Are we journalists or gossips?

MediaShift’s Mark Glaser has me shaking my head.  He sent a journalism student ‘undercover’ to blog about her social media class, without being upfront with her teacher or her classmates.  Then he rides to his own defense by penning a piece of quasi-journalism, NYU Professor Stifles Blogging, Twittering By Journalism Students. Bad professor, bad!  Bad Mark, more like.

Do we need an expose of a journalism class? And what happened to the tenets of journalism?

In “The Elements of Journalism” Kovach and Rosenstiel have these five points about reporting:

  1. Never add anything that was not there.
  2. Never deceive the audience.
  3. Be transparent as possible about your methods and motives.
  4. Rely on your own original reporting.
  5. Exercise humility.

Granted, they published this in 2001, before the rise of blogging and the like. But when did it become the default to not tell someone you’re a journalist? I don’t understand why Mark would encourage her to do this, and then why Mark he would try to trump it up into some kind of ethics/censorhip dilemma. Besides, the only audience who would possibly be interested in her posts would be her class, and she clearly deceived them.

There is a question as to whether in the world of blogging and other digital media, the old rules still apply — I’ve been to conferences that were ‘off-the-record’ for journalists, but other attendees could disclose whatever they liked, and did. That’s frustrating, to say the least. But privacy in the journalistic sense is not irrelevant, even though it may not be convenient to actually ask people to go on the record. When journalists disclose what they do professionally, it’s an alert to everyone else that what is said and done may be exposed to a community of readers or listeners or viewers, and that it may be vetted by other people beforehand, people they don’t know, people who aren’t there.  So people who knowingly talk in front of a journalist is doing so with a tacit understanding that they are actually engaging in a kind of public conversation. Blogging without disclosure is not journalism — it’s a kind of gossip. That’s true even if it’s accurate in what it reports.
Dan Gillmor saw this coming in “We the Media,” where he wrote of a couple of early examples of the potential dilemma, including one involving a meeting someone had with President Bush. Gillmor wrote that “The growth of grassroots journalism has been accompanied by serious ethical issues, including veracity and outright deception.” (emphasis mine)  He raises the question of whether traditional journalistic ethics are compatible with blogging, but doesn’t answer it in the book (he probably has since it was published, in 2004. Maybe someone can post a link…)

I commented on Mark’s story, challenging him for leading a student astray and for trying to pass off his mistake as an example of a big institution stifling a student — he shouldn’t have written about it in a journalistic way. I don’t want to throw stones; I’m in no position to do that.  But I do think he made a mistake, and he needs to address it.  We’ll see whether he has anything more to say about it.

UPDATE: Mark posted this comment in response to the one I posted on his original item:

Michael F.,
I agree with you that Alana should have got her teacher’s point of view for her first story. But she told me that she didn’t think she would be able to give an honest assessment of what happened in the class if she had told her teacher ahead of time. I said the only way I would run that initial post was if she would go to her teacher and other faculty at NYU and get their side of the story for a follow-up post.

When she tried to do that after the first post, she was told not to ever write about the class again and the teacher refused to be interviewed by her. I think once Alana hit a wall and didn’t feel comfortable writing about the class, it was fair game for me to write about what had happened to her. I didn’t pretend that I was an impartial observer, and was clear about my own involvement in the story.

I posted back that I didn’t understand why he would publish it as journalism when it didn’t do journalistic basics, like give the source a chance to respond, which she could even have done after the fact. There’s nothing wrong with what she wrote, if it’s on her personal blog.  It’s taking it and calling it journalism without holding it to the standards of journalism that I object to.

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