Thursday, September 3, 2015

Online vs. Print: Is there an Ethical Difference?

Ethan Felderstein

The internet is filled with tons of content. You can find everything from funny cat videos to in-depth political conversation with just the click of the mouse. As of the past decade, the internet has become the go-to destination for Americans seeking news—and journalists have happily obliged with the new form of communication.

Thousands upon thousands of internet news outlets are within easy reach for news consumers, as they have become direct competition to more traditional news outlets such as newspapers and cable TV channels.

With the arrival of new media outlets, such as TMZ, The Huffington Post, and various social media sites, it begs the questions: Is there an difference between what ethically can be reported on a online-only site versus a print site?

In July, the editors of Gawker were forced to resign following a controversial story ran on the site. The story—which was approved by the sites' editors—revealed that a Condè Nast executive is gay. The male executive had not publicly announced he is gay and was married to a woman.

The story garnered national attention because the ethical decision to publish this story. The main argument was that the story in question caused emotional harm to the executive—a non-public figure.

The story was taken down the next day. 

In the Ethics Code of the Society of Professional Journalists. it is stated that:

"Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect."
This controversy brings up bring two questions: 1) Did Gawker follow the Code of Ethics as laid out by SPJ? 2) Would a more traditional news outlet such as a newspaper have run this story?

Obviously, Gawker did not follow SPJ's Code of Ethics. The writer of the piece didn't consider the potential consequences of the executive or of his outlet when writing the piece. The executive wasn't a public figure, so the piece wasn't even really news-worthy.

To predict whether a journalist from a traditional outlet would have reported this story—given they had this information—would be difficult. It seems that newspapers tend to err on the side of caution, usually requiring a certain amount of sources and stricter interoperation of an ethics code. 

Also, newspapers have only such a finite number of stories they can run in print. With the internet, online outlets can run as many stories as they want on any given day. A newspaper simply wouldn't have space for a story like this on a normal day. 

Of course there will always be ethical dilemmas with print journalists, but with the over saturation of news online, difficult ethical questions will become more likely for online journalists. 

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