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What Is 'Journalistic Integrity' In a Social Media World?

by Beth Harte  |  
September 2, 2009

At the recent Social South conference, held in Birmingham, Alabama, Kellye Crane and I held a Public Relations 2.0 (The New PR = People Relations) conversation session and one of the questions we asked was "Are there any PR advantages to new media channels (vs. traditional media)?"

One of the areas that came up was citizen journalism versus professional journalists and the advantages and disadvantages. We discussed the fact that we didn't truly believe Michael Jackson had died until a 'real' journalist reported it (even though TMZ reported almost an hour ahead), but we did believe that the USAir flight had landed on the Hudson River because a nearby citizen captured a shot of it and shared it on Twitter.

  • Could it be that it's really about having proof or evidence? (And, as we know, in some situations only a professional journalist with media credentials can get that exact proof/evidence.)

  • Is it about integrity and the perception that professional journalists have integrity where bloggers do not?

Curious about the latter, I looked into journalistic integrity (well, as much as I could on Google) and found the following:
American Society of Newspaper Editors (founded in 1922) Canons of Journalism:

  • Responsibility (of newspaper and journalist)

  • Freedom of the Press ("a vital right of mankind")

  • Independence (fidelity to the public interest)

  • Sincerity, Truthfulness, Accuracy (good faith with reader)

  • Impartiality (news reports free from opinion or bias)

  • Fair Play, Decency (recognition of private rights, prompt correction of errors)

And from the Society of Professional Journalists:

  • Seek Truth and Report It

  • Minimize Harm

  • Act Independently

  • Be Accountable

I was always under the impression that journalists took an oath of some sort, but in reality they don't. Further from the SoPJ: "...Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility."
Why can't a citizen journalist/blogger do the same?
If there is no oath what happens when a professional journalist lacks integrity? I found a rather stunning example of that recently. MSNBC ran a story on a town hall meeting where a man was carrying a semi-automatic rifle and pistol and the anchor asked if it equated to "racial tension because we have a man of color in the Presidency and white people showing up with guns..." (Paraphrased.)

It turns out the man they were referring to was actually a man of color himself AND that the whole thing was planned by a local radio show host. Why were neither disclosed by MSNBC?

I did not major in journalism, but I am a PR practitioner and this particular MSNBC example, to me, isn't responsible or impartial at all according to the canons OR what we should expect from the media (not to mention it flies in the face of some of the other canons too).
So then, does a professional journalist's lack of responsibility and impartiality lead to a lack of integrity if done frequently? And if a citizen journalist/blogger is responsible and impartial could that lead to integrity (and thus respect) when done frequently? Are there obvious answers here? I don't think so...
This isn't a new topic and more and more we are seeing a convergence of the two. The reason I bring it up is NOT to be political, but to make a point that organizations need to understand what is taking place in this space (there is nowhere to hide) and how it could potentially affect their public relations efforts.

  • If you are a PR professional, who do you trust more with your organization's news a blogger or the media?

  • If you are a journalist, how do you feel about the canons and how it relates to your job today?

  • If you are an organization, will you start taking citizen journalists/bloggers more seriously?

  • If you are a journalism/PR professor, how does this convergence affect how you teach journalism?

I don't have the answers...but I know you might. Care to share your thoughts?
P.S. If you are a blogger, you might consider signing the "Blogging with Integrity" pledge. BWI was set up by Susan Getgood, Liz Gumbinner, Kristen Chase, and Julie Marsh in response to "debates about blogger compensation, sponsored posts and product reviews, an alarming increase in ethical lapses and idea theft, and a growing backlash against poor blogger relations practices..." (From their About Us page.)

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Beth Harte is a marketer, blogger, speaker, communicator, thinker, connector (people & dots), adjunct marketing & PR professor and Director of Marketing at Advent Global Solutions.

Beth has over 15 years of experience in integrated marketing communications, strategic planning, branding, SEO/SEM and five years of experience with social media. Beth speaks on a range of topics including: integrated marketing and communications, public relations, brand monitoring and management, social media measurement & ROI.

Beth's blog, The Harte of Marketing is featured in AdAge's Power 150, a globally recognized ranking of top media and marketing blogs and the MarketingProfs' Daily Fix blog.

You can find Beth here too: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Beth also digs smart people, brilliance, history, the arts, culture, books (historical fiction & business), politics, travel, beer, and cowgirl boots.

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  • by Phil Buckley Wed Sep 2, 2009 via blog

    Good post Beth, I work on the interactive side of a big newspaper company, and they struggle with the whole idea of citizen journalism. They don't want "blogger opinions" next to their "serious news". It's that type of mindset that is strangling them, they're doomed by their own myopic view "journalism"

  • by Susan Getgood Wed Sep 2, 2009 via blog

    Thanks for the shout-out for Blog with Integrity.

  • by Bill Free Wed Sep 2, 2009 via blog

    Integrity in journalism is a critical issue, but I don't think it's what differentiates "professional" journalists from the "citizen" variety. For me, it's a question of credibility supported by the demonstration of skills in sourcing, inquiry and discernment that are fundamental to the craft. As you point out, there is a continuum ranging from direct observation (Hudson River crash) to credibly sourced reporting (Michael Jackson's death and H1N1) to investigative journalism. This is an important issue, and not just for PR practitioners. Thanks for raising it here.

  • by Nick Stamoulis Wed Sep 2, 2009 via blog

    I think journalists do what they have to in order for their stories to sound appealing. I think it should be how you present the story.

  • by Juliann Grant Wed Sep 2, 2009 via blog

    Beth, Great post, loved the reference to the 1922 Canons. I like how getting back to our journalistic roots put things back into focus. The emergence of citizen journalism does bring the question of who to trust and when to trust. Recently I was passed an AMBER alert by someone I know and trust in my network, and it was a hoax. Now I know that's not as extreme as your examples, it was still annoying to me. It puts me in a position to either verify every Amber alert that is supposed do good, or ignore them. So guess what I end up doing? I like the idea of an oath. There needs to be some way to pledge accountability. I think that many relationship lines are blurred in social networking, and often times we may trust information or a source more easily than we would have before. It's a false sense of trust, because in many cases, we really don't know a person at levels we would if we grew up or worked with that person. Trust and the elements that create trust may be describable, but hard to duplicate exactly. Reminds me to go read the text: The New Fundamentals of Human

  • by Ellen Rossano Wed Sep 2, 2009 via blog

    Beth~Great post! I know there has been a lot of discussion about the integrity of citizen/journalist and bloggers. What amazes me is the the amount of commentary, opinion and speculation in daily newspaper and TV "news" reporting. Boston is still lucky enough to be a 2-newspaper town, but sometimes the slants are so different, it may leave the reader wondering if they are reading about the same event. The same happens with CNN and FOX - same story, but two entirely different editorial philosophies. Whether it's mainstream or on a blog, I think the key is disclosure. I think if blogs are sponsored or paid, or the opinion rests with the blogger alone, there should be some sort of disclaimer stating that. I like the idea of the "Blogging with Integrity" pledge. I wonder if mainstream media would make it a point to print/broadcast the basic tenets of journalism in each day's edition?

  • by Ann Handley Wed Sep 2, 2009 via blog

    Hi Beth -- I was trained as a journalist, and worked as one for a decade, and I'm nodding in agreement with Ellen here... in that disclosure really is the key. Bloggers (and journalists) need to up front about their relationships, or motivations, or whatever the case. That's more obvious an imperative in a newsroom, but no less critical for bloggers, whatever issue they are covering, and in whatever sector. A whole other issue, which is tougher to discern and even tougher to self-regulate, is media slant, on the part of citizen journalists or professional ones. Fox's coverage is going to differ wildly from, say, the Boston Globe's or the Boston Herald's or Dan Kennedy's Media Nation blog (to use my local market as an example) (atlhough Fox and the Herald's will probaby be more closely aligned). The imperative there rests on the subscriber, or reader, or user, or audience (however you want to define it), to have a certain literacy when it comes to media coverage and consumption. Which is why I'm a big advocate of including Media Literacy courses in public schools, at almost every step of a child's education, tailored (of course) for the age group.

  • by gianandrea facchini Thu Sep 3, 2009 via blog

    Beth, we now live in Italy tough times about freedom of speech for journalists. Just to give you an idea of the problem, a poll from Sky TV says that 55% of the respondents think the freedom of speech is in danger. Not bad for a western country. People, without a media literacy (Ann, you are right about including Media Literacy courses in schools), is not longer able to make a comparison between truth and lies. So they look for the ones closer to their own ideas and follow them, without any criticism. Bloggers had a great chance to boost the freedom of speech and to be the watchdog of the truth. Do we lost this chance? I'm afraid that if it is not yet lost, we put it in great danger.

  • by Dan Levine Thu Sep 3, 2009 via blog

    Beth, thanks for the thoughtful post - as always. My concern is that when (most) people see something "in print" whether that's on- or off-line, they take it as truth. Whether it's an ad, a blog, or an opinion in a newspaper -- if it's in print, many instinctually believe it must have been vetted and "cleared" and that it must, then, be true. I'm not sure how to fix the problem -- signing a BWI for bloggers is a great start but in the end I think it's going to remain incumbent upon the reader (of the ad, blog, opinion, etc.) to *think* and recognize that what they're reading is not necessarily truth -- it's only one person's idea of truth.

  • by Dan Levine Thu Sep 3, 2009 via blog

    Hi Beth, did you see this post from Mark Schaefer's blog? "The Worlds First Authenticity Policy?" Worth checking out ...

  • by Cam Beck Thu Sep 3, 2009 via blog

    Hey, Beth - Your article reminded me of a speech Matt Drudge gave to the National Press Club in 1998 - back when he had achieved a level of influence and notoriety that made the audience a bit uncomfortable about the things to come. If you read the questions they ask of him, you may read into it a sense of marvel, fear, indignation, and condescension, which morphed, I think in a lot of ways, to a bit of sloppy and undisciplined emulation based on the wrong lessons, once the tools of sharing became more mainstream. I agree with Bill Free that the heart of the issue is integrity ... but also worldview. There is no such thing as being "unbiased." The very adoption of canons suggests a moral order of behavior, but including "impartiality" within them is self-contradictory -- sort of requesting someone draw a round triangle. I think it was the wrong approach. The canons, adopted uncritically, actually encourage dishonesty, for it forces others who are pressured by their peers to adopt and sustain them to deny the bias they inevitably would have. I would prefer journalists and bloggers simply expose their bias. Then let the marketplace decide what happens after that.

  • by Leigh Durst Thu Sep 3, 2009 via blog

    Beth, I think you're raising such important points here. I'm with Annie on disclosure and mMedia LIteracy training as a part of formal education. I remember when the Mumbai attacks happened and someone tweeted that the Indian govt. requested people stop tweeting about any actions of an operational nature. The original tweet about this was initiated from Boston by a 15-year old. Makes one think. I like what Cam says about exposing your bias - which gets to my agreement with Ann about disclosure. We all have it at some level.

  • by David Reich Fri Sep 4, 2009 via blog

    Beth, I just wrote a lengthy reply, but when I tried t6o post it, I got an error message saying "too many comments have posted by me in a short time," which is not true. I didn't save my comment, and I don't have time to recreate it now. Too bad --it was good. Maybe I'll post about it on my blog when I have a chance. Oh well, I tried. Have a great weekend.

  • by Cindy Kim Wed Sep 23, 2009 via blog

    Great post Beth. I recently wrote on the topic of how social media is reshaping journalism with Del Jones of USA TODAY The impact of social media is having a big impact in the way we disseminate information. Just as the journalists have a duty to fact check and report the truth with proof of evidence, we too as social media users must do the same. We have a responsibility to never rush to judgement but fact check and do our due diligence before disseminating information to ensure credibility within our own community. This is a great reminder to us all on the power of social media but how we use that power is what will ultimately help us a trusted community around our own network. Fluff goes only so far. This speaks to every aspect of what we do - in marketing, PR and communications as well as social media. I work with a global PR team on rapid response to quickly provide insight into breaking news in the security industry. Having a journalism background has helped me a great deal in ensuring information that we provide is factual and credible.

  • by Debi Ward Kennedy Tue Sep 29, 2009 via blog

    Excellently stated, Beth. As I read through the comments following your article, this thought formed in my mind: Readers of any media source DO have to use their own capacity for thinking, reasoning, and comprehending the subject matter. It's the same concept as 'People who attend church need to use their own capacity to read scriptures on their own and not JUST accept whatever is fed to them from the pulpit'. It's as much about personal integrity on the part of the reader as it is on the part of the journalist or media source.

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