My ex-girlfriend (now my roommate) recently figured in an online tussle over blog ethics and I suppose this is an opportune time to address the issue.
There are two contending schools of thought on the matter. One posits that ethical guidelines are necessary in order that blogging may be practiced responsibility. The other says that such a “code of ethics” is anathema in the freewheeling blogosphere.
The view that blogs should be subject to an ethical code has been famously espoused by Adam Cohen in an article in the New York Times (May 8, 2005) in which he argues that bloggers should hew to journalistic standards now that blogging has practically become mainstream (at least the most prominent blogs with the most traffic). Cohen argues that bloggers may need to institutionalize ethics policies now that they have gained the influence and clout to be taken seriously as a “new” medium. Per Cohen, the real reason for an ethical upgrade is that it is a right way to do journalism, online or offline. Of course, this assumes that blogging is a form of journalism and that therefore journalistic standards apply.
The formidable lawyer-blogger Ann Althouse says (addressing Cohen) bluntly: “We don’t need your code of ethics”. Althouse points out that market forces are enough to keep bloggers in line. Readership is built on the strength of a blogger’s writing and one should be ready to be constantly and instantly judged by the mouse clicks of fickle readers who vote with their fingers.
Althouse has a point. Most bloggers see themselves as outside the mainstream media and contend that they do not need journalistic ethics because they are not journalists. They are pundits, activists, philosophers, humorists, advocates of one or another cause or fall under any number of diverse and overlapping categories. But they are not journalists. There’s the rub.