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In digital age, copy editors still uphold journalistic responsibility

May 2, 2011 By Jan Leach Resources

The Internet changes almost everything, and journalism is no exception. But does it change journalism ethics?

Now that newspapers, magazines and most traditional media organizations post news and information immediately to the Web, copy editors have even more responsibilities. They still ensure accuracy and fairness. They still check facts and flag conflicts. They still smooth out writing and edit for clarity. Now, they do all that so quickly that sometimes speed may trump truth, and ethics questions arise.

In a digital age where anyone with a computer and Internet connection can publish info, we still need copy editors to uphold journalistic responsibility and values. Online journalism ethics is such a huge topic that we’ll focus here on three key ethics issues to keep in mind when editing for online: speed vs. accuracy, transparency and feedback from commenters.

Editing for ethics has always been important; good copy editors recognize and support this even as they edit for online.

“You don’t get a pass from ethics or common standards of accuracy and decency just because you’re writing fast for the Internet,” says John McIntyre, night content production manager and former copy desk chief at the Baltimore Sun. “The reader is entitled to know how you know what you say.”

McIntyre, a charter member and two-term president of ACES, emphasizes accuracy and verifying sources as primary ethics concepts for online editing. “Anything not from direct personal experience has to be sourced. And you have an obligation to check out your sources to make sure that you’re not, say, repeating something from the Onion (satire website) as a straight story, or from some wacko conspiracy site.”

Speed and accuracy have long been important tenets of journalism, now magnified by the competition to be first on the Web. Quick updates and news now are advantages for media websites, putting copy editors on the front lines in the battle to be both fast and accurate.

“Even though mistakes are nothing new in breaking news coverage, online journalism steps up the previous pressures on journalists,” according to University of Oklahoma Professor David A. Craig in his new (2011) book, “Excellence in Online Journalism.”

Craig examines online journalism news organizations doing strong multimedia work. His research helps frame the issue of speed vs. accuracy. He writes that breaking news can mean anything from a terrorist attack to celebrity gossip and that “storytelling in small increments has become more and more pervasive.”

Online incremental storytelling and pushing small bits of news via Facebook and Twitter have changed once-traditional news cycles and cut the time available to verify facts and sources, Craig writes.

“Breaking news flows as confirmed information from mainstream journalists and careful bloggers, but it also spews as unconfirmed rumor from those less cautious.”

Careful checking and confirmation are imperative and should minimally include verifying facts as much and as quickly as possible with official sources, documents or additional witnesses; naming names and including titles and affiliations; quoting only what a person actually says; explaining where information came from including from websites or social-networking sites.

Denise Polverine, editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com, the Plain Dealer’s online operation, agrees that online journalism ethics are the same as print journalism ethics, but she adds that there are ways of gathering and providing information that are unique to online and these require extra steps to ensure that solid reporting and attribution are in place.

Polverine explains that many news sites, like Cleveland.com, now aggregate content on a particular topic from all over the Web. This means such sites provide excerpts, links, video and more to accompany locally produced stories. The advantage for readers is that they can easily access related material on a given topic. But, says Polverine, “We have had to take extra steps to discuss and agree upon how we present this to our readers so that it is very clear to them where the information is coming from.”

Transparency about sources and links give readers the opportunity to make independent judgments about what they find online and bolster media credibility. Check links, blogs and their parent companies or sponsors.

“We are very careful with the links we add to our stories,” Polverine says. “We now like to include many voices in our coverage and often link to outside bloggers and commenters. If we do, we always attribute that content accordingly.”

Another ethics issue for online journalists concerns comments. While copy editors may not have the authority to remove incorrect, vicious or unsubstantiated comments, they can and should raise questions about tone and accuracy.

Craig discusses various ways readers now interact with journalists including comments, blogs, discussion forums and the like. These provide feedback, news tips and sometimes-heated debate, especially when user comments are insulting or distracting from the topic. Editors note that there are legal questions involved in posting, editing and removing online comments. Craig asks where editors can find the ethical balance between letting every comment through and taking out too much.

The managing editor of the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, Doug Oplinger, is concerned about online comments when, for example, the newspaper has decided not to name a juvenile or a crime victim, for example.

“We may decide to withhold (the name),” Oplinger says. “But then commenters go ahead and name them online. This has become a big concern because we now have readers who know how to search online court records and police records, cite circumstantial evidence in comments and try to convict people.

“We increasingly prohibit comments on stories where we’ve made a decision to withhold information,” Oplinger adds.

Polverine says comments play a big role on Cleveland.com. “We encourage commenting and interactivity. We never edit users’ comments at all. If we see a comment that violates our online user agreement, we simply delete the comment, but in no way will we edit it.”

Reader interaction online is a huge topic for discussion and may prompt management policy decisions.

In a digital world we still need copy editors as ethics gatekeepers and guardians. Ethics issues will continue to be debated but here’s an easy primer, according to McIntyre: “The main ethical principles to be followed are the same ones your teachers told you in elementary school: Don’t copy. Don’t tell lies.”

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