|Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent|
Ethics and the new media
G'day. A fair few people have debuted since I took Webdiary independent on August 22, and many Webdiarists joined Club Chaos after the 2004 election. So I thought now was a good time to re-iterate Webdiary's Ethics, which remain in place on the independent Webdiary. I published my chapter on the topic in the book Remote Control: New Media, New Ethics, edited by Catharine Lumby and Elspeth Probyn and published by Cambridge University Press in 2003. Here is that chapter, first published on the old Webdiary on July 23, 2003.
Diary of a webdiarist: ethics goes online (chapter 9 of Remote Control)
by Margo Kingston
It was meant to be a weekly online column on federal politics, a mere change in the forum for my work. It was my price for agreeing to do another stint as the Sydney Morning Herald's chief of staff at our Canberra bureau in 2000, so I didn't lose my public voice while doing a behind-the scenes organisational job. A year later it was my full-time job, yet until I agreed to do this chapter, I hadn't systematically considered the ethics of it all, or how my ethical duties as a journalist were adapting to the net experience.
After Herald editor Paul McGeough gave me the column, online editor Tom Burton suggested something more fluid. He pointed me to a couple of journalist's weblogs in the United States where specialist reporters jotted down developments in their area, inside stories, and comment. The advantage for me was that I had no deadlines, so could write something now and then when I had time. I had a quick look, got scared, and decided to start with a blank page and see what happened.
When the technical people sent their design for the Webdiary page, I was horrified that they'd included my email address. I'd got a silent home number after receiving hate snail mail and abusive phone calls while covering the Wik legislation and Pauline Hanson's 1998 federal election campaign, and the last thing I wanted was to invite an onslaught. Get used to it, Tom said. Interactivity is the future.
The first entry began: "Welcome to my Canberra diary. I'm allowed to say what I think whenever I like, and lucky you can interact if you like. The downside for this indulgence is that all the words stay forever so I can be judged for my sins." (Welcome to my diary...and now for the GST)
It's ironic, thinking back, that I was so loathe to encourage reader feedback. My experience covering Pauline Hanson had convinced me that was something very wrong with the relationship between journalists and the public they supposedly served. When would the media address our endemic disconnect with the people? And how could we do it?
Webdiary was my answer. Far from an onslaught of hate mail, interesting emails, on the topic I'd written about, other topics and the idea of interaction between journalist and reader, started rolling in. Most were so good I made the decision that would transform the page, to publish them as a matter of course.
A big plus for readers was that they could talk one on one with a journalist. Being able to drop the formality of letters to the editor style and say "I think you're wrong, and here's some questions for YOU' proved deliciously tempting for many. For me, admitting in writing that 'Yes, I hadn't thought of that', or 'You're right' or 'Here's where you're wrong' began an exciting, unpredictable public conversation with readers.
Pretty soon I had more emails than I could publish, and it dawned on me that I had absolute power over the space. What appeared did not depend on a decision of the editor/deputy editors/assistant editors based on the mix of news, the space available, and the competition on the day. It depended on what I decided. I had no excuses if something went wrong. I set the tone.
The decision to publish reader's contributions also transformed my ethical considerations. Writing an online column is the same obligations, different delivery mechanism. When you let readers join the show and help direct it, accountability is no longer a sham, but a reality. Online ethical codes drafted for hard copy journalism must adapt and stretch to fit a medium less planned, more open, faster, and much more in-the-moment.
At first I had a full-time, demanding job, and Webdiary got tossed off in spare moments. My response to the trust my bosses had put in me was instinctive - not based on reading The Media Alliance's code of ethics, to which I am bound.
It's funny, but often you don't know what you've got until someone else describes it. Two years after Webdiary began, Lateline program presenter Tony Jones said of Webdiary:
"Kingston's net site is irreverent, straight-shooting and interactive. The readers get to answer back, often at length and apparently uncensored. You could describe it as participatory journalism with an attitude."(Lateline)
While writing this chapter, I asked long-time Webdiary contributor John Wojdylo for his thoughts on Webdiary and its ethics:
"The running conversation that arises between readers is richer in form than at any of the Internet forums I have seen, with the exception of a handful of Usenet newsgroups. The exciting thing about the format is that Webdiary has the potential to be part of the pulse of contemporary life, influencing and being influenced by it. The moderator controls what is published in Webdiary, and it comes out under her name; therefore, "Webdiary ethics" means "the moderator's professional ethics". The moderator selects the contributions to appear and often makes minor alterations to them."
"Whichever decision the Webdiary moderator makes, the result is aggressive: it isn't possible to satisfy everybody, because some demands are contradictory ... Knowing how to use power responsibly is the essence of ethics - in Webdiary, or anywhere else." (On Webdiary ethics)
Doesn't the word "power" leap from that description! My first bout of introspection about my responsibilities was in 2001:
"I spoke to a Rotary lunch on Wednesday on the topic "Playing politics in post-egalitarian Australia" which made me think about what this page has turned out to be, and what's the philosophy that's come to underpin it.
1. After following Pauline Hanson around in 1998, I realised that I didn't know much at all, had been lazy in accepting the truths of the experts without thinking about it, and was generally out of touch. I was also convinced that conversation across viewpoints was vital to national coherence and the search for a new consensus.
2. I had three main assets:
(1) I have access to information and an opportunity to scrutinise people of power because of my job and the paper I work for;
(2) I am independent. The only constraint I have is in speaking completely openly about the company I work for, although over the years I've come pretty close. That means I can be trusted - not to be objective, but to be honest.
(3) After going through the agony of using the "I" word in my Pauline Hanson book, I have thrown off the shackles of the myth of objectivity, which is really an excuse to hide the truth from readers, not expose it. It also falsely sets the journalist up as observer/judge, not participant.
(4) Once you get over that one, you stop being defensive about criticism and realise that publication of criticism is a sign of confidence, and its censorship proof of insecurity. It also means that since everyone's sitting at the same table, genuine engagement is natural. "
As it's turned out, the page has become an open ended-conversation with me as facilitator, as well as general rave merchant. What's the point of that? A big thing in its favour is that no-one believes anyone HAS the answers/the complete picture, anymore. We are in a transition of thinking, ideologically and philosophically, about our society and its values. To scream at and deride those who have different starting points castrates the debate, not enlivens it. It's also depressing.
What I love about this page is that intelligent people from many starting points are interested in other thoughts. It's exhilarating. It cleans out cobwebs and lifts feelings of disempowerment or hopelessness. It's also a pretty big challenge to the mainstream, in that it's privileging ideas over who has them, and intellectual debate over rhetoric and conflict-thrill." (Disclosure and you)
The first thing I decided was that the space would be safe for readers - that they would trust it, and that I would trust them. It quickly became clear that most readers were inclined to my world view, so the space would quickly become predictable, boring, and of no use if people of a different mind felt there was no place in Webdiary for their voices to be safely heard. So I didn't ridicule or deride contributions, and published most emails critical of me, my style, and my substance.
Invariably, when people of one view begin to dominate, other readers rebalance them. The Tampa issue triggered a torrent of emails from readers appalled at what was happening and desperate to get their response on the record. After a few days supporters of government policy and people unsure of what to think began to email me, both balancing the page and beginning weeks of detailed, passionate engagement. This year, emails antagonistic to the American position on war with Iraq dominated published emails in the lead up to George Bush's address to the nation. Almost at the precise moment I began to feel uncomfortable that anti-Americanism was overwhelming the page, several readers wrote pieces "in defence of America" and the American people.
This has not stopped several readers bitterly complaining that the Webdiary lacks balance. I publish complaints, and make the point that Webdiary's content is self selecting by writer/readers. Webdiary reflects the contributions of readers, and it's not my job, unlike in op-ed pages, to impose a top down balance. Publishing and responding to criticism invariably triggers contrarian pieces from readers, rebalancing debate as if by magic!
Being so open to criticism means I've been forced to get a much thicker skin. Journalists are under constant pressure to write what the powerful want written, and not delve into what they don't. Threats are commonplace. We are unpopular. I've found, however, that developing an honest, open, transparent relationship with readers eventually built my confidence, not destroyed it. I began to trust THEM! Giving virtually automatic rights of reply to readers who disagree with me, and to published reader's contributions, not only enriches my thinking but gives real meaning and muscle to the code of ethics.
When I asked long-time Webdiarist Polly Bush for a comment on what Webdiary's ethics were, she wrote: "The problem is when you dip your toe into the water on the complex topic of ethics (and Webdiary for that matter) you end up with more questions than answers. I was thinking about this relationship between reader/contributor, yourself and the only word that kept coming up was 'trust' - but is trust ethics?"
Yep. That's what it is. And yet, ethics codes have done little or nothing to improve the relationship between journalist and reader. Many readers have given up on journalism, and journalists, because they feel powerless. Many don't even know there's a code of ethics, or if they do, feel powerless to enforce it. How many papers publish their ethical codes, or that of the alliance, in their papers? How many television and radio proprietors let their listeners and viewers know about it?
Most media groups are extremely loathe to print corrections. They're by nature defensive, partly because they don't want to undermine confidence in them, partly because there's effectively no accountability for their breach, and partly because they fear getting bogged down with complaints from relentlessly partisan players. Who do you complain to? What's the process for resolution? Suggest setting up and publicising a process for accountability, and everyone runs a mile. Apart from defamation law, we're not used to accountability, and we don't like it.
As ethical questions have been raised and debated on Webdiary, I've realised that ethics - when laid on the table for open discussion between writer and reader - can be a tool of empowerment, not constraint, and a confidence builder, not destroyer.
What I hadn't done before writing this chapter was to make my ethical obligations clear. So I've decided to publish the Media Alliance code and the Herald's code in a prominent permanent position of Webdiary's home page, along with the procedure to complain to the Alliance. If readers want to complain to my paper, I've asked that they email me and my online editor. What I envisage is that I publish complaints on the Webdiary with my initial response, and ask for reader comment, which I will publish and reply to on Webdiary, as could my editor. I hope this will cement confidence in my good faith, and the sense that ethical matters need not be matters for confrontation, but for conversation and resolution.
This procedure will add depth to the occasional navel-gazing debate in Webdiary, invariably triggered by a provocative email that makes me think about where Webdiary's going. In 2001 I wrote the Webdiary Charter, published on the right-hand column of Webdiary as a permanent reference point for readers, in response to this email from Paul McLaren:
"Please excuse my ignorance, but I am perplexed by the object of your section of the Sydney Morning Herald. Could you please tell me why I should contribute? It seems very interesting but a little pointless unless, like I suspect, I am missing something." (What's the point?)
The ethics of Webdiary evolve in consultation with readers as issues arises, and ethics discussions are not confined to interpreting the principles set out in the code. Readers have insisted that it's much wider - they're interested in how the media, and journalists, work, and are prepared to challenge the basis of our right to be critical of public figures, and insisted that journalists are public figures needing scrutiny. Trust breeds demands for greater accountability.
At the end of 2000, I wrote a series of columns berating Peter Reith over the Telecard scandal. In response reader Jack Robertson wrote a passionate piece calling me, and my profession, to account for OUR double standards. (Questions to you journos) He demanded to know what WE were paid, details of relationships between journalists and political players and details of when our owners had heavied us. (To my regret I disclosed my pay, a disclosure now used by right wing webloggers as a weapon of attack.)
The process of answering Jack's questions, or explaining why I wouldn't, opened to floodgates to a torrent of emails critical of the media, and extended Webdiary's focus from politics to the media.
My editors over the years had always pooh-poohed my suggestion for a media section or page as boring for readers, who'd see it as navel gazing. They were wrong. I appointed Jack Webdiary's "Meeja Watch" commentator, and he and others now regularly critique media coverage of issues and prominent media figures. Jack took the debate further with 52 ideas for healthier Australian news media, encouraging readers to think constructively about change.
Through Webdiary, readers have forced me to think harder about, and justify, my ethical stances and those of the profession. The controversy over the Laurie Oakes disclosure of the affair between Cheryl Kernot and Gareth inspired debate of the highest quality on the appropriate line between public and private lives, when I was overrun with reader emails disputing my support for Laurie in a Lateline debate (Your say on the Cheryl Affair). By the end of it, Webdiarists had influenced my view and forced from me a detailed statement of my position. (An affair to remember)
This is ethics in action. Ethics are ideals, not black letter law. They rely on the judgement of journalists trying to apply the principles in good faith, readers trusting them to do so, and regular dialogue between the two when real-life examples crop up.
Nom de plumes.
The issue of anonymity raises the most difficult issue for online journalism. The Media Alliance code of ethics states: "3. Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the sources motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances."
In newspapers, writers must identify themselves. Anonymous contributions are not considered appropriate. Yet journalists quote anonymous sources all the time, too often becoming tools for their sources to influence debate behind the scenes. We make judgments all the time about which source to trust, when and how, and know that we're usually being used. This is a closed world to the reader.
Online, you can't usually check whether writers are real or writing under false names and anonymous comment is common place. The issue flared up when contributor Tim Dunlop challenged my decision to allow readers to write reports on marginal seats under nom de plumes. After "Stephen Henderson", a member of the Democrats, wrote a report on the seat of Paramatta, Tim saw red:
"I think the practice of people writing under false names on your website is appalling. From what I've read, they say nothing that is particularly 'radical' or anything that would threaten their jobs and yet they feel the need to hide behind a phoney identity. It sucks, and I don't think you should encourage it. It shows contempt for your readers. And surely such sanctioned dishonesty is not good for journalism in general." (Last dispatch from Canberra)
The resulting debate was fast and furious, but I stood my ground. "I want real people to have a voice. Many can't because of the stupid censorship that suffocates them, where people can't be themselves by speaking as a private citizen because of the crappy constraints of their public or private sector jobs. I know it's hard, and I could be caught out, but this marginal seats idea is about perspective and opinion. I want interesting readers to be able to say interesting things to interested readers. No-one's who's offered to write for me on marginal seats has offered to write under their real name yet. How about it?"
I didn't change my mind, but I came up with a policy. I asked readers to tell me if they were writing under a nom de plume, and to give reasons why, which I publish at the beginning of each nom de plume piece. I can't enforce the rule, but many contributors comply.
There is a critical exception. I would never publish personal slurs under a nom de plume, as a matter of basic fairness. I strongly disagree with the modus operandi of crikey in this regard, and believe that whatever its considerable merits, it cannot lay claim to be a site complying with the code of ethics.
Of course, Webdiary does not seek to break news. If I get a story, I write it for the paper, and I give readers' news tips to the Herald news desk. Crikey, which has as a central aim breaking news, is different. But in my view a journalists website cannot ethically publish serious allegations or personal attacks under cover of anonymity. A policy of fulsome corrections is not a good enough. The code also bars publication under the rule that allegations should be verified before publication. In a Lateline debate on media ethics, Tony Jones asked: "Isn't this, though, one of the things the Internet is famous for - no censorship, no boundaries?" I replied: "Yeah, but it doesn't mean that I don't disapprove of some of the things on Crikey as a journalist."
The Media Alliance code of ethics states: 2. Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics,including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.
I'm more relaxed about this requirement on the net, as are my readers, partly because it is a deliberate choice to log on.
Racism is the red-button issue in contemporary Australia. Australians tend to live in enclaves of the like-minded these days, creating a terrible barrier to understanding and national unity. I once agonised over whether to publish a contribution from a racist One Nation supporter, and did so, without complaint from readers, some of whom responded respectfully to the contributor.
My use of "Yanks" recently triggered a barrage of criticism from readers suggesting the word was a term of abuse. When I dropped it to avoid causing needless, although unintended offence, other readers protested that the term was neutral. I took up "Yanks" again after an American general used it while praising Australians for pre-deploying troops to Iraq. That settled it, I said, and noone disagreed.
In 2002, Media Watch asked me whether I'd known that a link to a page of Henry Lawson poems directed readers to a racist site. I hadn't. I wrote in Webdiary:
"The implication, I assume, is that if I had done so I would have been knowingly promoting a racist site, something which right-minded people would not do. I thought hard about the question, and finally decided I would have done the same thing.
"He's the first great poet of Australian identity, Lawson, and he was also deeply racist, antagonistic in the cruellest sense to both the Aboriginal peoples and Chinese migrants. This was a mainstream view then, and since Tampa you'd have to say it hasn't left the mainstream yet. But does that take away from Lawson's importance, or artistry, or capacity to move us?
"So I told Media Watch I would have still provided the link, and raised the fors and againsts of a nationalistic response to the bombing,with the poetry and political views of Lawson as a case in point."
"I pointed out to Media Watch that during the terrorism laws debate I'd published a press statement from the far-right National Civic Council, which worked hard to stop the laws, claiming they paralleled Hitler's actions in the prelude to World War 11. Is that promoting racism? No - it's acknowledging that groups of opposing persuasions can come together on certain issues. And it's inviting readers to consider what those groups have in common, and why.
"And that's what the Webdiary space is partly about - providing a safe space for people with articulate, coherent views from all sectors of Australian opinion to discuss issues of importance. I run One Nation nationalist Greg Weilo quite regularly, for example, and his contributions often provoke interesting debate. I've got no problem with my readers finding a racist site through Webdiary. My views on racism are crystal clear, so I assume there could be no question mark over my motivations. What do you think?" (Webdiary Watch) Readers agreed.
Conflicts of interest
In 2001 Don Arthur, a regular contributor on welfare policy, raised the matter of reader conflicts of interest.
"I was thinking over what you were saying on Late Night Live about (Webdiary) attracting people who are not part of peak groups. Here's something people ought to know about me. I can afford to study full time because I've got a scholarship - it's called an Australian Postgraduate Award (Industry). My industry partner is Anglicare (WA). I'm not exactly sure how the money thing works but Anglicare puts up some of the funds and is involved in setting the research topic. I have three supervisors, two from Edith Cowan and one from the industry partner. Sorry I didn't say this earlier."
"I can't see anything remiss in not disclosing this, unless you mentioned Anglicare in a piece, or were writing on religious charity or the like. But Don's disclosure does raise the question of independence on this page...Don, I can't check out every contributor and investigate hidden agendas. Basically this page is a trust exercise. I run most of what's sent in, with my judgement being pretty simple - is it interesting, is it repeating previous contributions, is it accessible? So it doesn't matter who's name is on it, in that sense, which is - apart from trying to free people from the constraints their work places put on their freedom of speech - why nom de plumes are cool with me. But I do ask that if it would be reasonable to perceive a bias, or conflict of interest, in what you write, that you disclose this. Like the marginal seats reports - if you're a party member, just say so. Also, if you've got expertise in an area you're writing on, I'm sure readers would appreciate that information too." (Disclosure and you). Since then, many readers have disclosed their affiliations.
Plagiarism and corrections
There's been one instance of plagiarism that I know of, notified by a reader. I published his email and gave readers the low down on the issue.
Many readers have pointed out inaccuracies in my work, and others, and I correct them as soon as possible. Since the explosion of weblogging in early 2002, there's many more critical eyes on Webdiary, and many webloggers take delight in pointing out errors. This adds another layer of accountability to the site.
Many newspapers are loathe to correct errors, many journalists fear admitting them, and - in my experience - corrections are drafted so carefully to minimise embarrassment that they're wrong anyway. With all control in my hands, I have no excuse for failure to correct or insufficiently, and any fear of correcting is far outweighed by the fear of losing credibility with the reader who points out the error.
So is all this openness and honesty in the public interest? Last year NSW Premier Bob Carr accused me at a press conference of blaming the Bali dead for their for own deaths in a column in Webdiary. I was horrified, fearing my reputation had been destroyed by a powerful man's lies. Rather than rush into print defending myself, I published the relevant extracts from the press conference, a transcript of Carr's subsequent radio interview on the matter, and the column I thought he could have based his false allegation on. (Bob Carr and me)
The next day, we ran a "Your Say" forum on the front page of the Herald online on Carr's anti-terrorism laws, the subject of the press conference. Several readers demanded a forum on the Carr-Kingston dust-up, got it, and hopped right into it after reading the material. The verdict, in Your Say and from Webdiary emails, was overwhelmingly in my favour - with some admitting to surprising themselves by defending a journalist!
ed Kerri: As Margo notes, this article was originally published in July 2003. It has been republished here in its original form. Three of the links in the article - two for Lateline and one for her SMH Webdiary article What's the point? do not lead to the original transcripts, suggesting that they have been removed from the ABC and SMH archives. If any reader has working links to these articles, please submit them for publication. Thank you.
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