Thoughts on new media and ethics

I did a panel at Podcamp Toronto on Sunday with my friend and former Globe and Mail colleague Keith McArthur, in which we talked about new media and ethics, and I wanted to download some of what happened there for anyone who couldn’t make it (from what I understand, there should be archived video of the session soon at the Podcamp wiki). I think it’s an interesting discussion, and we only touched the surface of many of the issues in the hour or so we were talking about it (Michelle Sullivan has a pretty good overview as well).

Keith started with a few examples of ethical lapses on several different sides of the equation. One was by the Globe: an April Fool’s joke involving a CBC radio report about Jimmy Carter, which was reported as though it was fact in the Globe. A second was by the blogosphere: a story that Ford had stopped Mustang owners from publishing a calendar with shots of their classic cars in it (more on that here). And the third was from corporate America: In responding to a blog, Target said that it only handled such requests from “legitimate” media outlets.

One of the main things that struck me about those three examples is the difference in responses between traditional media and “new” media, in part because of their structure (one in print and the other online and easily changeable) and likely in part for cultural reasons. The Globe, for example, apologized for the story and ran a lengthy response from the writer involved (although it felt somewhat insincere). But that was days later. In any case, there the matter ended.

The Ford report, meanwhile, has been evolving and changing and becoming more complete since it was first reported by BoingBoing and other blogs. First, a Ford representative responded in the comments at various blogs, saying Cafepress was the one that told the car club it couldn’t print their calendar. But then others (including me) noted that this was because Ford had come down on them in the past for copyright and trademark issues. And now BoingBoing has a more complete picture of what happened.

Keith asked me whether I thought blogs got things wrong more than the traditional media. I’m not sure that’s true or not — although I would say that blogs often rush to judgment before they have all the facts, in part out of a desire for controversy and traffic (a dynamic I wrote about in a recent post). But at the same time, errors that are made are more readily challenged, and more easily fixed or elaborated on in digital media, because of the nature of the medium.

That to me is a very powerful benefit. When we started globeandmail.com as a live news site in 2000, our unofficial motto was “We may be wrong, but we won’t be wrong for long.” That didn’t mean we weren’t trying to get it right — it was an admission that we were also trying to be fast, and that we were comfortable publishing and then if necessary correcting later. That’s a fundamental shift in outlook for a media entity (my version of the motto was: “Fast, smart and accurate. Pick two”). It’s one that is difficult to make, but hopefully we are getting there.

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