Journalism ethics: Why we are responsible for the mud-slinging in our comments

Most common words in the SPJ ethics code (image via wordle.net)

Most common words in the SPJ ethics code (image via wordle.net)

If journalists have an ethical duty to protect those who provide content, what does that mean in practical terms?

I’ve seen much discussion of a duty of care regarding journalists who, as part of their job, take physical risks or cover events that leave psychological trauma. At the higher levels of journalism, where foreign correspondents are sent to cover wars, a post from the New York Times suggests media managers are acknowledging more responsibility for safety than ever — sometimes:

According to Hannah Storm of the International News Safety Institute, the inexorable demands of 24-hour news channels have put greater pressure on journalists to deliver, while budget cuts in newsrooms have meant news organizations have shut big foreign bureaus and replaced them with local staff and freelancers.

Ms. Storm, who cut her journalistic teeth in the Balkan wars, acknowledges that there is a greater culture of safety in news rooms these days, “but I’m not sure the duty of care is always happening.”

Staff correspondents heading for trouble spots now have to undergo specialized training, often from former special forces personnel who are also hired to accompany journalists on dangerous missions, a phenomenon unheard of a generation ago.

You don’t have to cover a war to be put in physical danger. Declaring an ethical responsibility, a duty of care, would extend to reporters who are sent into dangerous situations close to home. And the dangers don’t have to be physical. I’ve seen reporters experience intense emotional reactions when covering horrific crimes, for example. If we put people into those situations, we have a responsibility to do more than buy them a drink or tell them they can knock off a few hours early one day.

But I would go further. The nature of news has changed in two key ways: First, it’s much more interactive. Once we had only to deal with angry letters or phone calls, and finding direct numbers to reporters wasn’t always easy. Now, we can be emailed and reached on social media. And, especially, there are comments on our stories. Second, the content we deliver to our audience doesn’t just come from paid professionals. We invite bloggers, unpaid or with little compensation, to share our platform. And we encourage our audience to provide grist for our sites’ mills, through uploaded photos or videos and, especially, comments.

We have a responsibility to all those contributors to protect them from insults, epithets and other personal attacks. The failure of current ethics codes to address this has made it too easy for publishers and editors to shirk that responsibility. Our profession must accept and acknowledge that duty.

Over the years that I was in charge of comment moderation for Plain Dealer stories, I realized that personal attacks were the biggest problem. That’s in part because they were so prevalent; in part because they almost always led to more of the same; and mostly because neither my bosses nor some of our commenters seemed to understand why we needed a zero-tolerance policy.

When I first established moderation policies, my bosses easily accepted restrictions on racism and dirty words. But insults? Well, maybe, if they were really bad. But surely one commenter could call another an idiot, right? And of course, our reporters were fair game. Aren’t we thick-skinned? We didn’t want to be seen as stifling criticism, did we?

As I applied the policies we’d set, it quickly became clear they were flawed. Insults, however mild, almost inevitably escalate. More than once, someone who had lost an account for insults would complain to me that the other person started it. And when I suggested the answer was not to fight back, the user would staunchly insist that he “couldn’t just take it.”

Beyond the person on the receiving end of an attack, those nasty posts had a broader effect. They set a tone for the site. That’s one reason I started cracking down on comments about our reporters. Eventually I decided I had more reasons for that: How could I hope to persuade reporters to engage users in the comments if they knew they would be subject to harsh accusations? Why would any female reporter take part, knowing that her looks — even if known only from tiny mugshots on the site — would be up for review by the usual jerks?

Eventually, I went past those practical reasons to realize this was an ethical issue. While the stakes in the comments are much lower than when a reporter is put in harm’s way physically, the ethical principle is the same: If you throw someone into the lions’ den, you have a duty to watch out for them. Protecting them in the comments means being strict. Can a commenter point to parts of a story she thinks are unfair? Yes. Can she simply call the reporter biased? No; that’s imputing motives the commenter can’t possibly know. Can a commenter bring up a reporter’s looks? No; this is about the work, not appearances. Can they call a reporter stupid because there were typos in a post? Nope; that crosses the line.

There are arenas the media can’t police, such as Twitter. There, our responsibility is to teach our staffs best practices, to train them in how to respond (if at all) to attacks. We also need to avoid policies that force our staffs into bad situations. No one, for example, should be forced to post a photo of themselves; there should always be an option to use a generic avatar.

The same rules apply to our own sites. Jane B. Singer, writing in Media Ethics magazine about this issue:

Susan Smillie is editor of the Web site for the Observer, … whose journalists also are in-house contributors to the Guardian’s network of blogs. She says she feels a strong responsibility for her writers and takes time to talk with them about how to write for a guardian.co.uk blog — and what to expect when they do. “I know if they don’t get it right, they’re going to have a bad experience,” she says. “It’s sometimes kind of shocking for people. It’s suddenly like you’re thrown into the bear pit.”

Smillie talks explicitly about the “duty of care” she feels to her colleagues. “They think that they know what they’re doing, you think they know what they’re doing, and they do. But the rules have changed. That’s something I’ve become much more careful about talking to people about beforehand,” she says. Even experienced bloggers can be shocked and upset at the response they get. Smillie says she tries to be sure her writers are fully aware of what can happen in this “uncharted territory,” particularly if they are writing about anything controversial.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But we control what goes on our sites, and that gives us an extra level of responsibility. We must accept that if we allow comments — on our site, on Facebook pages we control, on any platform we have some control over — we must actively monitor and moderate them. If we induce anyone to add to our site, we must ensure that they are not subject to personal attacks. There are only two ways to do that: Shut off comments entirely, or actively moderate them.

There are no substitutes. I’ve gotten so tired of the arguments about anonymity. It doesn’t matter if you use Facebook registration, if you used “verified” Facebook registration, if you require credit cards or insist that every commenter visit you in person first and provide fingerprints. Garbage will happen in your comments. You want to insist on some form of ID? Fine. But don’t use that as an excuse to shirk your moderation duties.

This post is part of a series on journalism ethics. It started with 5 levels that take ethics from broad principles to daily decisions. Next, my proposal for three core principles, including our duty to those who provide content. Then, how a code can translate into better decision-making. Coming up next: The difference between ethics, morals and taste.

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