Dvorak: The Online Journalism Free-for-All

The definition of "media" has undergone some major changes over the past few years.

Many of the changes — and confusion — can be attributed to the immediate nature of information, thanks to new media and the arrival of bloggers and vloggers.

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Is a blogger a journalist? The answer is evolving to "Yes, if he/she wants to be."

The fact is that in this country, anyone can be a journalist, as there is largely a protected right to a free press. And a free press does not mean that you have to be owned by Times-Mirror, or anyone else for that matter.

Newsletter writers are journalists just as much as New York Times reporters are, albeit without the NYT structure and all of its ethical and other rules.

The subject of ethics always enters the "journalist" debate because it gets attention.

What we consider ethical journalistic behavior, for the most part, is dictated by the corporate policies designed for specific news organizations.

The big news organizations usually preach that their ethical standards are the best and that everyone should use them. This is a form of marketing and nothing more.

Unfortunately, it's a trick that tends to confuse the small fries who often no longer define themselves as "true" media.

Old media ethics bugaboo. Much of what is deemed ethical by The New York Times is simply impractical for a low-budget online publication.

Here's the example I often use to prove this point: A small-time publication is given the opportunity to cover an event in a faraway place, and the sponsoring corporation offers to pay for the trip.

The Times would insist on picking up the tab itself. But the small-timer may not have the budget to do so. If it doesn't accept the sponsor's offer, it doesn't get the story, and the Times does.

How is that fair to the readers? In fact, if the small-time publication adopts the same ethical code as the Times, it loses out. It's as if the small-timer was tricked into submission.

Telling the truth is always a good idea, but too often the truth is covered up by a smoke screen of facts that do not lead to the truth. Ethics codes don't cover this.

Generally speaking, ethics codes are designed to eliminate out-and-out corruption within a news organization. The bigger the organization, the more elaborate the ethics codes. What does that tell you?

The public is the police. Things get even more complex as bloggers and new-media publishers arrive with a mix of news, hoaxes and singular opinion.

There are no standard ethics for any of these people, and despite stupid attempts to create a blogger's code of ethics, there never will be one except on a publication-by-publication basis. The holier-than-thou old media thinking will fall by the wayside.

In new media publications, ethics are demanded by the readers, not the editors. With open forums, comment threads, and other mechanisms, the modern structure is policed by the public. Old media cannot grasp this concept.

I mention this ethics issue only because new media in general is unethical — if we are to judge it by old standards. Few organizations are impartial. Many are out-and-out nutty. Many are promotional.

Meanwhile, the trend is to credit new-media publications — whether they're blogs, journals, or faux magazines — with officialdom (media entities that are no different from The New York Times and The Washington Post). This trend is critical in the future of information dispersal.

Free-for-all media. Earlier this month, a conservative blogger decided to complain to the Federal Election Committee (FEC) that the Daily Kos blog should comply with campaign finance laws.

The reasoning was that Daily Kos is not a media entity but a political Web site subject to FEC scrutiny on how it collects and spends money.

Wisely, I think, the FEC said no. According to the FEC, the Daily Kos and any of the other thousands of similar blogs fall under the definition of a publication and a media organization, just like your local newspaper.

I'm not sure the FEC had much of a choice. Had it said yes, it would eventually have had to go up the food chain to nibble at big media itself, considering the fact that the only difference between a blogger and a reporter for the Times is that one makes a lot more money and prints on dead trees.

Sure, Times reporters may have more skill, but from what I can tell, they might also not have more skill. It might not even be true in all cases that a Times reporter makes more money.

What it all boils down to is that, in the case of the Times, reporters have a staff of Times editors working behind them. And from what I can tell, that may not be a good thing, either.


If nothing else, the Times has its massive ethics bible that it can point to in a pinch, although that sure didn't keep Jayson Blair and others from faking stories, did it?

Information anarchy. It seems very difficult to get a good grip on the changes taking place. What's really changed is that the barrier to entry, regarding newspapers and even television, has fallen away, and anyone can afford to put up a news site or produce a cheap video that gets freely distributed.

In other words, the priesthood of the few who could manage to crawl into the sanctity of traditional media is over.

It's now a free-for-all. Kind of like an all-out bar fight. These are always enjoyable to watch — as long as you do not get clocked yourself.

And, you should note, this is going to keep going in the direction of information anarchy until it self-stabilizes — if it ever does.