Blogs and Journalistic Ethics

Here’s an exchange between Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos and Zachary Roth of Campaign Desk, sparked by Roth’s criticism of bloggers who published early exit poll numbers.

Moulitsas writes:

Problem is, blogs aren’t necessarily bound by journalistic ethics. As a blogger, I make my own rules. People don’t like them, they are welcome to head elsewhere to get their information.

I love your site and all, but I do find it amusing that you guys are trying to apply rules to a medium that doesn’t have rules. Blogs are the wild west of the media world. They are journalistic outlaws. We can gleefully police traditional media based on the rules they have set for themselves, even as we equally gleefully flaunt those rules.

As such, the concept of “ethics” doesn’t really apply. We cater exclusively to our readers, in a way that traditional media outlets can never match (what with the quaint but unattainable quest for fairness and balance). As such, our readers draw our boundaries. If my readership was outraged about my running exit polls, then I would stop. And while a handful of people were upset, the vast majority approved (and “rewarded” me with out-of-control traffic).

So yeah, you sound like the indignant moralist. And yeah, the fact we are blogs DOES let us off the hook.

Markos Moulitsas
Daily Kos

Roth replies:

Markos —

I like your site too, which is why I was surprised to read your self-defeating and myopic point-of-view about journalistic ethics as applied to blogs.

Let’s be clear: You have the right to do whatever you want on your blog. If you don’t feel like meeting basic standards of journalistic integrity, that is indeed your prerogative. But we get to call it what it is.

When conventional print outlets first became widely read, the concept of “ethics” didn’t apply to them either. But it soon became clear that the press exercised an influence on public affairs that was often as great as that exercised by public officials. And so just as public officials were expected to meet certain ethical standards, it was gradually agreed that the press should too.

The mainstream press could have refused to comply. They could have made the same argument that you do: “If our readers don’t like the way we do things, they’ll stop reading our paper.” But most newspapers recognized that it was by agreeing to uphold certain basic ethical standards that they won for themselves the right to play a major role in the national debate — the right, in short, to be taken seriously. That was a tradeoff they were more than willing to make.

The problem is that you’re trying to have it both ways. You clearly want to be taken seriously, and to have a voice in public affairs — the subtitle of your blog is “political analysis.” (And the blogosphere celebrates itself, often justifiably, whenever one of its own actually has some tangible impact on outside events [see Josh Marshall-Trent Lott]).

That’s all fine. But you also relish your “outlaw” status to “gleefully flaunt” the rules traditional media try to follow. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to choose between the rewards of being taken seriously, and the rewards of behaving like a two-year-old who has just discovered he can break things. You don’t get both.

If you made no pretense of having an impact on the public sphere, then, you, like thousands of bloggers, wouldn’t have to worry about being held to basic standards of accountability and verifiability. You could do what you want and we’d leave you alone. We’re not going after the 12 year-old girl who invents stories about her classmates on her personal blog. It’s the double standard that makes you unethical.

Obviously, you’re free to ignore this. If you’re happy with a situation where your community of readers and other bloggers knows to take whatever you write with a giant grain of salt, then so be it.

But don’t then complain when others impugn your journalistic ethics — and don’t complain that Campaign Desk or anyone else is refusing to take you seriously. Your choice.


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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.