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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Digital Media Ethics

by Stephen J.A. Ward

Digital media ethics deals with the distinct ethical problems, practices and norms of digital news media. Digital news media includes online journalism, blogging, digital photojournalism, citizen journalism and social media. It includes questions about how professional journalism should use this ‘new media’ to research and publish stories, as well as how to use text or images provided by citizens.

A revolution in ethics

A media revolution is transforming, fundamentally and irrevocably, the nature of journalism and its ethics. The means to publish is now in the hands of citizens, while the internet encourages new forms of journalism that are interactive and immediate.

Our media ecology is a chaotic landscape evolving at a furious pace.  Professional journalists share the journalistic sphere with tweeters, bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media users.

Amid every revolution, new possibilities emerge while old practices are threatened. Today is no exception. The economics of professional journalism struggles as audiences migrate online. Shrinkage of newsrooms creates concern for the future of journalism. Yet these fears also prompt experiments in journalism, such as non-profit centers of investigative journalism.

A central question is to what extent existing media ethics is suitable for today’s and tomorrow’s news media that is immediate, interactive and “always on” – a journalism of amateurs and professionals. Most of the principles were developed over the past century, originating in the construction of professional, objective ethics for mass commercial newspapers in the late 19th century.

We are moving towards a mixed news media – a news media citizen and professional journalism across many media platforms. This new mixed news media requires a new  mixed media ethics – guidelines that apply to amateur and professional whether they blog, Tweet, broadcast or write for newspapers. Media ethics needs to be rethought and reinvented for the media of today, not of yesteryear.

Tensions on two levels

The changes challenge the foundations of media ethics. The challenge runs deeper than debates about one or another principle, such as objectivity. The challenge is greater than specific problems, such as how newsrooms can verify content from citizens. The revolution requires us to rethink assumptions. What can ethics mean for a profession that must provide instant news and analysis; where everyone with a modem is a publisher?

The media revolution has created ethical tensions on two levels.

  • On the first level, there is a tension between traditional journalism and online journalism. The culture of traditional journalism, with its values of accuracy, pre-publication verification, balance, impartiality, and gate-keeping, rubs up against the culture of online journalism which emphasizes immediacy, transparency, partiality, non-professional journalists and post-publication correction.
  • On the second level, there is a tension between parochial and global journalism. If journalism has global impact, what are its global responsibilities? Should media ethics reformulate its aims and norms so as to guide a journalism that is now global in reach and impact? What would that look like?

The challenge for today’s media ethics can be summarized by the question: Whither ethics in a world of multi-media, global journalism? Media ethics must do more than point out these tensions. Theoretically, it must untangle the conflicts between values. It must decide which principles should be preserved or invented. Practically, it should provide new standards to guide online or offline journalism.

Layered journalism

What would an integrated ethics look like?

It will be the ethics of the integrated newsroom, a newsroom that practices layered journalism. Layered journalism brings together different forms of journalism and different types of journalists to produce a multi-media offering of professional-styled news and analysis combined with citizen journalism and interactive chat.

The newsroom will be layered vertically and horizontally.

Vertically, there will be many layers of editorial positions. There will be citizen journalists and bloggers in the newsroom, or closely associated with the newsroom. Many contributors will work from countries around the world. Some will write for free, some will be equivalent to paid freelancers, others will be regular commentators.

In addition, there will be different types of editors. Some editors will work with these new journalists, while other editors will deal with unsolicited images and text sent by citizens via email, web sites, and twitter. There will be editors or “community producers” charged with going out to neighborhoods to help citizens use media to produce their own stories.

Horizontally, the future newsroom will be layered in terms of the kinds of journalism it produces, from print and broadcast sections to online production centers.

Newsrooms in the past have had vertical and horizontal layers. Newspaper newsrooms have ranged vertically from the editor in-chief at the top to the cub reporter on the bottom. Horizontally, large mainstream newsrooms have produced several types of journalism, both print and broadcast. However, future newsrooms will have additional and different layers. Some news sites will continue to be operated by a few people dedicated only to one format, such as blogging. But a substantial portion of the new mainstream will consist of these complex, layered organizations.

Layered journalism will confront two types of problems. First, there will be ‘vertical’ ethical questions about how the different layers of the newsroom, from professional editors to citizen freelancers, should interact to produce responsible journalism. For example, by what standards will professional editors evaluate the contributions of citizen journalists? Second, there will be ‘horizontal’ questions about the norms for the various newsroom sections.

Difficult questions for digital media ethics

Who is a journalist?

The ‘democratization’ of media – technology that allows citizens to engage in journalism and publication of many kinds – blurs the identity of journalists and the idea of what constitutes journalism.

In the previous century, journalists were a clearly defined group. For the most part, they were professionals who wrote for major mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. The public had no great difficulty in identifying members of the “press.”

Today, citizens without journalistic training and who do not work for mainstream media calls themselves journalists, or write in ways that fall under the general description of a journalists as someone who regularly writes on public issues for a public or audience.

It is not always clear whether the term “journalist” begins or ends. If someone does what appears to be journalism, but refuses the label ‘journalist’ is he or she a journalist? If comedian Jon Stewart refuses to call himself a journalist, but magazines refer to him as an influential journalist (or refers to him as someone who does engage in journalism) is Stewart a journalist?

Is a person expressing their opinions on their Facebook site a journalist?

What is journalism?

A lack of clarity over who is a journalist leads to definitional disputes over who is doing journalism. That leads to the question: What is journalism? Many people believe, “What is journalism?” or “Is he or she doing journalism?” is a more important question than whether who can call themselves a journalist.

At least three approaches to this question are possible – skeptical, empirical, and normative. Skeptically, one dismisses the question itself as unimportant. For example, one might say that anyone can be a journalist, and it is not worth arguing over who gets to call themselves a journalist. One is skeptical about attempts to define journalism.

Empirically, there is a more systematic and careful approach to the question. We can look at clear examples of journalism over history and note the types of activities in which journalists engaged, e.g. gathering information, editing stories, publishing news and opinion. Then we use these features to provide a definition of journalism that separates it from novel writing, storytelling, or editing information for a government database.

The normative approach insists that writers should not be called journalists unless they have highly developed skills, acquired usually through training or formal education, and unless they honor certain ethical norms.

The skills include investigative capabilities, research skills, facility with media technology of media, knowledge of how institutions work, and highly developed communication skills. The ethical norms include a commitment to accuracy, verification, truth, and so on.

The normative approach is based on an ideal view of journalism as accurately and responsibly informing the public. One defines journalism by considering the best examples of journalism and the practices of the best journalists.

A writer who has these skills and these ethical commitments is capable of publishing good (well-crafted, well-researched) and ethically responsible journalism. Persons who do not meet these normative requirements may call themselves journalists but they are not considered journalists from this normative perspective. They are at irresponsible, second-rate, or incompetent writers seeking to be journalists, or pretending to be journalists.


Anonymity is accepted more readily online than in mainstream news media. Newspapers usually require the writers of letters to the editor to identify themselves. Codes of mainstream media ethics caution journalists to use anonymous sources sparingly and only if certain rules are followed. The codes warn journalists that people may use anonymity to take unfair or untrue “potshots” at other people, for self-interested reasons.

Online, many commentary and “chat” areas do not allow anonymity. Online users resist demands from web site and blogs to register and identify themselves. Anonymity is praised as allowing freedom of speech and sometimes helping to expose wrong doing. Critics say it encourages irresponsible and harmful comments. Mainstream media contradict themselves when they allow anonymity online but refuse anonymity in their newspapers and broadcast programs.

The ethical question is: When is anonymity ethically permissible and is it inconsistent for media to enforce different rules on anonymity for different media platforms? What should be the ethical guidelines for anonymity offline and online?

Speed, rumor and corrections

Reports and images circulate the globe with amazing speed via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, cell phones, and email. Speed puts pressure on newsrooms to publish stories before they are adequately checked and verified as to the source of the story and the reliability of the alleged facts. Major news organizations too often pick up rumors online. Sometimes, the impact of publishing an online rumor is not world shaking – a false report that a hockey coach has been fired. But a media that thrives on speed and “sharing” creates the potential for great harm. For instance, news organizations might be tempted to repeat a false rumor that terrorists had taken control of the London underground, or that a nuclear power plant had just experienced a ‘meltdown’ and dangerous gases were blowing towards Chicago. These false reports could induce panic, causes accidents, prompt military action and so on.

A related problem, created by new media, is how to handle errors and corrections when reports and commentary are constantly being updated. Increasingly, journalists are blogging ‘live’ about sports games, news events, and breaking stories. Inevitably, when one works at this speed, errors are made, from misspelling words to making factual errors. Should news organizations go back and correct all of these mistakes which populate mountains of material? Or should they correct errors later and not leave a trace of the original mistake –what is called “unpublishing?”

The ethical challenge is to articulate guidelines for dealing with rumors and corrections in an online world that are consistent with the principles of accuracy, verification, and transparency.

Impartiality, conflicts of interest, and partisan journalism

New media encourages people to express their opinion and share their thoughts candidly.

Many bloggers take pride in speaking their mind, compared to any mainstream reporters who must cover events impartially. Many online journalists see themselves as partisans or activists for causes or political movements, and reject the idea of objective or neutral analysis.

Partial or partisan journalism comes in at least two kinds: One kind is an opinion journalism that enjoys commenting upon events and issues, with or without verification. Another form is partisan journalism which uses media as a mouthpiece for political parties and movements. To some extent, we are seeing a revival (or return) to an opinion/partisan journalism that was popular before the rise of objective reporting in the early 1900s.

Both opinion and partisan journalism have long roots in journalism history. However, their revival in an online world raises serious ethical conundrums for current media ethics. Should objectivity be abandoned by all journalists? Which is best for a vigorous and healthy democracy – impartial journalism or partisan journalism?

To make matters more contentious, some of the new exponents of opinion and impartial journalism not only question objectivity, they question the long-standing principle that journalists should be independent from the groups they write about. For example, some partisan journalists reject charges of a journalistic “conflict of interest” when they accept money from groups, or make donations to political parties.

Economically, mainstream newsrooms who uphold traditional principles such as impartiality increasingly feel compelled to move toward a more opinionated or partisan approach to news and commentary. To be impartial is said to be boring to viewers. Audiences are said to be attracted to strong opinion and conflicts of opinion.

Even where newsrooms enforce the rules of impartiality — say by suspending a journalist for a conflict of interest or partial comment — they fail to get full public support. Some citizens and groups complain that newsroom restraints on what analysts and reporters can say about the groups they cover is censorship.

Is it good, that more and more, journalists no longer stand among the opposing groups in society and try to inform the public fairly about their perspectives but rather become part of the groups seeking to influence public opinion?

The ethical challenge is to redefine what independent journalism in the public interest means for a media where many new types of journalism are appearing and where basic principles are being challenged.

Entrepreneurial not-for-profit journalism

The declining readers and profits of mainstream media, as citizens migrate online, has caused newsrooms to shrink their staff. Some journalists doubt the continuing viability of the old economic model of a mass media based on advertising and circulation sales.

In response, many journalists have started not-for-profit newsrooms, news web sites, and centers of investigative journalism based on money from foundations and donations from citizens. Some journalists go online and ask for citizens to send them money to do stories. This trend can be called “entrepreneurial journalism” because the journalist no longer simply reports while other people (e.g. advertising staff) raise funds for their newsroom. These journalists are entrepreneurs attempting to raise funds for their new ventures.

The new ventures raise ethical questions.

How independent can such newsrooms be when they are so reliant on funds from a limited number of donors? What happens if the newsroom intends to report a negative story about one of its main funders? From whom will these newsrooms take money? How transparent will they be about who gives them money and under what conditions?

The challenge is to construct an ethics for this new area of journalism.

Reporters using social media

Many news organizations encourage their reporters to use social media to gather information and to create a “brand” for themselves by starting their own blog, Facebook page, or Twitter account. However, online commenting can put reporters, especially beat reporters, in trouble with their editors or the people they comment about, especially if the news outlet says it provides impartial reporting. For example, a reporter who covers city hall may report dispassionately in her newspaper about a candidate for mayor. But on her blog, she may express strong opinion, saying the candidate is an unlikeable and incompetent politician. Such comments would give the candidate cause to complain about the lack of impartiality of the reporter.

The ethical challenge is to develop social media guidelines that allow reporters to explore the new media world but also to draw reasonable limits on personal commentary.

Citizen journalists and using citizen content

One of the difficult “horizontal” issues, noted above, is whether newsrooms should keep all types of journalists to the same editorial standards?  For example, should citizen journalists be required to be balanced and impartial? Can journalists who operate a newsroom’s web site report on a story before their colleagues, the print reporters? In other words, should print reporters be held to a higher standard of pre-publication verification?

Furthermore, as newsroom staff shrink, and the popularity of online news grows, organizations are increasingly able, and willing, to collaborate with citizens in covering disasters, accidents, and other breaking news. Citizens who capture events on their cell phones can transmit text and images to newsrooms.

Newsrooms need to put in place a process for citizen-supplied material, which may be bogus or biased. How shall sources be identified? How much vetting is necessary for different sorts of stories? Should citizen contributors be made aware of the newsroom’s editorial standards?

The ethical question is whether it is possible to construct a media ethics whose norms apply consistently across all media platforms. Or are we faced with the prospect of having different sets of norms for different media platforms?

Ethics of images

Finally, there are the new ethical issues raised by the rise of new image technology. These images include both photographs and video. Citizens and professional journalists have new and easy ways to capture and transmit images, such as cell phones linked to the internet via wireless technology. They have new technologies for altering and manipulating these images.

This convergence of ease of capture, ease of transmission, and ease of manipulation questions the traditional principles of photojournalism which were developed for non-digital capture and transmission of pictures and video.

As mentioned above, one issue is whether newsrooms can trust the easily obtained images of citizens and citizen journalists. Who is the sender and how do we know that this image is really of the event in question?

Another issue is whether a journalist or a citizen used technology to alter the photograph, e.g. to add an object to the picture or to take an object out. The manipulation of images is so tempting that mainstream newsrooms have fired a string of photojournalists over the past decade to discourage fraudulent practices.

Even with manipulation, not all issues are clear.

Photojournalists often talk about how it is permitted to change the ‘technical’ aspects of a picture such as altering slightly the tone or color of a photo. But they draw the line at any further changes. Changing the meaning or content of the image so as to mislead viewers is considered unethical.

However, the line between a technical change and a change is meaning is not always clear. An image maker can enhance the colors of a photo until it is quite unlike the original picture of the object or the event.

Also, editors may argue that it permissible to alter images for the covers of fashion magazines (and other types of magazine) since the cover is a work of ‘art’ to attract buyers while they browse magazine stands.

Once again, there is much for ethics to do to clarify the principles of responsible image making and how those principles apply to difficult cases.

Readings on digital media ethics:

  • Ess, Charles. Digital Media Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.
  • Friend, Cecilia and Jane Singer. Online Journalism Ethics: Traditions and Transitions. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2007.
  • Ward, Stephen J. A. “Ethics for the New Mainstream.” In The New Journalist: Roles, Skills, and Critical Thinking, eds. Paul Benedetti, Tim Currie and Kim Kierans, pp. 313-326. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications, 2010.
  • Ward, Stephen J. A. “Ethics for the New Investigative Newsroom.”

Photo: Jos van der Hoek/CreativeCommons