Monday, May 10, 2010

Be Transparent

In addition to acting independently, journalists must be transparent, as well. As the above post indicates, journalists must disclose conflicts of interest, especially ones that involve family ties. Other areas of conflicts of interest may also exist, and it necessary that those are also disclosed in the issue of transparency.

Take the example of Fox’s Glenn Beck. Beck has repeatedly used his one-hour weekday Fox News forum to encourage viewers to buy gold and even noted that, during one broadcast, the price of gold shot up by $50. If such analysis was rooted in rational thought and extensive research, then Beck would be acting honestly and would be at no ethical fault. However, Beck happens to be a spokesman for the gold vendor Goldline International and has appeared in a company advertisement that has been featured prominently on Beck’s own Web site. Below, Jon Stewart exposes Glenn Beck’s conspicuous conflict of interest.

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With the rise of online journalism and blogs, transparency has become a major ethical issue in the journalism field. Even though the World Wide Web provides ample sources of information free to be attained via simple search queries, many journalists have failed miserably in taking advantage of the attribution opportunities that the Web provides, like linking to their sources of information. This allows readers to independently judge the sources and whether or not they see them as reliable. The Web makes these attribution methods very simple, yet many journalists have failed in taking advantage of them, which is clearly a journalistic no-no. All information that was not received firsthand must be attributed, whether writing for print or online.

Furthermore, it is of untold importance that all content is labeled. As online journalism continues to grow, news organizations are exploring numerous different sources of revenue, particularly in the advertising realm. Many online newspapers have, for instance, subscribed to contextual advertisement providers, like Vibrant Media, which provide ads in boxes below or beside the article, as pop-up windows, or as hyperlinked words embedded in the actual article. These advertisements are placed based on algorithms that calculate their relevance to the article’s content. Since they are so similar to the content within the article, it is necessary that these advertisements are labeled as such in an attempt to avoid confusing the reader. News content should be labeled as news content, and advertisements should be labeled as advertisements.

This extensive labeling should not stop with differentiating advertisements and stories, though. Bloggers and other opinion writers should provide disclaimers that note their points of view, especially if they are writing about politics. This way, readers know what to expect upon arriving at the page and will not inaccurately perceive it as an impartial source of information. Moreover, if linking to a partisan site, be sure to inform the readers.

When speaking of the ethical issue of transparency, journalists must abide by Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative in which one “act[s] on the maxim which [he/she] will[s] to become a universal law.” If journalists or bloggers were reading someone else’s content, they would want to know where they were getting their information and if biases and/or conflicts of interest existed. Thus, it is important for all journalists or bloggers, for the sake of a few extra minutes, to attribute sources of information whenever possible. This would obviously change if the source was forced to remain anonymous because then the journalist could not cite the original source by name. Also, if biases or conflicts of interest do exist, they must be disclosed in the interest of fairness.

If journalists utilize these attribution methods, they will only further their credibility in the eyes of the public and their peers.

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