Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ethical Blogging

I have been having a great conversation with another blogger. The issue centers on journalistic ethics. Specificially, do citizen journalists (bloggers) have an ethical duty to make themselves known when they are covering an event? This blogger and I differ on our opinions, but I will not tell you how. I think this is a vital issue, as us citizen journalists do not have the education and the professional training that professional journalists have. We need to know what is ethical and what is not.

Here is a scenario. Please, leave feedback so that we citizen journalists can learn and become better bloggers.

(UPDATE 6:39 a.m.: This is a fake scenario. I thought the word "scenario" would give that away. This never happened between Larry and I. I made it up to discuss a larger issue of ethics and blogging. Please don't spam my great friend Larry. He is innocent!)

Rep. Charlie Dennis (Republican) is hosting a town hall meeting at Scramblers restaurant. He wants to get in touch with his constituents. Fat Jack, a left-learning citizen journalist, goes to the event 30 minutes early, sets up his laptop and hangs out. Finally, Rep. Dennison shows up with some other folks and sits down. Fat Jack begins typing.

Does Fat Jack have an ethical obligation to go to Rep. Dennison and introduce himself as a blogger who is covering the event?

Fat Jack decides not to introduce himself. He wants to see if they will introduce themselves to him. Rep. Dennison, nor his compatriots, do not introduce themselves to me, although I am sitting right there. I type away and cover the entire event, logging conversations between individuals.

Fat Jack decides that because Rep. Dennison did not introduce himself, that Fat Jack is not obligated to do the same. Is this an ethical assumption? Should Fat Jack still run the article on his blog?

Fat Jack’s friend, Larry Litle of Simple Thoughts of a Complex Mind, shows up at the event. He does greet Rep. Dennison and makes it known that Fat Jack is a blogger that is covering this event for Fat Jack’s Erratic Rants. Fat Jack is disappointed that now he will not get any “juicy tidbits” because everyone knows who he is. The article is written and posted on Fat Jack’s blog.

Has Fat Jack unknowingly been unethical in his approach to covering a public event, held in a restaurant? If not, then defend your answer. If so, then what could Fat Jack have done to be more ethical.

In this case, Fat Jack used to be a professional reporter, although he was not trained as a reporter. Just for reference, due to his lack of experience and journalistic education, he made several ethical mistakes as a reporter. He learned from them, but not before he was embarrassed. He was within his rights, but he could have done a lot better.

You may choose to use the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics to help you with the above scenario.


Granny said...


You could have gone to the meeting with a steno pad and a crayon, taken notes, and shared your thoughts with your friends and neighbors AND THE WHOLE WORLD on a podcast from your web site. Who cares?

Here's hoping that we as private citizens will not be restrained from gathering and disseminating information and our opinions as we choose because it may or may not not be "ethical."

Where on earth would the founders of this country have been if they'd worried about such a phony question as " I have an ethical duty to make myself known..."

And where would this COUNTRY be if the founders, many of whom wrote anonymously, had been such wimps?

Jack, I'm surprised that you're wresting with this nonsensical question. After all, this was a public meeting in a public place.

Go out there and keep on practicing your First Amendment Rights. Bravo for you. We need MANY more people like you in the blogoshpere. Your readers may or may not agree with what you say, but you have every right to collect information in public and share your opinions with us.

Litle proves once again that he's a loser by dissing you as well as the First Amendment.

The Lorax said...


It's unethical, nay, illegal to record sound without permission. You know that, I'm sure.

It's not illegal, but perhaps unethical in some cases, to take pictures -- vid or still -- without permission.

But blogging? If the spoken word is said in public forum... let all hear what you have heard.

That is the power of information and the internet. What once was closed off to the public is now common knowledge. And it is your duty to share what you learn.

I'll offer this caveat: if you were given information from an individual and you knew full well that it was a private conversation... I think it would be unethical to blast it on a blog. I'm not sure what a good example would be here... but let's say the informer begins with "between you me and the wall". That's private and unethical to share.

If you overhear something because you're sitting in a public restaurant... that's freedom, baby.

No, it's not your job to make yourself known. You can speak out and write your text ethically. And by all means, a public representative in a public place should always be on point knowing that public words are being spoken.

You have no ethical dilemma here.

Jason said...

I agree with Sniderman.

Jeremy D. Young said...

I wonder if Mr. Cline over at Rhetorica would like to chime in on this matter. I happen to know who you're referring to, since I frequently read his blog as well. I happen to feel that in public events, the entire contents are fair game. The representative came to increase their standing with their constituents, they should be allowed to know what was said and by whom.

I'm not sure whether the blogger's comment about "juicy tidbits" was well founded, although it did draw him into the conversation itself and disallow him from being at the keyboard for the rest of the event I'm sure.

I would also emphasize that I've never been involved professionally with Journalism, and I'm more of an opinion blogger than a news blogger.

Keep up the good work, it's important to increase the dialog.

Anonymous said...

Professional reporters should adhere to a code of ethics. The code of the Society of Professional Journalists, upon which most news org's codes are based, would clearly not allow a pro to attend and report on a public meeting without identifying himself.

Bloggers may certainly be journalists, but they are not pros working for pay for news organizations with journalistic credibility to protect. (Although this is increasingly complicated by the rise of cit-j projects.)

Based on the scenario, it is not unethical to not identify yourself and your intentions.

But what, then, is the ethical thing to do? (An act being not unethical doesn't mean it is, therefore, ethical.)

I think the way to answer that is for individual bloggers to take a hard look at their intentions. A simplistic example: If one intends to be a credible source of information and commentary, it seems to me one ought to be forthcoming about one's actions and intentions. If one intends to be, for example, a partisan warrior out for a juicy scoop, then Machiavelli has your back.

This is not an issue of freedom of speech, i.e. a question of what one CAN do legally. You have every right to attend the public meeting, not identify yourself, and post anything you hear or see to your blog. Ethics, however, is about what we OUGHT or OUGHT NOT do. I ground myself in the Golden Rule. The subject of the scenario should ask himself: How would I want a blogger to treat me?

In regard to this scenario, your First Amendment rights give you the freedom to follow your conscience or not.

The Lorax said...


I completely agree with what you've said... but I have to wonder about this...

a public figure is in a public place. They are being seen and heard by The Public, bloggers or not.

Those people can in turn call Mom and Dad in PoDunk... and Aunt Sally next door... and tell and discuss what they heard and saw.

Isn't that the same? And why would THAT be unethical? I don't think it is. It's reporting the news of the day as it was witnessed. It's experiential. Dare I say, "and you are there!"

I wouldn't think a hypothetical tv personality would DARE walk into a restaurant and ASSUME that s/he wouldn't be overheard, gossiped about, or referenced in an immediate conversation or discussion to happen later. And neither should a public official.

Is it ok to blog on the personal conversation of the senior citizens eating pie @ Perkins. No. Not without asking.

It may be more specific to a case-by-case than a broad brush golden rule.

Jason said...

Thanks Andy. Great thoughts.

Busplunge said...

Fat Jack forgot to mention the meeting was held in the back meeting room of the restaurant. Maybe 7 or 8 people were there at the most.

All of the people in attendance knew each other, except for the blogger in the corner.

As is often the case when people who know each other and share a common experience gather, they have a tendency to speak in 'shorthand'. For instance educators speak in 'educationese', tech guys speak in tech talk.

Introducing the unknown person in the corner (the blogger) to the assemblage gave a cue to the others that here was someone who did not 'speak their language' or know their shortcuts. The conversation could be framed to fill in missing gaps of knowledge.

I am certain that the legislator thought the blogger was simply a patron of the restaurant who was using the free wi-fi and didn't realize the room was reserved. She might have thought that when the blogger realized there was a meeting taking place, he would leave. When he didn't leave as the meeting was starting, The legislator didn't want to possibly offend the blogger by asking him to leave or by interfering in his computer business. That's how Ozark courtesy works.

Larry Little, who knew everyone in the room and the blogger electronically (after he got the free coffee and pastries) went over to the blogger and introduced himself, asking, "Are you Fat Jack? I'm Larry, we've met electronically"

When he realized no one else in the room knew who the blogger was or what he was doing, he introduced him to the assemblage.

By introducing the blogger and explaining his purpose, it was almost as if everyone in the room ceased to wonder about the guy and quit wondering why is this guy staying in this private meeting room when there is obviously a meeting taking place that he doesn't seem to be aware of.

Later in the meeting, the conversation turned to a subject the blogger was quite knowledgeable of, much more than anyone else in the room, he was able to significantly add to the discussion.

Granny said...

Thanks for the info, Busplunge. I made an (erroneous) assumption that FJ thought might be asked by Dennison not to blog, or to leave the meeting. FC! (Fat Chance!)

Jason said...

Or someone from the staff could have come over and explained what was going on and asked if that person would like to join them or if they would be bothered by the noise of the gathering. :)

Busplunge said...

Jason, you are correct, the intern should have brought you over a sign in sheet to sign.
But he didn't. I bet they have everyone sign in at the next meeting! :)
This has been an interesting discussion.

Unknown said...

Litle proves once again that he's a loser by dissing you as well as the First Amendment.


I was the example for the discussion. I was not really there. I would never dis anyone on the First Amendment.

Unknown said...

I agree with the idea of intent that Andy discussed. What is the intent for not introducing one's self? Most questions of ethics (in general) go back to intent and not doing harm.

Busplunge said...

Hey Larry,
I gather you got ou r internet back up!
Welcome back!

Unknown said...


Thanks, it is good to be back in the cyber-world.

Jason said...

"I would never dis anyone on the First Amendment."

No way Larry would do that!

admin said...

What an interesting discussion. Larry was never there. I just used by good buddy to make a point. Larry does not infringe on 1st Amendment Rights. He's a great guy.

Andy Cline set us straight. It was not unethical. However, if a citizen journalist wishes to be taken seriously as a source of information, then he or she probably should disclose.

Is that how you all understand his comments?

It was my thinking that the blogger should have made him or herself known. That it was the ethical thing to do as the purpose of going was to cover the event. Sounds like I was wrong in my assessment that it was the "ethical" thing to do.

This was fun. I enjoyed the discussion. I think I would choose to disclose who I am were I to attend such as this. At least one that is intimate like this. A major campaign stop, I would not do it. But small venues, I think I would make that choice.

Sniderman makes an interesting point about a private conversation at a restaurant.

What if a blogger (I'll not use me this time) were at a restaurant. And a state legislator were in the booth next to me and he or she were talking about policy of some sort. Would it be wrong for the blogger to post about that? What about if the blogger did (or did not) use the legislator's name? Would that make a difference. What should the citizen journalist do?

Anonymous said...

To Sniderman...

Good question.

I'm trying, for the most part, to confine my thoughts to the scenario as presented by Jack. It clearly indicates a blogger with the intention to cover the event for an audience. While this is certainly communication about the event, it seems to me it is a different order than simply discussing the event with friends afterward.

I'm not saying the blogger is unethical. Nor am I saying he's ethical. I'm saying bloggers who attend public events for the purpose of covering them need to question themselves carefully about their motives. It is my opinion--and I could be wrong--that credibility springs from being forthright about one's intentions. And the Gold Rule seems to me always good advice.

Tony Messenger said...

Fat Jack et al,

Sorry I'm so late to the game. Great discussion. My views, like many above, are complicated.

I don't think the blogger did anything wrong unless in the own blogger's mind he was trying to "get away with something." That speaks to Andy's reference to ethics being personal.

Frankly, as a reporter, I frequently cover events that are in the public domain without introducing myself as a reporter because there is an expectation that the event will be public and might be covered. Where does that obligation become more serious?

This weekend I covered Lincoln Days. The gathering of Republicans knew that there would be press there. I had a nametag identifying myself as did the other members of the press. But when we entered a private suite where there was discussion, I don't think any of us would report the discussion unless we specifically identified ourselves as reporters and asked if we could take down comments on the record. Indeed, while there was some expectation that the press was around, it was still, in essence, a private event and we were invited. So the polite and correct thing to do was identify ourselves.

But back to the blogger scenario. Publicly announced event with an elected official? And a blogger shows up? I don't think you're under any obligation to let anybody know what you're doing.

Tony Messenger

Randy said...

In this day and age, a public official should assume he or she is being quoted at any public setting. As for a reporter idenitifying himself, I always thought the moment I started taking notes I was telling everyone I was with the press. I didn't go around introducing myself, but I also did not try to hide who I was or what I was doing.