Ethical blogging – a 10-point guide

27th February 2010

Written by: lzion">Lawrie Zion


Conservative estimates suggest that there are more than 100 million blogs in the depths of cyberspace. From in-depth analyses of current political issues, to posts about an individual’s cats, blogs can take many forms and are created with very different goals in mind. According to Dr Louise North, a senior lecturer for Monash University’s Journalism program, the quantity and diversity of today’s blogs means that regulating such content is virtually impossible.

‘The internet is a vast space for vast opinions and the consumer must realise that the majority of blogs are not quality journalism based on ethical principles. It would be impossible to require bloggers to follow codes of ethics established for the traditional or ‘old’ media. How would that be managed? Who would manage it?’

However, despite the difficulties associated with monitoring blog content, the case of blogger Rosemary Port recently showed that bloggers aren’t free to say whatever they please. Ms Port was sued by model Liskula Cohen after the blogger made derogatory comments about her.

In light of this, it is important for bloggers to have a basic understanding of the ethical issues involved in blogging, regardless of blog content or intended audience. The following is a guide to ethical blogging.

1. Differentiate between truth and opinion

While not all blogs are created with the traditional journalistic ideals in mind, it is important for all bloggers to differentiate between truth and opinion. In mainstream journalism truth is prioritised but for bloggers the usual goal is to voice an opinion.

Upon visiting a blog for the first time, a reader should be able to determine whether the content being presented is fact or if it is opinion. Factual blogging should be supported with relevant evidence, and opinion or comment should be flagged as such.

If an individual’s blog deals mainly with gossip and rumour-mongering, it should be clear that this is the case. Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton could arguably be seen as an ethical blogger as he is honest about the content and intended aim of his blog, his ‘About’ page declaring him ‘the internet’s most notorious gossip columnist’.

2. Do not plagiarise

Plagiarism is not just a problem in academia. The ABC’s Media Watch regularly exposes shortcomings in attribution.  In 2003, for example, Media Watch alleged that Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Ackerman had duplicated material from several foreign media outlets and claimed the work as his own. Ackerman was not the only one. Media Watch has also raised the plagiarism issue with Alan Jones, a Southern Cross TV station in Port Pirie and evangelical preacher, Ron Bainbridge. Despite Media Watch’s best efforts, plagiarism remains a problem both in Australia and abroad and with the rise of online journalism, the situation is getting worse.

The vast array of information and opinion on the internet means that it is becoming easier to plagiarise and harder to catch those that do. However, the ethical blogger should take all necessary steps to ensure that the ideas presented are his or her own. If they aren’t, then he or she should …

3. Link to relevant source material and give credit where it is due

With the staggering volume of analysis and opinion available on the Internet it is highly unlikely that comments presented by a blogger will be entirely original. A particular view about climate change, for example, is almost certain to exist somewhere else in cyberspace and the ethical blogger should acknowledge this fact. A simple admission along the lines of ‘I’m not the first to make this point…’ complete with a hyperlink to the existing view, ensures that credit is given to those who deserve it.

One of the defining features of the Internet as a communications medium is the humble hyperlink. By including relevant hyperlinks within the body of a piece, a blogger can direct his or her audience to further reading about the subject at hand. Hyperlinks also allow the blogger to link directly to relevant source material to allow the reader to make up their own mind about a particular issue.

This last point is particular relevant for bloggers who often present their own opinion about topical issues, for example this entry on the Climate Dilemma blog. In the first paragraph of the article the author links to a report about the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme before going on to discuss the report and present his opinion. By doing this he allows the reader to develop a greater understanding of the issue at hand while presenting the original source material for readers to develop their own interpretation.

4. Correct mistakes as soon as possible

Research undertaken by associate professor Scott R. Maier of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism showed that around half of the articles that appear in the United States’ daily newspapers contained at least one factual error. More concerning still, the study found that less than two percent of such errors were corrected.

For a daily newspaper, the next opportunity to correct a factual error would be the following day and it is conceivable that such corrections could be forgotten. For the ethical blogger, there is no such excuse. Any mistakes should be corrected as soon they are discovered using the strikethrough technique. By using this technique, the reader is able to tell, at a glance, what content has been added and what has been subtracted removed.

An error might be something as simple as a misspelt name or something more important like a misleading statistic. Either way, errors should be corrected once found, and as soon as possible.

5. Encourage audience participation and freedom of speech

The rise of the internet and its associated technologies has effected a great shift in the way that we communicate. In Communication Theory David Holmes writes that ‘hot mediums like radio and cinema circulate a large amount of information, bombarding the viewer or listener. Cool mediums (like the internet), on the other hand, presuppose interaction’.

This idea of Holmes’, adapted from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The extensions of man, holds true for blogging as contrasted with traditional forms of print journalism. The traditional newspaper features little in the way of unmediated reader interaction, whereas blogs allow readers to actively contribute to the discussion. The ethical blogger should promote free speech whenever possible, moderating only the most divisive comments.

Controversial Herald Sun columnist and prolific blogger Andrew Bolt wrote an article describing how his attempts to promote free speech through his blog were being compromised by the extreme comments of some readers. Only in circumstances such as these should the ethical blogger moderate readers’ comments.

6. Be transparent about personal associations of conflicts of interest

Regardless of how much care a blogger takes, conflicts of interest will undoubtedly occur from time to time. Such a conflict may occur when the blogger is paid by a company to write a review of their product, write about a family member or in a multitude of other situations.

In ‘The Weblog Handbook’ Rebecca Blood argues that weblogs are often free of the commercial interests that control mainstream media outlets and this allows bloggers to focus on truthful, unmediated writing. In order to maintain this feature of blogging, bloggers should try to avoid taking money in exchange for writing positive reviews about a business or product. If this is unavoidable then, as Kelby Carr writes, the blogger’s best bet is to be honest and declare any conflict of interest at the outset. If the ethical blogger has been paid to write a particular article, he or she should say so.

Professional blogger Jaime McD maintains a blog dedicated to book reviews and she believes reviewers should be as open as possible;

‘Reviews of products are the one place I can think of to have full disclosure of where you received the product from, whether you’re getting paid for the review and whatever other pertinent details there are.’

One of the best examples of ethical blogging can be seen in the case of Jeff Jarvis. His ‘About Me’ page lists every partnership, relationship or arrangement that might affect what he writes on his blog. As a result his readers know exactly what position he is taking on a particular issue and any potential conflicts of interest are declared at the outset.

7. Remember that blogs do not exist in a vacuum

For writers of personal opinion blogs, it is easy to forget that, upon publishing a blog entry, it is available for anyone around the world to view. It is important to remember this fact, especially when dealing with content that might be offensive to some people, or when openly criticising someone. Professional blogger Jaime McD agrees;

‘If you give in to the temptation to set up a blog so you can complain about things, use common sense. People Google their own names too often these days for bloggers to just run off their virtual mouths about everyone and everything. The instant publication involved in blogging is so intoxicating that people forget to think about the consequences of what they put on their blogs. A good rule to blog by is to not write anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read.’

8. Take full responsibility for anything that you post

Cyberspace abounds with ideas and opinions that can cause offence. The ethical blogger should be mindful of such material and deal with it carefully. If a blog entry deals with a subject that may be offensive to readers, the blogger should declare that he or she does not agree with nor condone the offensive material and that it is only being referenced in order to make a point or further a story.

In the case of questionable content, hyperlinks should also be used cautiously. If it is necessary, in the course of blogging about a subject to hyperlink to offensive material, this should be done in such as way as to inform readers that such content might cause offence. In the case of an article referencing the Westboro Baptist Church’s website, www.godhatesfags.com, the site’s URL should be warning enough.

On the other side of the coin, if the ethical blogger is advocating a view that is particularly controversial or likely to cause offence, they should be willing to stand up for that view in the public arena. It is not enough to say ‘they wrote it first’ as the ethical blogger should take responsibility for everything that he or she posts.

9. Consider the possible effects of every post you make

As well as being aware of the potentially massive readership of his or her blog, the ethical blogger should also be conscious of the effects that the written word can have. One of the most celebrated features of the weblog is the fact that it grants even the most humble individual a voice in the vastness of cyberspace. However, this voice should be put to good use.

Bloggers should not set out to be intentionally hurtful to other individuals in the course of their blogging, in fact the ethical blogger should take steps to minimise harm to others wherever possible. Pro-blogger Jaime McD suggests that bloggers should adhere to the Golden Rule when blogging, namely, treat others as you would be treated yourself.

10. Attempt to foster a sense of online community

As mentioned earlier, interactivity is one of the defining features of the weblog, and indeed of the Internet as a whole. In addition to promoting comments and discussion, the ethical blogger should also take steps to develop a sense of online community. By visiting and leaving comments on blogs that are similar in scope and readership, a blogger can generate goodwill within the online community, often with the associated benefits of increased audience exposure and inbound traffic.

Bloggers should also maintain a ‘blogroll’ linking to other relevant blogs related to their topic of choice.  Again this helps to establish a sense of online community within the particular topic of interest. An example of this is Wade Wallace’s popular Cycling Tips blog. Wallace’s site is a key player in the Australian online cycling community and it features a blogroll with links to other major cycling blogs.

Bibliography

ABC (2003) Piers’ Plagiarism, accessed 21 October 2009, http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s780381.htm

Blood, R. (2002) Weblog Ethics from The Weblog Handbook: Practical advice on creating and maintaining your blog. Perseus Publishing: Cambridge, accessed 19 October 2009, http://www.rebeccablood.net/handbook/excerpts/weblog_ethics.html

Carr, K. (2009) Blogging Ethics, accessed 23 October 2009, http://kelbycarr.com/blogging-ethics/

Helmond, A. (2008) How many  blogs are there? Is someone still counting, accessed 20 October 2009, http://www.blogherald.com/2008/02/11/how-many-blogs-are-there-is-someone-still-counting/

Helmond, A. (2007) Updating your blog posts,accessed 23rd October 2009, http://www.blogherald.com/2007/12/10/updating-your-blog-posts/

Hilton, P. (2009) About Me, accessed 23 October 2009, http://perezhilton.com/?page_id=38

Holmes, D. (2005) Communication Theory: Media Technology and Society, Sage Publications: London.

Jarvis, J. (2009) About M/Disclosures, accessed 24 October 2009, http://www.buzzmachine.com/about-me/

Kuhn, M. (2005) Code of Blogging Ethics Revised: Form-based duties in Blog ethics. Accessed 26 October 2009, http://blogethics2004.blogspot.com/

Mahalo (2009) Skanks in NYC, accessed 21 October 2009, http://www.mahalo.com/skanks-in-nyc

Newswatch (2007) New revelation: Almost 98 per cent of errors in US newspapers go uncorrected, accessed 20 October 2009, http://oldcontent.newswatch.in/news-analyses/newsworthiness/9019.html

Resource List

This is one of the most detailed Codes of Ethics for bloggers available on the net. In addition to the lengthy list of guidelines that bloggers should follow, the article has generated much interesting discussion.

This valuable article from ReadWriteWeb provides a detailed discussion about the issue of disclosure for bloggers faced with conflicts of interest. This article has also generated some interesting discussion among readers.

In October 2009 the Federal Trade Commission in the US introduced new guidelines for resolving conflicts of interest for bloggers. This article is a detailed look at the new guidelines.

This piece provides good business and legal advice for bloggers and is full of hyperlinks to provide detailed background information for readers.

This article written by Martin Kuhn, a doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, provides another possible Code of Ethics for bloggers.

Alongside Kelly Theobald, Matt de Neef will be co-editor of upstart for this semester. This article first appeared as Matt’s final assignment for MST2DIJ ‘Dilemmas in Journalism’ last year.