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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."

Offensive material

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 replied:

"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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re: Ethics and the new media

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.

Presumably no longer true, Margo!

On a separate thought, the Guardian has been running for a long time with the "Reader's Editor", who publishes corrections and checks complaints of inaccuracy or plagiarism from readers. I have long though that this attention to detail (and the careful explanations of the pros and cons of decisions) is one of the reasons why a small circulation newspaper in the UK has one of the most referred to news websites in the world. - ahead of MSNBC, or News.com.

re: Ethics and the new media

My media interest goes back to being the first family in my small town to get a TV in 1960, when I was 7. The heady days of JFK are hard to forget. When he was killed my lounge room was full of young people crying and we had the day off school.

It was years before the cynicism about Kennedy began but even knowing his weaknesses he was a far better man and president than any since. I expect there will be much dissent from those who think Bush is better than god, but I don't really care.

Social awareness began early because of the early age we got TV, most of the country still didn't have any but my father was a real old "keep up with the Jones's" type.

It is hardly a surprise that one of my first and best jobs was on a country newspaper where I learnt a great deal. Margo we had an old fashioned linotype that fascinated me from the time I was a small kid. Our operator was amazingly fast and accurate.

That little paper was the hub of the district, weddings, funerals, crops, rainfall, news. If the facts were not published we sunk. If lies and unsubstantiated rumours were published we were dead. It is a great breeding ground for seekers of the truth.

In the late 1980's I worked for a pollie and got a good glimpse of journos like Andrew Olle and Paul Lyneham and some of the other dinosaurs still around today.

In people like Olle I saw great journalism in others I saw tripe and rubbish.

Today's lot are a mixed bag to be sure but somewhere the morality and ethics is lost. Which is why I am glad you are there. If journos today want to regain credibility they have to do a few things that will be hard for them but essential to our democracy.

1. When pollies "leak" they must double and triple check the information with other sources without a vested interest.

2. When mistake are made they must be corrected as soon as possible. Russell Skelton and his position over the Bakhtiyari family is one who will very soon realise just how wrong he was but even this year when he wrote a review debunking everything he said he was defending himself. Why? Isn't he grown up enough to admit he was wrong or so blind he cannot see the havoc he created out of a lie fed by a pollie? My submission has been accepted for a major investigation by the Senate Committee.

David Penberthy wrote an article in December 2002 saying that Woomera and Port Hedland were 5 star hotels which resulted in both places being almost burnt to the ground. Personally I rejoiced in that but the refugees responsible were charged with criminal arson and then we got Baxter.

Penberthy did go into Villawood some months later to see for himself and was clearly horrified - but he should have triple checked the old report he was quoting from that was leaked by DIMIA.

His latest escapade into gossip that cannot be substantiated is another case in point. He was right to publish the first story, absolutely wrong to publish the second. I agree - he is not old enough or mature enough to be the editor of a national paper.

Greg Sheridan is an old warmonger who supported the notion of invading and bombing Iraq due to all those weapons. Today he says we went in to "prop up the alliance and that the Australian people accept that". I ask how many Australians would agree to murdering tens of thousands of Iraqis to prop up the US alliance. Sheridan didn't even seem to blush.

Why doesn't the man simply state "I was wrong"

3. Today's journos don't investigate enough - there are few exceptions to this. David Marr and Marian Wilkinson do, Julie Macken does for the Fin review, Elizabeth Colman and Jeremy Roberts do but not too many others. I better include Andra Jackson and Penny Debelle here. Most of the others rely on documents leaked and "opinion" pieces disguised as news. The great Grattan does that pretty well but it is still not news.

What do other readers think? Honesty, double checking sources, corrections when vital and investigations in depth.

I think it would eventually restore my faith in today's journalism.

re: Ethics and the new media

Dear Margo,
The blue links on this piece e.g.' Disclosure and you" came up with the answer
old.smh.com.au cannot be found

Ed David R - sadly true for some of them - I think they've gone into the paid archive if still there at all. Others could be found in other places, so corrected or unlinked as appropriate.

re: Ethics and the new media

This is an excellent history of Webdiary. Thank you. I'm a late-comer to Webdiary so there is much that I have missed and which goes straight over the top of my head. I'm surprised at how accidentally and gradually this all came about.

Towards the end of '04 the communication element of my combined law degree was in a total shambles, because it was in the midst of re-structuring and it was causing me no end of bureaucratic angst. I was also sick to death of trying to take on two utterly different modes of study, without properly being able to focus on either, as well as having all my study-time chewed up on traveling to and fro on Bob Carr's cityrail. I got so tired and fed up with the whole process I made the decision that I'd enroll in straight law subjects for '05, and let my media degree be damned.

Having studied the whole sorry fourth estate in detail, I could see that the only use a degree would be for me was that in getting a job in a large media organisation. I had already learned everything that I needed to learn and beyond that, I could direct my own study. Even if I did manage to get a cosy spot in a Miranda Devine style column, at some stage, I'd have to utterly compromise myself and my beliefs, for the sake of chasing the prejudices of my audience. I could also see that the old media organisations were simply dying - irretrievably so - in favour of a practically infinite source of alternative media on the internet.

Leaving aside financial constraints, the internet gives a person total freedom to reach a mass-audience. The up-side is that there are plenty of money-making opportunities for a small business, with little more than a computer and a bit of pluck. A man like Murdoch inherited a newspaper, giving him an advantage that most of us have never had. He went on to create a global news empire, which is still an impressive achievement in its own right. However, the way I see the internet, the opportunities it gives are the equivalent of owning your own newspaper; how far it goes depends of the will of the individual and nothing more.

Margo: Hi Solomon. My will is strong, except that I want to control AND edit a newspaper, an online one called Webdiary built from the bottom up by the Webdiary community. Yes, I know that sounds mad, but hell, Webdiary's been an amazing experience for me so far, so why not aim high now that I'm free? I was asked in my early 30s what my professional ambition was. I answered that I wanted to be the editor of The Age, which way back then was, in my view, Australia's greatest newspaper. Instead, I am now the editor/proprietor of Webdiary, and damned proud of it too.

re: Ethics and the new media

What's the point? is available from the NLA Pandora Australia's Web Archive project. Webdiary is one of the sites selected for archiving.

Edited to add: And here is the Lateline interview referred to twice.

re: Ethics and the new media

G'day. In looking for the link I want to Don Arthur for this piece - still looking! - I found this. I liked your 'news with a little bit of analayis' report of my move, Catallaxy.

PS later: Hi again. Just reading the comments to Catallaxy's news report and found Don (hi mate):

# Don Arthur Says:

August 26th, 2005 at 11:22 am

I think there’s a conflict between drawing in traffic and doing the kind of civic journalism that Margo aspires to.

High traffic blogs tend to follow the agenda set by newspapers and tv and recycle familiar stereotypes.

Readers need to absorb posts quickly. They need to be able to form an opinion almost instantly so they can race to the comments thread and start barking at each other. That means that posts have to rely on well established issues and frames — they can’t challenge readers with anything new or difficult.

If everyone down at the mall is talking about Shappelle Corby then that’s what a popular blog needs to be talking about. You can’t expect readers to get up to speed on a lot of complex stories they’ve never thought about.

When you do introduce a new story it needs to fit into a familiar frame — eg American evangelical talks like Islamic extremist, George Bush says something stupid, Lefties defend terrorists (rapists, thieves, communist dictators etc) instead of innocent victims. Greenies oppose wind generators, hydro power, nuclear power… any kind of power source invented after 1600 or not in use by Amazonian indian tribes.

I don’t imagine Margo wants her site to degenerate into a haven for committed Howard-haters where the locals chant Chomsky slogans at each other and fight flame wars with the dog packs Blair sends over.

PPS later still: And thanks Jason Soon! I published a few things from you a few years ago before you moved on, as I remember. Do you have a record of the links? I want a Webdiary search engine.

re: Ethics and the new media

Margo, don't forget to be a contributor, too. I always get a buzz reading your published work. Talent in full-flight.

re: Ethics and the new media

My fellow Webdiarists. While researching the lost links (found and recorded in my comment below) I wondered why was one of Margo's articles missing from the SMH archive. Was it an unusually careless omission by archivists when the SMH updated its internet site two or three years ago? Or some other reason? Perhaps a Webdiarist or two would like to ask the Sydney Morning Herald why this article is not to be found in the SMH Web Diary archive.

And let us know what they say...

re: Ethics and the new media

Sun-Herald Staff Marooned

The Sun-Herald faced a desperate crisis last Monday. Power was cut off,
mobile phones didn't work, and many of the staff were unable to return home. The paper's website said: "Sun-Herald employees: Call 1-800-346-2472 to let us know where you are."

No, it wasn't in Sydney, but in Biloxi, Mississippi, home of the world's
only other newspaper named The Sun-Herald. Biloxi (population 50,000), on the Gulf of Mexico, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

" The Mississippi Coast changed forever Monday," Scott Dodd reported from Biloxi. "Gone are the signature landmarks, moneymaking casinos, pricey beach houses, ramshackle apartments and the bridges that link South Mississippi together. Katrina stole or smashed them all. In their place, a mess of sand and debris coated everything - left by the hurricane's surging seawater that sometimes topped 30 feet."

The Biloxi Sun-Herald's Operations Director Marlene Kler reported, "No
power, and the roof blew off the generator switch. When the rain subsides
we'll try to get it started. No phones, no cell service. I'm sending this
while UPS (uninterruptible power source) is still up. We lost a vent in the
print storage area, but I think we can salvage most of the newsprint. Being
in the building and draping plastic, using wastebuckets, etc., I think saved
a lot of damage.”

Miraculously, the Sun-Herald continued publishing, even though it couldn't
distribute the newspaper and many of its subscribers were homeless. Because it's owned by the Knight-Ridder group, it received immediate help from other group newspapers, notably the Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer, which produced and printed the Sun-Herald throughout the emergency.

About a dozen Sun Herald employees remained in the Biloxi newspaper
building, sending their stories from their battery-powered laptops and by
email to Columbus.

On Monday night, the Ledger-Enquirer printed 20,000 copies of the
Sun-Herald, about half its normal circulation, which were handed out free on Tuesday. The eight-page paper included full colour photographs and maps, and was printed on heavier stock. "We needed something that would be better quality. My sense is people want to keep this," said Pam Siddall, the Ledger-Enquirer's publisher .

The Ledger-Enquirer and the Miami Herald sent water, powdered milk and
breakfast bars to the Biloxi newspaper staff.

By Saturday, the situation was slightly less tense. A message to staff
said: "Full power has been restored to The Sun Herald
building. We are moving toward beginning to print the paper here again,
rather than in Columbus. We are eager for employees to at least check in and come by the office...

"We are now publishing advertising in the paper and are increasing our print run. So we’ll need help from all of you, as soon as you’re able."

The newspaper is offering to cash staff members' personal cheques for up to $100, and to provide on-the-spot low-interest credit union loans. It 's
searching the area for missing staff, who are asked to ring its employee

It lists the names of 22 people not heard from, adding, "If you have heard
from any of them, please call and let us know so we can focus attention on
those still missing. Take good care of yourself and your family. And know
that you are in the thoughts of colleagues all across Knight Ridder. Many are contributing to a Knight Ridder Fund set up to make grants to Sun Herald employees who have suffered serious losses."

The Biloxi Sun Herald website provided (and is still providing) a superb
emergency service, keeping residents fully informed of developments hour by hour, listing the names of victims, with heart-breaking pictures showing
dozens of scenes of devastation.

Biloxi Sun-Herald website http://www.sunherald.com/mld/sunherald/
Mississippi coast changed for ever

Biloxi Sun-Herald survives hurricane

Here comes The Sun http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001050989

Staff memo:http://kri.com/biloxi/

re: Ethics and the new media

Maybe there have been other Murdoch pieces using bloggers as a jihadist "Vox Pop" (did I get that link right? (ed Kerri: almost – missed a “ between =http (ie: href=”http) )) but this one demonstrates how the mooted ethics of a blogging platform could and should be factored into the perceived veracity and integrity of the expressed opinions.

In this instance "bloggers" are the source of an Islamic sentiment that the ravaging of New Orleans was the vengeance of God. Surely such a serious allegation regarding cultural sentiment should be from sources of repute, not unnamed bloggers from unsubstantiated sites.

There are many sites in the Christian/Western blogsphere where extreme opinions can be published unmodulated by anybody, no doubt also in the blogsphere of Allah. Am I reiterating too heavily in suggesting that web publishing doesn't necessarily increase integrity in its quotability, but that non-bloggers may not differentiate?

A situation such as this is worth considering in the context of Webdiary appearing before all as credible source of opinion.

ed Kerri: Sorry people, a digression - Richard, further to the formatting of links, the “ ” inserted by Word may break links if the inverted commas do not 'hug' the http address in the right order. Using inverted commas in a text editor, or the comments text box does not cause this problem. One Word ” and one text editor " at either end of an address will also break a link (as I did in the link above before you notified me it was broken, thanks).

re: Ethics and the new media

Webdiary is like a small town and as we know small towns need lots of explaining. They have no tall buildings, and the landmarks are all in your mind. When you look up, you see the sky; when you show somebody the sights, you see yourself. The Webdiary is like a mirror... where your say and image counts...

Many large corporations (cities) are attemting to copy the Webdiary model. But will the huge cities fail where small towns claim huge successes if not in monetary terms certainly in terms of personal fullfillment and community spirit. I agree with Margo that advertising should be the last resort for the Webdiary. I am sure that many other creative ways will be pioneered over the next days, weeks and months. I have just come across a few mind-bogling and intriquing developments:

The State in Columbia, SC, is joining the citizen journalism revolution on Thursday with the launch of TheColumbiaRecord.com, a stand-alone Web site the paper hopes will help it connect with local users and offer advertisers new and innovative ways to reach those users. The paper has recruited 25 local 'experts' to blog on a variety of topics ranging from astronomy to classical arts to forestry. Users who register at the site will be able to post items, upload photos, and submit events for inclusion in the community calendar. Citizen Journalism Push.

Websites contain many things, but not the answer to all questions; Value the fruits of free speech.

Personal blogs, media blogs, and organisational blogs; Disruptive and non-disruptive blogs.

James Cherkoff on how 'citizen hacks' are challenging the might of corporations the world over; You, too, can become a global broadcaster.

Today, when you lose a customer, you don’t lose just that customer, you risk losing that customer’s friends In Blogs & Blogging, Marketing & PR.

Citizen-journalist bloggers in knickers-in-twist shock.

re: Ethics and the new media

The final issue is balance. This place may be ethical, and may remain independent. However, the issue of balance is far from resolved. I'm talking on a left-right scale here, and not all accept that, though I do not think that many would deny the fact that the majority of inhabitants of Webdiary range between the soft left and hardcore red or green left.

There are probably half a dozen 'right' contributors here (I exclude those who claim to be Menzian Liberals, first simply due to the fact that Menzies these days would be left of the Labor party on many issues, showing a shift within the political spectrum in Australia, and secondly because the man is dead, his ideals with him), and a grand total of one 'Right' article writer. See any balance problem on the issues? And you can't say it's because of the Right's domination of MSM, because don't most analysis of the blogosphere show there is a much larger of 'conservative' blogs to 'progressive', doesn't it?

And until some sort of balance is found, this place will remain a wierd kind of echo chamber - because all of those around me agree, therefore the majority of the public must agree, and are only deceived by scare tactics or the 'Lynton Crosby' etc factor. Or deceived by the lack of information or awareness. And until people start showing the respect for both the analytical skills and character interpretation of the 'Australian people', it will remain that way.

The idea that the Federal Government may be Liberal because the people aren't scared into it through tactics, nor through the lack of of the opposition, but through general (though not total or absolute) agreement with the Coalition's ideological standing and political, social and economic agenda is never really recognised, nor faced.

The idea that the policies of the Government may be based on the desires and wills of at least an electoral majority of the people (either during the proposal or after they see the benefits) is never acknowledged either. For if it is true, then the electoral majority is showing a rejection of almost everything the nominal 'Left' stands for, whether they are the social left, the red left or the green left, or any combination of the above.

Instead, it's easier to say that it was lies, or stupidity or lack of education, or division, or anything else that can be bought to hand.

Balance may restore some of the reality to some of the issues being discussed. Perhaps a toning down of the official rhetoric against the conservative view? Or inviting others to contribute their points of view. I'm not 100% sure how to fix what I see as the issue, but I am reasonable certain about the seriousness of not doing so.

Ed Hamish: thanks Stuart for expressing this concern and I think it is a real one. My background is very Left, but I have always kept myself a bit marginal even there, by enjoying pointing out the absurdities, contradictions and unconsidered assumptions in my comrades. So I thoroughly enjoy and celebrate the discussion here, and very much appreciate the likes of yourself. Equally I am frustrated that the Right crapping on about 'Howard-haters' (I was there when the accused were criticising Hawke and Keating and John Pilger wrote, A Secret Country exposing the Labour club) and with the Left self-evidently linking 'Right' with 'racist' (being aware of racist Left history I deeply empathise with how ridiculous this must sound to traditional Liberal voters).

For me this is the politically transcendental nature of this forum. And that is why I appreciate you expressing your real concerns carefully rather than tuning out. The most pertinent thing you are saying, I think, is that we need more commentators toward the Right of politics. In acknowledging that I need to also point out that the 'Left' commentators you describe are by no means homogenous or somehow all representing Margo's view or something. Liking Howard uncritically is not one of two views; it is one of thousands. Most people who voted for the Government are also critical of it in one way or another, as most Labor voters would have been if Latham was the Government (again, an uncritical 'the leader is right' view of Latham would also actually be a minority position; even if he had won - many here are critical of bi-partisan policies). Please keep talking, keep challenging.

re: Ethics and the new media

Stuart Lord (04/09/2005 8:37:02 PM): “The final issue is balance. This place may be ethical, and may remain independent. However, the issue of balance is far from resolved. I'm talking on a left-right scale here,”

It is not an issue, Stuart. Webdiary, surely, is a product of those who contribute. The balance is the balance of those who contribute. If most of them happen to be to the “right” of you, then that is a function of your location on your left-right scale, not a problem with Webdiary. There should be no need for Margo or any other editor to actively solicit (or actively suppress) contributions in order to maintain some artificial, predetermined 'balance'.

SL: “and not all accept that, though I do not think that many would deny the fact that the majority of inhabitants of Webdiary range between the soft left and hardcore red or green left.”

I think that the left-right scale (amongst others) has its uses, but the left-right DICHOTOMY does not. I can see reasons why a disproportionate number of regular contributors might be people who you would term “left”, Stuart. If “right” people do not so much, well, tough.

SL: “...the fact that Menzies these days would be left of the Labor party on many issues, showing a shift within the political spectrum in Australia...”

Good point, but “in Australia” is not specific enough. It is a shift within the leadership of the major political parties in Australia, and I suspect that it is driven by large corporate and foreign national interests, not the interests of Australia or Australians. The true centre of the left-right spectrum remains where it was, and both major parties are now so far to the right that about half the country is effectively disenfranchised. Webdiary is open to anyone, but it is hardly a surprise if disenfrachisees are the most active contributors.

SL: “...And until some sort of balance is found, this place will remain a wierd kind of echo chamber - because all of those around me agree, therefore the majority of the public must agree, and are only deceived by scare tactics or the 'Lynton Crosby' etc factor. Or deceived by the lack of information or awareness. And until people start showing the respect for both the analytical skills and character interpretation of the 'Australian people', it will remain that way.”

I am afraid that I do believe that a large number of people do not spend much time thinking or getting informed about political or economic issues, and are very vulnerable to being deceived by a government and its lackey media that have a proven record of dishonesty.

SL: “The idea that the Federal Government may be Liberal because the people aren't scared into it through tactics, nor through the lack of of the opposition, but through general (though not total or absolute) agreement with the Coalition's ideological standing and political, social and economic agenda is never really recognised, nor faced.”

I sincerely hope that a majority of people are NOT in significant agreement with the Government. If they are, then they deserve everything that they get. But it’s a shame about everyone else.

SL: “The idea that the policies of the Government may be based on the desires and wills of at least an electoral majority of the people (either during the proposal or after they see the benefits)...”

What 'benefits', Stuart? This Government has caused me ever-increasing time wastages, additional expenses, job insecurity, and loss of civil liberties. How exactly are these 'benefits'?

SL: “...For if it is true, then the electoral majority is showing a rejection of almost everything the nominal 'Left' stands for, whether they are the social left, the red left or the green left, or any combination of the above.”

It is not as though they have any significant “left” options to choose from, is it? They have a choice of radical far-right, or pretend radical far-right. So their choice indicates nothing about their real preferences.

SL: “Instead, it's easier to say that it was lies, or stupidity or lack of education, or division, or anything else that can be bought to hand.”

I’ll settle with lies, ignorance and insularity. I’ve seen enough of all three to know that they are rife.

SL: “Balance may restore some of the reality to some of the issues being discussed. Perhaps a toning down of the official rhetoric against the conservative view?”

It is NOT “conservative”, Stuart! It’s not conserving anything! It is a radical view that espouses destruction of everything that made Australia a great place to live.

SL: “Or inviting others to contribute their points of view.”

They are grown-ups, and are free to contribute if they want to. Active solicitation we can do without. There are plenty of other places where more righties can be met, if that is what you want to do.

re: Ethics and the new media

When reporters don't stand up for rights, we all lose liberty: Press freedoms aren't free.

By Christopher Cook, August 31, 2005


As a former newspaper journalist, it's fascinating (and sometimes frightening) to watch the Czech news media struggle for something akin to press freedoms an American takes for granted. Czech politicians regularly threaten reporters and news organizations with lawsuits, something virtually unheard of in the United States. The prime minister is now suing over a depiction of his wife and recently a court decided a Czech journalist had the right to criticize his country's most popular female singer. Such events can seem surreal, even Kafkaesque.

Yet the news media in the United States are undergoing difficult pressures, too, as the government tightens the screws on civil liberties under the guise of fighting terrorism. In this climate, a New York Times reporter is now in prison for refusing to name her source for a story she never wrote. And in fact, when observed from an overseas distance, the news media in the States may not be so free as Americans like to pretend.

... As recent events show — I mean the events surrounding the public outing of a CIA agent Valerie Plame and the investigation into who is at fault — the main difference between an editor at a small newspaper caving in to local pressures and a large national publication (such as Time) caving in to larger pressures is a matter of scale. After all, a supermarket pulling its advertising threatens a small-town weekly as surely as fear of a drop in stock value threatens Time, Inc.

... [T]he intense recent coverage by the media in the United States of the internal mechanisms of a free press — coverage prompted by the Plame affair — is somewhat refreshing. But not terribly reassuring. The New York Times has stood its ground, a commendable act. Time magazine has not, and its reputation will suffer for it, at least among journalists. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the newspaper editor announced he is withholding important investigative stories based on anonymous sources because he fears legal repercussions.

So it goes. Maybe the news media here in the Czech Republic has a long way to go before achieving the freedoms of speech a working democracy requires. But then, maybe the United States has a ways to go, as well.

All I can say is — and this is garnered from personal experience — freedom of the press isn't free. It costs something. Otherwise, it wouldn't be seen as a high principle; it'd simply be a routine business practice.

... I care deeply about whether journalists freely cover stories that are controversial and whether those stories are printed and broadcast for my benefit as a concerned citizen. Because if they aren't, we all suffer. Everyone pays the price.

re: Ethics and the new media

Freedom of press is only as valuable as is the will and knowledge to report the world objectively. As far as Australian press (and US as well) is concerned both are sadly lacking.

Partly, this seems to be the consequence of syndicating reporting for the world. We no longer have journalists who understand the part of world they are reporting from, and syndicated journalists have to cater to everybody and cater to nobody, but the owners of the network. This would not be bad in itself, if we had at least some meaningful difference between network owners, but they are unfortunately much the same.

It is also a matter of sheer laziness: once you have seen or heard one report, you have seen them all.Everybody seems to be falling over themselves to repeat the same.

I won't say anything about self-censure, not because it does not exist, but because in order to feel that kind of pressure, one first has to have something different to say. Apart from a few web independents, I have seen little evidence of independent thought so far. Take London bombings as an example - the reports were always accompanied by a longish list of post 11/9 terrorist acts and not a single one mentioned Beslan.

Surely, it would not be against the protocol to mention one of the worst terrorist attacks ever, directed at the weakest part of population, children. And if it would not be breaking some obscure Editor's mantra, it could not have been a matter for self-censure. Clearly it was a matter of either personal prejudice or lack of interest in anything non-Western. I cannot believe that all reporters from all networks share the same personal prejudice.

Freedom of the press is not enough - it is only the first step. There has to be willingness to view, understand and be party to the world affairs.

Margo: rolling our grain of sand on the beach...

re: Ethics and the new media

Hi Margo, I'd actually pay a subscription price for an Australian FactCheck.org.

re: Ethics and the new media

Important contribution to the question of protecting sources in the Guardian by its former editor: A source of great regret.

Peter Preston edited the Guardian when Foreign Office clerk Sarah Tisdall was jailed for leaking secrets. He explains why he strongly believes that journalists must put pragmatism before principle.

re: Ethics and the new media

G'day Margo and all. It takes guts to create and run with something like WebDiary. It's always easy to knock people and companies, but Margo and friends take action. It's fair to say that WebDiary has made a difference.

Ed David: thanks Greg. BTW Margo is taking her first day off for several weeks.

re: Ethics and the new media

Undoubtedly the stated aims and sentiment of Webdiary are fine in principle but having been censored in my second week as a contributor I now consider how many other opinions and views are not making it to through the editors here.

Not even a polite explanation offered!

This is hardly professional.

Words are cheap, it`s the real behaviour that counts.

What a disappointment!

ed Kerri: Hi Christopher. I have copied and moved this post over to the thread on moderation and you'll find my reply over there. Cheers.

re: Ethics and the new media

Do you only print SOME comments - have a quota or censure of some sort? Can't read my comments from 5/6 Sept.
Will send more if I get some response to this.
TP-Mod Hi Lillian, I'll have a look for your others. (Later) David R: Lilian - you had two posts published on 5 Sept. As far as I can see we don't have any unpublished posts from you.

re: Ethics and the new media

Here is a conundrum I would like the 'Diarists to please help me with if they can or at least give me a clue.

Today I found out that a certain embassy had told Amanda Vanstone five times that Roqia Bakhtiyari was an Afghan citizen and five times she ignored it.

I have the proof I have been wanting of fraud from the Embassy and who was doing it, and the journo who was publishing lies.

What do I do?

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