology, Law and Politics | Permalink


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