On developing a code of ethics for Locally Grown

ethics_headerLast summer I commented on a podcast blog post (my comment was to Barb Kuhlman but our guest that day was Randy Jennings): “… I think the main outcome for me after this podcast is to lead the development of a code of ethics for Locally Grown that we have posted on our site.”  Now’s a good time to get it done, because we’re ramping up to take advertising and that always raises some ethical issues. (continued)

But there’s also some new thinking out there and it was this Knight Digital Media Center/Online Journalism Review (OJR) piece published Friday by Robert Niles titled Journalism ethics 2.0: As the Internet changes the market, some conventions must change as well that got me thinking and the task back on my to-do list. (continued)

The old rule: You can’t cover something in which you are personally involved.
The new rule: Tell your readers how you are involved and how that’s shaped your reporting.

The old rule: You must present all sides of a story, being fair to each.
The new rule: Report the truth and debunk the lies.

The old rule: There must be a wall between advertising and editorial.
The new rule: Sell ads into ad space and report news in editorial space. And make sure to show the reader the difference.

So I’d like to discuss this for a week or so and then post a draft for further feedback.

NB: this is a LoGroNo code of ethics, not RepJ.

OJR Reference: What are the ethics of online journalism?

26 thoughts on “On developing a code of ethics for Locally Grown”

  1. Griff: well, with the second rule you are squarely back into the Rashomon world of seeking the elusive truth.
    ( the old rule: you must present all sides of a story, being true to each.
    the new rule: Report the truth and debunk the lies)

    The old rule at least insists that all sides of an issue should be presented, not that that rule is always followed.
    But the new rule allows the reporter to start from a position which they PERCEIVE as the truth.
    If a bias exists to begin with, for whatever reason, how can you begin from a position of “report the truth”?
    That would suggest that in order for a reader to know how to receive/evaluate the reporter’s work, the reader had already come to THEIR position of ‘truth’. Then who needs the report?

    I see a lot of the responsibility of a reporter to be the asker of questions… if the whole story is not presented in the actions being reported on, then it is up to the reporter to ask the cogent question either of the people involved, or rhetorically, to answer the public’s query. Then the editorial position needs to delve deeper into the ”underlayment’, possibly asking a more basic question that might go to motivation.

    You’re into deep stuff here, and moving closer to questions that have plagued traditional journalism.

  2. Reporter or commentator? News source or interpreter? What do you want to be? I want both, but not necessarily from the same source.

    I think that the “present all sides” dictum results in a lot of publicity for nonsense. But I can decide what the nonsense is, I don’t need someone to tell me UNLESS the topic is really technical or arcane.

    Since LG is not, in my mind, a reporting source, I’d prefer it continue as a commentary source. If you sometimes report things before you comment, so be it.

    Keep it personal and human.

  3. Ken- Great points on your part. I thought a blog was just what you describe, “…a commentary source…”, but perhaps I am incorrect, also. One benefit of discussing any topic is that a person is able to be exposed to perceptions other than their own. I don’t believe it is possible for anyone to present an “unbiased” appraisal of any event. That being the case, open and honest discussion should bring clarity to any subject, depending, of course, upon how many rabbit trails come up.

    Griff- How about this revision for rule #2? Freedom to express your perception and opinion about a subject without being personally attacked. Afterall, none of us has “all the sides” of any subject, and Kiffi correctly points out the phenominum of “perceived truth.” Am I understanding your concept correctly?

  4. Griff:

    Interesting topic. Shouldn’t we make a distinction between the content of Locally Grown and a site which reports hard news? Thus, how relevant would the code of ethics you’ve referred to be for this site?

  5. Griff, this thread gives me an opportunity to discuss something that makes me uncomfortable. I would add another new rule: “freedom of speech for the public” as well as the reporter/blogger. While I very much agree with the goal of civil discourse on local politics, I don’t like the way that has sometimes been achieved on this site. An alternate solution is to simply post a message saying that a previous message fails to meet the site guidelines, with specific reasons.

  6. The best way for us to regulate content is to police ourselves. Griff’s “thumbs up” system is the first step in to the right direction.
    Maybe it could be expanded to flag offensive comments, as deemed by members here, as well?

  7. Felicity, are you proposing changes to the way Griff moderates LoGro? It sounds like you’re saying you’d prefer that inflammatory or other rule-breaking comments simply be left with Griff providing the virtual wrist-slap in the comment stream. Am I understanding you correctly?

  8. Tracy and Felicity; Sounds like there is more to talk about here than is actually being said…
    Old Lady Summa says you need to get together , F to F, and let Felicity say more completely what she has on her mind.

  9. Kiff, while it’s great to know that you’ve got my back, I actually said everything I feel the need to say in my post above.

  10. There is a way that this blog sometimes has elements of ‘hard news,’ most notably:

    So Ken/Jane/John, although I would say that we’re primarily a commentary source, we still need some guidelines on how we mix in the facts.

  11. Felicity, I think there are some ethical aspects to how I treat people in my role as moderator.

    But I don’t think ‘freedom of speech for the public’ falls within the ethics arena. I see it more as a policy issue.

    Some offending comments I let stand and make a moderator-type observation about them. Others that I think are destructive or that have more of a problematic history with the author, I remove and publicly explain.

    It’s important to me that we have a culture of inquiry and civil discourse here. That trumps people’s desire to have a platform for their views, even after they express them.

  12. Most of these perceived problems can be cured with journalist-style disclosure. If something is a fact, say so. If something is opinion, say so. I don’t think LG needs to isolate itself as news or opinion so long as each writing doesn’t confuse the two. Whatever LG becomes, disclosure is paramount.

    I have become a fan of the CraigsList-style flagging of offensive posts, moderator review, and if the moderator deems it appropriate based on published criteria, the offensive post gets removed to an Isle of Misfits section. This way, the readers judge what is and isn’t offensive, the moderator is the fail safe, and ‘censored’ posts are still readable apart from the conversation.

    Griff, “Freedom of Speech for the Public” is an ethical issue if LG is to be a town square for public participation. The more LG is used for locals to share ideas about politics and governance, the more important and *ethical* it is not to censor.

  13. Jerry, I can’t think of a time when I’ve axed someone’s comment based on their position on an issue. It’s always been related to something else — usually tone, but sometimes it contained inappropriate info about themselves or someone else. Sometimes it’s been because of extreme topic drift, too.

    I think Craigslist’s rules are fine but they’re not adequate for what I’m trying to create here. Having a higher standard for how one participates is not censoring.

  14. I got this email from a person I know who wishes to remain anonymous because their personal opinion on this issue could easily be taken as a professional opinion that might reflect on their employer.

    I think there is another aspect of this site, not yet discussed in your ethics thread, that calls for greater governance, or at least greater restraint. If this were just some guy’s blog, it wouldn’t matter so much, but this site aims to be a significant community forum.

    That being the case, there are occasional times (not often, but often enough for it to be something of a pattern) when topics are started either with the purpose of being inflammatory to get a lively discussion going (such as the query of whether conservatives are welcome at Just Food), or with a question being lobbed out there about a local business or other entity with little or no apparent attempt to do a minimal fact-check beforehand, which can create a public relations issue for that organization to which they then have to devote time and energy, which often equate to money (and the public relations issue itself can certainly equate directly to loss of income or reputation), deciding how or whether to respond.

    You sometimes behave as if you are sitting around a table at Blue Monday and simply gabbing among friends, but your words carry more widely and linger far longer. If you see one of LoGroNo’s roles as being a community watchdog, that’s fine, but don’t just speculate; know it to be your responsibility to do your homework first. I do believe it is an ethical issue, perhaps particularly so in tough economic times.

    Relatedly, there are regular commentators out there who can be quick to seize upon a characterization of an issue and get opinionated and judgmental about it without having any more information on the topic than you have provided. Thus, an issue can balloon quickly. Eventually it usually sorts itself out, but not without some unnecessary angst.

  15. I like much of what anonymous has to say.

    We can make rules (and the ones you laid out Griff make sense to me). But, in the end, how do we make sure everyone understands the rules in the same way and follows them? That can get trickier and trickier.

    I’ve been wondering lately if there is some way to engineer a system that leads people who want to comment through a series of steps that makes sure they add to the discussion in a way that keeps to the rules. The system could also categorize comments and separate them into different threads of conversation.

  16. Griff: I agree, the term “censoring” is misleading and I’ll stop using it in this context. The reason why your actions could easily be confused as censoring is if a post has appropriate substance but an inappropriate tone. Removing the post because of tone also removes its substance. It may not be easy to prove that it was axed for tone, so the author and readers may cry “censorship”.

    I have used CraigsList’s “flag” feature for tone, never substance. This model works if LG’s readers flag offensive posts for tone (if no one is bothered, no one will flag). When a post is flagged, the moderator will review it for a violation of LG posting policy, to guard against mistaken or malicious flagging. This approach would keep a good distance from allegations or misunderstandings of censorship, because a post would not be removed unless LG’s readers and moderator(s) find it offensive rather than moderator(s) alone.

    And banishing posts to a “Misfit” thread is another method to ensure no one feels censored. It’s kin to putting the kids at the kids table, not kicking the kids out of the house.

  17. Bonnie: There is no way to make sure that everyone understands the rules. People’s prejudices and politics always add a degree of chaos to discussions, online or otherwise. This especially applies to LG because everyone is welcomed to participate; LG is like a public forum. I moderated a list back in the BBS days (a very long time ago) and I administer a discussion list today. Both lists have a select membership so they aren’t subject to the public fora chaos that may affect LG.

    Making sure that everyone follows the rules would require heavy moderator involvement. Using the apt analogy of U.S. courts, we have an overbusy court system because so many people don’t understand the rules and so many more don’t follow them. There is no system to ensure people understand and follow the rules. However, everyone’s benevolent involvement in LG will inspire each other to do so. I think that the LG community does well in this regard, and there is always room for improvement.

    I’d like to hear more about your idea of a system that has the author categorize their comments. I like the idea already if there’s not too much burden on the author.

  18. Jerry- The second paragraph of your reply to Bonnie, posted 01/27, is just great! I always appreciate your apt and spot-on assessments. Thanks for a well stated observation. Perhaps “…everyone’s benevolent involvement..” is the answer. That makes this whole thing a work in process. Your example of the family allows for correction without condemnation, and I think that is all we would like to achieve here.

  19. Gerry, you don’t know how heavy the moderation is because people never see moderated comments. None of us know how many people are moderated or why.
    I think there should be rules for moderation, in that people should be moderated for a specific period of time for an infraction and not put on permanent moderation…the LG equivalent of Animal House’s super secret probation.
    Perhaps there could be a warning, then a week of moderation or even a month before reinstatement.
    Also, if there is going to be moderation, it needs to be done in a timely manner. Holding comments for up to three days and then posting them renders them effectively censored, since the conversation has moved on and the comments often aren’t noticed or are no longer relevant.
    I realize staffing is short, and with advertising staffing will be even more stretched. But failure to manage comments gives the appearance of manipulation and censorship.

  20. Sorry, Jerry, for the typo in your name. Realized it just as I hit send. (I was debating whether to address you or Griff and morphed you both into a new identity).

  21. John: Thank you. My “politics” are heavy on the community involvement, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, side of things. Leaders should be eager to involve others, to involve the village. Griff starting this thread is wonderful.

    Applied to LG, it’s important to have posting ethics and an etiquette minimum. I hope for policies that (1) recognize we’re all adults, (2) we have diverse and sometimes conflicting views, (3) don’t impose fear of moderation but rather encourage us to self-moderate, and (4) give room for adversity and collaboration to the ends of the best discussions. While my experience moderating online discussions sometimes has me wishing to create more stringent rules, I have found that too many rules does more harm than too few.

    When I had a problem with Peter Millin’s posts, I advocated that we ignore his posts and I opposed any other actions against his being involved. I want him to contribute to LG despite our frequent opposing views, but I don’t want anyone to post inflammatory material as an act of revenge (as Millin admitted doing) so that’s why I said something. I hope this helps demonstrate what I hope for here: nearly invisible moderators, diverse points of view welcomed, and the first level of policing to come from the village of people who use LG.

  22. Anne: I’ll pitch in for a (hopefully free) optometry test for you if you keep merging people.

    I see the larger issue being to determine what does LG want to be. The more of a public fora, a town square, a tool for Northfield-area political/social/economic discussions, the more LG should model itself under U.S. constitutional principles especially free speech, transparency, equal access, and so forth. The more that LG wants to have select members, select discussions, and a private purpose, the more I am OK with restrictive rules.

    My comments thus far have been assuming that LG wants to serve the purpose of public debate, so I think that LG should start with the free speech standard and make as few changes to it as possible. Our free speech laws have had over 200 years of refinements, so they are a good place to start.

    If I am right in my assumption, I agree with you that there should be transparency in notice and process. Posting guidelines and the moderation procedure should be clearly defined and easy to find; moving axed posts to a “Misfits” thread would only help the LG community see that a post was axed for tone, irrelevance, or some other criterion, rather than have us wonder if a post was axed because of censorship.

    I recognize that LG is a private project and that there is no obligation for it to model itself on constitutional principles. I think that the constitutional principles are the right approach to public debate and therefore the right approach for LG to be used for public debate. I don’t mind more rules, such as no profanity, no thread drift, etc., so long as more rules aren’t oppressive.

    I’m also OK with the moderators making mistakes. I mean that if we don’t persuade LG to change to be what we want, LG is still a valuable community tool, and our continued participation may eventually change our opinions or the moderators’. LG can evolve through many phases. I am happy to be involved with its evolution.

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