Boiling down blogging ethics: What would YOU do?

Rileyroxx, via Flickr (CC license)
Some decisions are harder than others.

Tomorrow I head off to Las Vegas for Blogworld Expo, where on Thursday morning I’m leading a large panel on blogging ethics.

I’ve gotta admit, normally I don’t give panel topics as much thought as I’ve been giving this one. But lately, questions of publishing ethics (in blogging and journalism) have been leaping out of me from almost everywhere. Some kind of cosmic confluence, I guess.

I first tried to sort out the core ethical issues for blogging on Oct. 29 — but not very well, I think.

So, after mulling it over for a while, here’s my second shot — and it’s the framework I’ll use in leading this panel.

Ethics, like blogs, are not one-size-fits-all. Ethics are a personal and sometimes group affair that can vary to suit different types of blogs, bloggers, and communities. The point of ethics is not just to be “right,” but to use consistent criteria for decisionmaking to promote the collective good — a very subjective goal.

Also, ethics are separate from laws and regulations. We’ve all seen cases when the ethical thing to do is to obey the law (such as respecting copyright, refraining from libel, etc.) — as well as cases where laws clash with people’s sense of what’s right.

In practice, ethics usually don’t seem like a big deal. The vast majority of ethical decisions mostly involve mundane, small situations, not extreme crises. However, being conscious of the ethics you choose and applying them to small stuff can help you make better choices and be more confident during blogging crises. Also, ethical considerations sometimes pile up and conflict — so being conscious of your own ethics can help you determine what’s most important.

It seems to me that there are six core areas where bloggers tend to encounter ethical decision points. Below are some questions intended to illuminate your personal blogging ethics in each of these areas.

Where do you stand? What do you expect from yourself and the community around your blog, and from other bloggers and communities? Consider these points…


1. Honesty and transparency: Is it ever OK to mislead or deceive your audience either by misinformation or omitting crucial information or context — including who you really are, who pays you, and what you’re really trying to achieve? Do you clarify your blogging processes? Is it ever OK to conceal or disguise a source? Would you allow advertising that is or could be considered misleading (even by format, such as Intellitxt link ads) on your blog?

2. Compensation and influence: If you’re compensated in any way for your blogging, including ads, how does that affect what you do or don’t say? (This is separate from disclosing compensation, which is a transparency issue.) Would you bend the truth or hold your tongue in order to gain (or avoid losing) access, privileges, stuff, or money? Do you consider any search visibility strategies unethical, and would you avoid those? Do you wield influence or hold a position of public or personal trust that might be abused or compromised through blogging?

3. Privacy and identity: Would you post anonymously or under a pseudonym, disguise the identities of people you blog about, or allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments? Would you limit access to your blog — and who would you let in or keep out, and why? Would you post e-mails, conversations, or other content that you receive privately or through a third party — with or without permission? Would you require commenters to register or provide an e-mail or URL? Would you reveal personal information about or “out” people in any way — with or without warning?

4. Accuracy: Should you attempt to independently verify or corroborate information? How do you decide what or who is a credible source? Should you distinguish verified from unverified facts, or facts from opinion or hearsay? Should you delete or alter posts or comments — and if so, should you note it or explain? Would you knowingly sensationalize, hype, or understate an issue, or otherwise skew context?

5. Free speech: Do you allow comments? If so, do you moderate, censor, or edit comments in any way? How and why?

6. Fairness: Should you approach people with your complaints, criticisms, or disagreements privately before blogging about them? Should you invite the parties you blog about to respond? Should you clearly credit the work of others? How do you decide what’s appropriate (tone, civility, relevance, or content) for yourself and your community? Should you post policies regarding ethics for your blog? Is it OK to retroactively enforce your ethical policies?

….OK, what do you think of this list? Did I leave anything out, or is there something that shouldn’t be here? Most importantly, how would you answer any of these questions? Please comment below

My goal with this post (and with this session) is definitely NOT to try to say what all bloggers “should” or “shouldn’t” do. (Hey, why would you listen to me about that, anyway? I’m just another blogger!) Nor am I trying to say that bloggers should act more like journalists, even though I’m a journalist as well as a blogger. (And believe me, I know too many journalists to consider them ethical paragons).

I recognize that we’re all just people here, and a lot of us are trying to figure out how we should blog. Figuring out your own ethics can take much of the stress out of blogging, I’ve found. Decisions get easier, you can defend them more clearly as needed, and you just don’t second-guess yourself as much.

Hope to see some Contentious readers at the session Thursday.

5 thoughts on Boiling down blogging ethics: What would YOU do?

  1. This is a marvelous list; I’m taking the liberty of sharing the link at the American Society of Journalists and Authors e-journalism board (access restricted, but if they say anything interesting I’ll post back). I am so curious what your panel and audience will say. Coming from a J-school/newspaper background, I know what my responses to these questions are (especially 3 and 4!), but I’m very interested to hear the opinions of those who don’t agree with me.

  2. Thanks, Maryn

    Yes, the field of blogging is definitely more varied than journalism, and answers are likely to be less predictable for bloggers than journalists. I’ll be interested to see how this works out.

  3. Your list does seem to show the (potential or real) gap between traditional (professionally verified/verfiable?) journalism and blog journalism. I don’t think ethics are typically subjective or muddy; words like ‘honesty’ have only one meaning. The ethics become unclear when WE have selfish motives.
    Essentially, does your list of ethical issues currently represent a real identity crisis, namely that our technology allows a user to blog or publish without proper verification or identification? Is the online world safe? Currently, does the collective lack of user/blogger scruples make the online world and the real world more vulnerable, less safe? I think I know the answer. I think everyone else does, too.

  4. I just wanted to say.. great work, Amy. The ethics posts and considerations you have made I think are a great starting point, not only for our panel tomorrow, but possibly for some other ideas I would like to consider openly with the panel. I’m really looking forward to BlogWorld!

    -=- christopher

    my Las Vegas blog

  5. Pingback: contentious.com - Notes for blogging ethics panel

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