That you are reading this means you have some interest in how the new media operate. The ethics of online news operations are still being developed on the fly, shifting a bit as each new tech development kicks in.
In the past couple of days, a couple of spectacular failed "experiments" have been playing out in real time.
Start with Octavia Nasr, a senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs for CNN who has taken to Twitter. For anybody not familiar, Twitter is a way for people to express their thoughts to the online world, 140 characters at a time. Many news organizations have encouraged their people to take advantage of tweets to connect with news consumers.
Here's what Nasr tweeted this past Sunday: "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah ... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot."
Who was Fadlallah? As The New York Times explained on its Media Decoder blog
Ayatollah Fadlallah routinely denounced Israel and the United States, and supported suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Ayatollah Fadlallah's writings and preachings inspired the Dawa Party of Iraq and a generation of militants, including the founders of Hezbollah.
Nasr later offered a clarifying tweet: "Regret tweet about Fadlallah death bc I didn't explain specific respect for standing up for Muslim women."
As she explained at greater length here
"Reaction to my tweet was immediate, overwhelming and provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East."
Apparently, Fadlallah was notable for his willingness to support the rights of women in a culture where that is not common. And that, not the rest of his positions, are what Nasr wanted to note with respect.
Well, OK. Reminds me of a famous quote that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini "made the trains run on time." (Which the wonderful Snopes.com site says wasn't actually true
.) Perhaps a more contemporary equivalent would be expressing respect for Saddam Hussein because the electricity was reliable under his rule. Not a great idea for a journalist tasked with covering that part of the world.
In any case, Nasr's explanation fell short. She was fired after 20 years with CNN. The official explanation
"However, at this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward."
Shift to a site called ScienceBlogs.com
. It's a site that hosts, well, science blogs. As it explains:
Launched in January 2006, ScienceBlogs is a portal to this global dialogue, a digital science salon featuring the leading bloggers from a wide array of scientific disciplines. Today, ScienceBlogs is the largest online community dedicated to science . . .
We have selected our 80+ bloggers based on their originality, insight, talent, and dedication and how we think they would contribute to the discussion at ScienceBlogs. Our role, as we see it, is to create and continue to improve this forum for discussion, and to ensure that the rich dialogue that takes place at ScienceBlogs resonates outside the blogosphere.
The bloggers range from some well-known scientists to some who post anonymously. The content ranges from technical to snarky. And a lot of it is unusually high quality.
On Tuesday, the owners of ScienceBlogs soiled their nest. Or perhaps a more accurate metaphor might be they sprayed Pepsi all over it. Specifically, they announced the creation of a new blog, "Food Frontiers," that would be produced by PepsiCo. And by the way, Pepsi would be paying for the privilege of blogging there. Think "advertorial."
Or maybe not? As Adam Bly, founder and chief executive of the Web site's corporate owner, Seed, explained in a "confidential" memo that was leaked a femtosecond after he sent it out:
We think the conversation should include scientists from academia and government; we also think it should include scientists from industry. Because industry is increasingly the interface between science and society. It is our hope that the Xeroxes and Bell Labs of the future will have a real presence on SB -- that they will learn from our readers and we will learn from them. That they will break stories on SB and engage our readers in the issues that concern them.
Except that the new Pepsi blog initially looked just like all the other content on the ScienceBlogs site. Many of the longstanding bloggers were outraged, posting objections that their credibility had been damaged. Imagine if a dead-tree publication put in an ad that was hard to distinguish from a story. (Hmmm. How about that, LA Times
Several of the better-known bloggers either put themselves on hiatus or announced they were pulling their blogs from the site. After a couple of days of damage control, Bly announced Thursday that the Pepsi blog was gone:
We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.
How do we empower top scientists working in industry to lead science-minded positive change within their organizations? How can a large and diverse online community made up of scientists and the science-minded public help? How do companies who seek genuine dialogue with this community engage? We'll open this challenge up to everyone on SB and beyond in the coming days so that we can all find the right solution.
Which is a good question.
And this follows by only a couple of weeks the fall of Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel, undone by intemperate comments he placed on what he thought was a private listserv. The comments were leaked and Weigel resigned.
Older journalists like to pretend that the ethical lines were inviolate in the Olden Days. Not so much. Big advertisers, well-placed politicos, families with society connections -- all would sometimes get special treatment. Still do, once in a while. And favored reporters would sometimes mouth off about their beats in public. But back then, we all realized when the lines were being crossed.
These days, it's harder to tell. Was Nasr's tweet a firing offense? Should a Web site struggling for revenue be allowed to reach out to a potentially lucrative source?
Here at Politics Daily, we tend to run more Old School than at many other websites. As Editor-In-Chief Melinda Henneberger explains on our "about" page
Since our launch on April 27, 2009, we've worked hard to distinguish ourselves the old-fashioned way, with heavily reported, well-written stories produced by some of the best reporters and editors in the business. We offer a mix of straight news and opinion -- and a mix of views in our reported commentary.
But we still operate in the online environment, with less editing backup and faster postings than my dead-tree experience. And we're encouraged to Facebook and tweet and use whatever other new tech resources we can to get our words out.
Any of us who participate in this new way of working the news should have sympathy for Nasr and Bly. We're all trying to figure it out as we go. Some of the old rules can't work in the new media. But some of them still should apply. After all, one thing that wasn't changed by the Internet is the real difference between journalism and just writing:
Credibility. We lose that, it doesn't matter how fast the site loads.