Thursday, May 26, 2011

Where Do You Draw the Virtual Line?

By Amber Wright

Virtual Communities: Public or Private?

Web Users ‘Fear Media Intrusion,” an article published by BBC News, discussed the issues surrounding the media’s ability to take content from social media sites. The Press Complaints Commission reported that out of the 1,000 people they polled 80% said they would be more careful about what they posted if they knew the media might use it and 89% wanted guidelines on what the media could use.

"This clearly has implications for the PCC, which has always had the task of deciding where to draw the boundaries between what newspapers and magazines may legitimately publish and what can rightly be considered private," Chairman Sir Christopher Meyer said.

I think that the ethics of using such web content depends on the situation. For example, if Facebook profiles are used to collect statistical data (let’s say the number of users under the age of 18) and it doesn’t use names, then I don’t see a problem.

The boundary line gets a little hazier when pictures or literature by a specific person is used. The way I see it, if someone becomes a “public figure” or “newsworthy” and their profile is left unprotected, then any content is fair game. Any claims of libel would have to prove actual malice as defined by the case of Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc. Perhaps this is a result of my education at Ohio University, where as a journalism student I have been constantly reminded not to post ‘anything you wouldn’t want grandma to see.” However, it seems like common sense.

Every social media site that I have visited offers users the option of protecting certain content from public view. Most of these sites even promote it with multiple reminders or visual guides on how to change these settings. In a metaphorical sense, blocking this content from public view is the same as hanging pictures in your own living room with the curtains drawn. If users decide to leave their information unprotect, then it is essentially the same as printing their photos/information on fliers and stapling them to telephone poles around the neighborhood for anyone to see. If inclined, passersby are able to take down those fliers and place them wherever they want.

I am not arguing that advertisers should hold rights to any public photo that is left unprotected. However, if someone becomes “newsworthy” or a “public figure” as defined by case precedent, then it should be considered public domain. Still, I think there should be some restrictions. Pictures that are uploaded by other people should be off-limits and pictures containing other people should require consent by those parties or have their identities edited out before use.

The Ethics of Online Journalism

An article titled “Journalism’s Online Credibility Gap” explores the issue of “disguised” advertising as it has transitioned to online journalism. Many companies, such as General Electric, have contracted deals with online news media to provide direct links to their site or product. I think that this is a serious issue that could jeopardize the credibility and independence of a news source. However, the switch from print to virtual communication also has serious implications for the funding of these news sources.

I think that reviews with links can still be published as long as it is CLEARLY noted in the article if the company is currently paying for advertisement and reviewers hold true to accuracy. Maybe I am over-estimating the average reader, but I don’t take good or bad reviews seriously unless they provide direct evidence as to why the product received that rating. (For example, a vacuum receives a poor rating because it failed to even pick up cereal crumbs from a carpet.) While I would much rather prefer to ban any form of product promotion, I am aware of the reality of news as a business requiring funding separate from the government. If I had to pick between the two evils, I must admit that I would rather the media be influenced by advertisers rather than the government, or rather than ceasing to exist at all. Once again, it is probably a personal characteristic, but even if a product receives a good review from the New York Times I am not going to automatically rush out to buy it.

The State of the News Media 2009 annual report conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism also surveyed the perception of ethics in online journalism. Surprisingly, only 8% listed increased influence from advertisers as a problem. Does that mean people are unconcerned with “sneaky” advertising and feel comfortable with their own judgment/research capabilities? Or does that mean most people are unaware that it is a real practice and aren’t able to recognize it?

I have a hard time with this issue specifically because I fear the effects of a government-run media base more than I fear being tricked into buying a subpar product. I definitely think transparency should be used in all cases, but I would be hesitant to make a definite decision without further exploration of the different contexts and practices.

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