Earlier today I spoke at the United Nations University in Amman, in a conference entitled “Media in the New Global World Order: Media, Economy & Development”. The conference focused a great deal on leadership in the media sector, specifically with regards to economic reporting. The session I was asked to speak in concerned the challenge of informing, and the organizers requested I use my blog as a case study. Throughout the presentation I sought to introduce other blogs in the Jordanian blogosphere such as Khalaf’s What’s Up In Jordan?, Batir’s Jordan Watch, our own 7iber, as well as other local examples.
During the discussion afterwards, there was a great deal of interest generated about blogging and “issues” reporting, but one question really caught my attention. The question that arose concerned the ethical standards of bloggers, especially when those bloggers are also working for the mainstream media, myself being an example.
There are two aspects to this question: how does one balance working for both worlds, especially when they are divided by the state and society; and how do we control the ethical standards of bloggers, or in other words, should we place a disclaimer at the bottom of every blog to indicate that was is said here is based purely on opinion (similar to the disclaimers of magazines)?
First, there is a social construct to consider when it comes to working for the mainstream media while being a blogger. There are certain lines you cannot cross and there are certain lines that are meant to be crossed. An example of the former would be avoiding the conflict of interest that becomes apparent when a certain story your working on shouldn’t be talked about on the blog. There are issues of exclusivity and privacy, especially when we’re talking about the mainstream media which is very stringent on ownership of the material it produces. Copyright laws are also a part of this issue.
An example of the latter – where lines have to be crossed – is when you’re working as a journalist/writer/analyst in the media sector and you discover a story you can’t or are not able to write due to state or self-censorship or even other factors. In the conference I brought up the example of a post I wrote on Talal Abu Ghazaleh’s battle with the Amman Municipality (which he has unfortunately lost recently), where I had met with them in my capacity as a representative of a publication and not as a blogger. As a publication we decided not to run the story simply because the other side declined to be involved and the piece would’ve sounded just too imbalanced and bias. So I decided to talk about it in my capacity as a blogger. It felt like a topic that needed to be talked about, that needed that discussion and debate from the people themselves, in a way that only a blogger can offer (and fortunately it did generate such a debate). This is especially true in a country like Jordan where censorship and the fear of it is readily apparent, there becomes an almost unspoken obligation for an issues-blogger to talk about it and in doing so, cross the red lines the state has set.
In that context it was like writing about my day, because I do believe that to a large extent blogging is a casual conversation.
That being said, how do we control the ethical standards of bloggers? If you had a casual conversation with a friend, would you issue a disclaimer at the end of your conversation? Well, sometimes in Jordan it does feel like we should be doing that because it seems like we’re held accountable for every word we say by the powers-that-be. However, I think that there is a general perception and therefore a consensus that blogs are in fact opinion-based.
That being said, even opinions integrate facts. So while we are socialized to perceive print media as “truthful”, “factual” and “precise” (even though they are not always so), that same perception does not apply to blogs. The latter are seen as pretty much based on opinion, backed by opinion.
In that sense, how do we control the ethical standards?
I remember nearly a year ago there was a move to create a “blogger’s code”, and it was designed primarily to control issues of “civility” on blogs. If I’m correct, the project seems to have died down. Is it possible that our inability as bloggers, or even as human beings, to determine what is deemed “civil” similar to our inability to determine standards of ethics? Moreover, even in the case of having such standards, who would enforce them? Especially when we are talking about issues-bloggers whose goal is to try and hold others accountable; it’s like Juvenal asking Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? who will guard the guards?
The truth is, in my opinion, that blogs are based on a writer-reader relationship and that relationship dominates everything.
If facts are wrong, readers will keep the blogger in check. Sometimes the blogger will argue against it and sometimes they’ll realize their mistake and amend what they’ve written. In other words, the readers are those who hold bloggers accountable for their words. Often times, on this blog, I’ve mentioned a fact that gets updated little to my knowledge, and so someone will be kind enough to tell me and I’ll try to update accordingly. Sometimes it’s as small as someone pointing out a typo; a crime against grammar which I am often guilty of committing.
This is interesting when we look at issues-bloggers, econobloggers or polibloggers, who depend a great deal on integrating facts into their opinions, with the general aim of holding others accountable. They are in turn, as bloggers, held accountable by their readership. And in that manner, no real standards are set, simply a cycle of accountability on the World Wide Web.