There used to be a standard in how professional journalists presented ‘news’ to the public, but as blogging became more popular, what was a long-held belief in ethical behavior quickly altered with some writers going rogue.
With the advent of social media, it has become commonplace to throw truthfulness and integrity into the trash receptacle while favoring an often seedy form of dissemination via opinion-favoring over presentation of verifiable facts.
Ethics in media was once a professional code, varying on a theme of accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and accountability to the public. Through acquisition of newsworthy information, dissemination publicly included an overriding idea that a limitation of harm was a key principle in presentation.
A recent event illustrated just how far from those values modern media – specifically sports reporting – has gotten.
A blogger/sports writer listened to a radio broadcast presented to the general public. Although he did not legally own any rights to the broadcast, or opinions contained therein, he was interested in the ‘scoop’ – failing to see that any words taken could not and should not be considered his own or protected as such. Unfortunately, the frequency with which he has practiced presenting material in such a manner has led to cries of foul play. His perpetual fabrication of the actual truth has led other writers who cover the same sport to see him as an unethical man and have fallen victim to his practice of calling the ideas and words of others his own as he shared the information with the public.
The fabrication in this recent event was based on the idea that if he typed out statements that were in the broadcast, he had a legal leg to stand on by calling that written material his “transcripts”. Unfortunately, the true legal ownership is retained by the broadcast originator regardless of outside beliefs.
Another sports writer, with access to the same source (a public radio broadcast), used statements in an article he wrote but gave proper attribution to the originator of said broadcast. He did not credit writer ‘A’, in his article, as the source – and doing so would have been an ethical violation towards the radio program.
With agitation, writer ‘A’ viewed this as “plagiarism” based on his wrong idea that he had created a transcript he had legal protection of. Upon seeing the article by writer “B”, he became so outraged that he initiated an all too familiar move away from traditional ethical behavior in journalism and took the mantle that has grown out of misplaced self-righteousness via social media’s now blatant practices: false claims of ownership, plagiarism, lack of proper attribution(s), sharing material that is protected under copyrights without consequence and the idea that it is acceptable to publicly attack and/or defame others perceived as ‘wronging’.
Writer “B” was publicly threatened that he had better apologize for plagiarism, or else, and pressured to the point of harassment that many in the legal field agree was egregious and could be a prosecutable offense. What was worse is the fact that writer “B” is a minor, being ‘trolled’ – a form of online stalking – by an adult; an adult that has no right to an apology and certainly no right to claim he was personally wronged. He did not own the material and, thus, could not claim protected rights.
Plagiarism is the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. While not a crime in itself, it can constitute copyright infringement if the work or idea is protected by copyright law. Plagiarism is an ethical offense, but the burden of proof lay with the claimant of ownership to show that such action was in fact illegal. Simply claiming perceived plagiarism occurred does not meet the burden of proof.
Regardless, writer “B” issued a public apology and retracted his article in order to take the moral high ground and preserve his integrity. When the apology did not remain accessible to the public anymore (and there is no true timetable on how long an apology must be made), writer “A” proceeded to once again abuse writer “B” and attempt to discredit him based on a perceived wrong only.
Interestingly enough, there is strong argument that writer ‘A’ was, in fact, committing plagiarism himself.
Whether the issue truly been resolved remains to be seen, however it has placed a spotlight on how ethical behavior has entered a gray zone in the modern digital era.
It also highlighted the ugly practice of public shaming and assaultive statements that have no place in the world of professional writing, social media – or anywhere else, for that matter.
In a new world where blogging and true journalism overlap, it is easy to see that there is plenty of uncertainty on ethical conduct and practices.
What might you do if faced with such a situation? Has this ever happened to you? Please comment below.
Steve Buttry, who has more than 40 years’ experience in the news business as a reporter, editor and educator, offered a fantastic editorial on the changing tides in journalistic ethics. In the interview with Kyle James of onMedia, Buttry gives examples of both good and bad deviations from traditional ethics in journalism.