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Blog Ethics

Reporters Sans Frontiers (AKA RSF AKA Reporters Without Borders) has an interesting document about blogging [1]. They are specifically focussed on blogging as a way of reporting news. Their definition of a blog states that it is “a personal website” (there are many corporate blogs run by teams) and that it contains “mostly news” (most blogs that I read contain mostly technial information about computers and any “news” is mostly about the author). They also describe a blog as being set up with an “interactive tool” – most blogs are written using web-based tools, but some are written with plain text and a compilation system.

Some of their technical information is simply wrong. For example they say that RSS “alerts users whenever their favourite blogs are updated” (this can be done through RPC notification which then requires RSS to pull the data – but a user will almost always have a tool polling their favourite RSS feeds). Their section listing the various options for blogging platforms mentions LiveJournal, Blogger, and MSNSpaces but doesn’t mention WordPress.com which seems to be a serious omission (although it does mention civiblog.org which is a useful hosting resource for grassroots political campaigning). But these are minor problems, they are reporters primarily not programmers.

Their document gets interesting when it gives links to pages about blogging ethics. One page that was not directly linked (presumably because it mainly concerns non-journalistic blogging) is Rebecca Blood’s document about blogging ethics [2]. She gives a brief coverage to conflicts of interest and gives most space to the topic of maintaining a record of changes. One thing I have been considering is having a separate instance of WordPress for documents that change [3]. This way regular blog posts (such as this one) can be relied on to preserve a list of changes (any change other than correcting a typo will be documented) so if you link to a post you can rely on the original intent being preserved. But for posts which have ongoing value as live documents they will be kept current without a significant change-log. Items that go into the main blog would include commentary on news and predictions, and the document blog would contain technical information about Linux, the science-fiction stories that I will eventually write, etc. When I wrote my previous blog post about this issue I was mainly considering technical issues, but when considering the ethical issues it becomes clear that I need a separate blog (or other CMS) for such things. The site etbe.coker.com.au needs to be a reliable record of what I wrote while another site such as docs.coker.com.au could contain live documents with no such record. The essential factor here is the ability of the user to know what type of document they are seeing.

Another really interesting point that Rebecca makes is in regard to known bad sources. Sometimes a known bad source can produce worthy data and is worth referencing, but you have to note the context (which among other things means that if the worthy data gets any reasonable number of hits it may get replaced by something entirely different). If a blogger cites a reference on a known bad site and explains the reason for the reference (and the fact that the nature of the site is known) then the reader reaction will be quite different to just a reference with no explanation.

As a contrast to Rebecca Blood’s document the cyberjournalist.net code of ethics [4] covers the traditional issues of journalistic integrity, “public interest” etc. One interesting issue that they raise (but apparently don’t address) is the definition of “private people“. While it is generally agreed that movie stars and similar people deserve less protection as they have chosen to be in the public eye the situation regarding bloggers is less clear. Is a blogger with a high ranking on technorati.com in a similar position to a Hollywood star when it comes to privacy?

A claim is sometimes made that blogs are unreliable because they can change (based on the actions of some bloggers who change posts with no notification and turn sections of the blogsphere into a swamp). Magazines and newspapers are held as an example of unchanging content and people who publish online magazines sometimes express horror at the idea of changing a past issue. The fact is that newspapers and magazines never changed past issues because it is impossible to recall hundreds of thousands of printed documents that are distributed around a country or the world. When it’s possible to fix old issues (as it is online) then the requirement is to document the changes not keep bad versions.

It probably would be a useful feature for a blogging package to have the ability to display (and link to) old versions of a page. This would allow the users to easily see the changes and anyone who references a post can reference a particular version of it. In some situations it may make sense to use a Wiki server instead of a Blog server for some data to preserve the change history. Maybe I should consider a wiki in which only I have write access for my documents repository.

No-one seems to cover the issue of how to deal with fiction. Obviously for a blog such as 365tomorrows.com (a science-fiction blog) it’s assumed that all content is fictional unless stated otherwise. The problem comes when someone includes fiction amongst the non-fiction content of a blog. I recently unsubscribed from a blog feed when the author revealed that what appeared to have been a diary entry was actually a fiction story (and a poor one at that). If your blog has mostly non-fiction then any fiction must be clearly marked, probably including the word “fiction” in the title and the permalink would be required to avoid all potential of confusion. For my documents CMS/blog I am considering having a category of “fiction” and to use the category name in the permalink address of each post. Of course science-fiction is sometimes obvious as fiction, but to avoid problems with fiction that is set in current times I think it’s best to clearly mark all such posts. The old-fashioned media seems to have dealt with this, tabloid womens magazines (which almost everyone reads occasionally as they are often the only reading materiel in a waiting room) traditionally have a fiction story in every issue which is clearly marked.

Another type of blogging is corporate blogging. I wonder whether that needs to be covered separately in an ethics code.

One thing that the three documents about ethics have in common (as a side-note in each) is the fact that the personal reputation of the writer depends on their ethics. If you are known for writing truthfully and fairly then people will treat your posts more seriously than that of writers who lie or act unfairly. There are direct personal benefits in acting ethically. The RSF document claims that the sole purpose of ethics standards is to instill trust in the readership which directly benefits the writer – not for any abstract reasons. Whenever ethics is mentioned in terms of writing there is always someone who claims that it can’t be enforced, well many people in your audience will figure out whether you are acting ethically and decide whether they want to continue reading your materiel. I wonder whether Planet installations should have ethics codes and remove blogs that violate them.

In conclusion I think that a complete code of ethics for blogging needs to have some IF clauses to cover the different types of blog. I may have to write my own. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.

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