Back when I was a full time practicing journalist I used to take offense at the pictures of my brethren drawn in movies, books, and TV shows. Characters from Richard Thornburg in the first Die Hard movies to Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter books were and remain typical caricatures: venal, conniving, indecent, stop-at-nothing, self-important egoists who are soulless, dim-witted, and amoral. Ouch! Only attorneys get a worse rap in pop depictions. Even politicians and CEOs get off easier.
The explosion of new media journalism, "citizen-" and other wise--from the professional to the semi-pro to the purely DIY--has perhaps softened public attitudes toward practitioners. They are us, after all. But said explosion has also broadened the ethical gray area in which the practice of journalism lives and, in recent weeks, touched off a number of public brouhahas over right and wrong in online media--from widespread discussion about pay per post blog reviewing to virtual hand wringing over a decision by TechCrunch to publish confidential information about Twitter's business obtained from stolen documents.
The first set of dilemmas revolves around blogger reviews of products and services. Yesterday New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reached a settlement with cosmetic surgery company Lifestyle Lift stemming from charges that the company both ordered employees to pose as customers and post positive reviews of the company's procedures on third party websites and created a website of its own--designed to look like a third party website but devoted to touting the company.
The action in New York State comes as the Federal Trade Commission is finalizing a set of guidelines for online endorsements that has been on the table since last November and which closely resembles the Commission's truth in advertising regulations that apply to print and broadcast media. The guidelines are designed to address not only the growing number or formal, corporate pay-per-post marketing schemes--from start ups like IZEA to campaigns by major brick and mortar retailers like Sears--but also citizen reviewers of the sort cited by reporter Pradnya Joshi in yesterday's New York Times.
Journalists don't like to admit it, but the business of reviewing has always inhabited a murky ethical universe. Among traditional media players, efforts to ensure the independence of reviewers opinions (and to inspire the trust of readers) have ranged from the no-advertising-accepted approach of Consumer Reports to policies disallowing the use of review excerpts in advertising (no: "I laughed....I cried...It was better than Cats!" pull quotes). Timesreporter Joshi notes that Colleen Padilla, whose Classymommy blog has reviewed nearly 1500 products, won't publish negative reviews--choosing instead not to publish a review of a product of which the blogger has a negative opinion. Joshi offers this example as a critical contrast to "most journalism outlets or independent review sites" But a close reading of many traditional outlets for reviews--particularly niche publications whose lifeblood is ad dollars from the companies whose products they review--suggest that many tacitly follow a similar standard. Even old line, general interest publications less susceptible to the sway of an insular advertising universe, should ask themselves what impact free CDs, books, concert admission and trade junkets have on reviewer's opinions. Does a music reviewer for The New York Times have the same reaction to a CD that's one of hundreds of annual freebies that a paying customer has to one they had to choose to buy ("I laid out $15 for this!?). Bias and influence among reviewers comes in many forms--some more subtle than others.
For cyber triumphalists who believe that citizen journalism solves all the woes of "mainstream media" the notion of transparency is often offered as a cure-all, a substitute for a code of ethics or other sorts of conflict of interest policies. Transparency and full-disclosure certainly help and are an important part of any policy. They are at the heart of the FTC's proposed guidelines and in most cases are more than enough (witness the open kimono piece about a day spent at Pepsi by the Harbrooke Group's Howard Greenstein, an typical tale of the kind of largely innocuous PR plying that makes journalism go around). But for someone like Colleen Padilla of Classymommy.com--who principally writes product reviews and whose site is enabled by freebies--disclosure that she won't publish negative reviews should, at the very least, also be part of her disclosure of freebies.
Meanwhile, leading technology news site TechCrunch set off an ethical furor of its own yesterday when it announced that it was in receipt of hundreds of internal documents from Twitter, one of the companies it covers most closely. The documents--which include internal memos, contracts, office floor plans, personnel records, phone logs, budget documents and business plans--were delivered to TechCrunch by a hacker who, in sending the documents to TechCrunch, announced also his or her plans to make the documents public.
TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington pre-announced his intention to publish at least some of the information--not personnel or office security material but "information that is relevant to Twitter’s business, particularly product notes and financial projections," resulting in a barrage of comments from readers mostly critical of Arrington's decision. Let's put aside speculation about motives behind the odd decision to announce the intention to publish something instead of merely publishing it and focus instead on the ethical issues at hand which are hardly unique to the Internet.
The most famous instance in which stolen documents were published is of course the case of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a secret Defense department study of the conduct of the Vietnam war which revealed long-standing government ambivalence about the conduct of the war and showed that internally the government had a completely different analysis of the progress of the war from the analysis it had been peddling to the public for a decade. A copy of the study was retained by one of its contributors then leaked to The New York Times which published the information from the documents and fended off legal challenges from the Nixon administration which set the Supreme Court precedent barring the federal government from restraining such publication.
The contributor who leaked the material--Daniel Ellsberg--was tried on charges of espionage, theft and conspiracy, but the charges were eventually dropped after it was found that the Nixon administration was guilty of gross misconduct and illegal evidence gathering in building its case against Ellsberg (Ellsberg's attorney's office was burglarized, Ellsburg was wiretapped, and White House council John Ehrlichman improperly met twice with the judge in the Ellsburg case).
Beyond the fact that the documents in both cases were obtained illegally, there's little similarity between the Pentagon Papers case and the TechCrunch/Twitter situation. In fact, the dissimilarities are notable. In the case of the Pentagon Papers there was clear public interest in the study which had been commissioned by the Defense department and paid for with public funds. Publishing private documents and trade secrets is a dicier legal matter. Certainly, journalism--including business journalism covering matters of non-governmental interest--has always relied on leaks of confidential information. Companies have, in the past taken action against publishers of confidential business information, the most famous recently was the case of Apple suing blogger Nicholas Ciarelli, known by the nom de blog Nick DePlume, whose blog ThinkSecret published confidential business information in 2005. Apple, which tried to argue that DePlume was bound to keep Apple's secrets the way an employee employee might be bound, was roundly criticized for its novel legal approach to the case, but in the end it was able to outlast DePlume settling the case out of court two years later in a deal that saw ThinkSecret cease publishing.
If TechCrunch is on decent legal ground in publishing the Twitter information, what of its ethical position? Is it ethical to publish private information knowing that it was obtained through possibly illegal means? Certainly this is an dilemma that has troubled journalists for years. Practitioners depend on leaks of confidential information and often those leaks involve violations of confidentiality agreements by the leakers, sometimes they even involve illegal actions like break-ins either actual or virtual. Clearly Arrington and his TechCrunch team have spent the last 24-hour deliberating over both the ethical and legal ramifications of publication, determining that the material they have chosen to publish (beginning today with a piece about a Twitter reality TV show proposal). No doubt Arrington is cleaving to a fairly well staked out journalistic position that the publication of news-worthy material is the job of journalists, not the protection of the confidentiality of the companies that journalists cover. I can't argue with that position but can only add that determining what is newsworthy and appropriate to publish can be a difficult decision and a matter of drawing some very fine lines. What is interesting however is the strongly negative response from readers to the idea of publication though, undoubtedly, the readers who complain about the decision to publish will devour the material that is published. It's part of the ambivalent, love-hate relationship we Americans seem to have with our journalists. We want the information, even if we think our journalists are venal, conniving, indecent, stop-at-nothing, self-important egoists who are soulless, dim-witted, and amoral.