Do we need a bloggers ethics panel?

Remember this?
Well, apparently that blog post (not mine, but the source) raised quite a lot of hackles, so much that the PBS Obmudsman had to step in and try to explain:

But, I have serious problems with the episode that unfolded recently in which a journalism student at New York University, Alana Taylor, authored a Sept. 5 posting as an “embedded” blogger on MediaShift, writing critically about her class content and professor at NYU without informing either the teacher or her classmates about what she was doing. The headline read: “Old Thinking Permeates Major Journalism School.” This column attracted a lot of online attention and controversy, not to mention attention by the professor, Mary Quigley, who was not happy. Glaser then wrote a follow-up column on Sept. 17 about the controversy, headlined “NYU Professor Stifles Blogging, Twittering by Journalism Student.”
The controversy was brought to my attention by Adam Penenberg, an assistant professor at NYU and chairman of the journalism department’s ethics committee, who raised numerous journalistic challenges to Taylor’s “embedded” role and reporting techniques and also questioned whether this was not a violation of PBS’ own editorial standards. That’s where I came in.
This is a complicated issue involving all sorts of free speech and privacy issues, respect for other students’ rights, private versus public institutions, and also whether the classroom should be a place where every word can be recorded, personal opinions introduced, and put on the Web without anyone but a blogger knowing about it beforehand.
I think that teachers and professors need to be accountable for what they say in class, and certainly student blogging (after class would be my preference) can be a useful tool in helping to improve struggling courses, reinforcing those that are really good, or simply expanding ideas and discussion.
But the issue here for me is that Taylor was not just an undergrad posting her observations on her own blog about her journalism class, called “Reporting Gen Y.” Rather she was hired — although not for money, according to Glaser — by Glaser as an “embed” to write for MediaShift. So Taylor’s post did not simply join millions of other postings in the blogosphere by individuals that may or may not have many readers. This one was sponsored by PBS’s MediaShift and had immediate access to the huge PBS.org audience.
Furthermore, this was a journalism student in a journalism department who did this without either telling the teacher what she was doing or who she was doing it for, without asking permission of the teacher or other classmates (one classmate is quoted anonymously, also not a great journalistic habit to get in to), without checking content or asking for the teacher’s views of the author’s critical assessments, and without, of course, identifying her national connection to PBS. Glaser, wrote Penenberg, assigned this NYU junior “to go undercover in one of her classes to blog about her impressions for PBS.” That is more straightforward language in this case than “embedded,” but it sounds right to me.

What do you think?

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4 responses to “Do we need a bloggers ethics panel?

  1. Hmmm, I was not aware that Taylor was an “embedded” blogger for a media outlet (PBS). I’m not sure this changes my opinion of the original post much, other than, it would have been more courteous and honest of her to acknowledge her position upfront. I think what she wrote raises a valid issue, even if she didn’t go about it in quite the best way. Are journalism schools still a bit out of touch, esp with the “new media”? My bet is yes. The actual media is still catching on, so naturally j-schools would lag a bit behind. And frankly, that’s why this has turned into a controversy: we’re still navigating these new uncharted waters.
    As for blogs not being “real” journalism — they can be. Mine aren’t. 🙂 In fact, I get annoyed when folks make comments like “I would expect better from a journalist” (I identify more as a science writer/communicator, but whatevs) or chide me for not citing original sources, etc. [Somehow they never seem to notice the copious hyperlinks to sources.] I do not get paid to blog, and view Cocktail Party Physics as a “writing lab,” a place to work out my thoughts on various things I stumble across. Blog posts, for many of us, are not intended to be polished, finished pieces.
    Blogs are, in general, informal and opinionated, although there are certainly some bloggers out there who can do some darn good investigative reporting. It’s nice to have some checks and balances to the mainstream media, and it’s awesome that anyone can now have a voice who wants one. But we need to stop being so obsessed with what is “really” a blog. Journalism, as a field, is pretty well defined by now in terms of standards and best practices (although I believe those have eroded badly in the last 20 years). Blogs are not so well defined; it’s still kind of a self-policing community, and still a very much evolving medium. I’ll be very interested to see what the blogosphere looks like 10 years from now.

  2. What is the use of a hidden camera in investigative reporting? I think journalism standards for using a hidden camera would somehow apply.

  3. There definitely should be an ethics panel. Janet’s lecture last year was great, and I think there should definitely be another this year.
    I recently took down a few posts for reasons similar to what is mentioned above. Even though I didn’t reveal who my professors were, I didn’t feel right criticizing their statements in a forum that they probably did not know about. That’s the tricky part about criticisms in the blogosphere. If I criticize what someone said on the web and link to what I’m talking about, generally they’ll know what I have to say. If I take events in the real world and write about them, though, then the person might not know unless I tell them, and I think they should have the ability to respond.

  4. Huh, interesting question, and just in time after I myself have written a criticism to the statement of one of my High School teacher. Blogs aren’t exactly journalism. They can be if one choose to, but what I write is not exactly practiced by standard journalists, nor am I one. Maybe I should take that post down for a reconsideration, though I can’t help but think in my own biased opinion that what she wrote did not compromise any privacy thingy, it was just an opinion piece people should be allowed to express, and that the professor is only reacting due to the criticism.