The online ethics seal: together we can be more transparent

At ONA 08 and a week later at Poynter Seminar on ethics, I talked about my online ethics seal idea.

The idea is very simple —  to form a series of ethics seals that Web sites, blogs and news organizations could embed on their Web sites. I want these seals to be in the same vein as the Creative Commons.

Right now there are five seal categories:

  1. Sourcing
  2. Objectivity/advocacy/opinion journalism or opinion
  3. Linking
  4. Copy editing/fact checking (does a second person fact check?)
  5. Conflicts of Interests
Each category can have a different level. For instance, your blog could say that you do not accept anonymous sources, while I might accept anonymous sources as long as two-independent sources confirm the same information. This will create a lot of freedom for people to customize their specific ethics policy within our open source framework.

The seals are developed by the community:

  • The seals are open source — The community gets to decide which level of the seals means. This also means that people are free to change the language of a seal as long as they open source their new seal.
  • That means the seals will evolve — Over time, we can update the ethics seals to reflect the current state of the Web. There will be version 1.0, 2.0, etch of each seal.
  • The community is more than just blogs — Any online ethics seal can’t succeed if it hopes to only serve blogs (or “govern” them). Rather a good seal should be applicable to traditional media sources and new media sources. It should be a common ground, because on the Web traditional and new media lines are blurred.
  • The seals are just beginning — Right now I have laid out five seal categories. Maybe we need more categories. Maybe we need less. Together, we’ll figure out the core areas to develop seals around.
Why would I want an ethics seal?
  • Transparency — This is the name of the game. What these seals are saying is this is how you and your news organizations/blogs go about reporting/posting. It’s not about casting judgement. Just about transparency. So what if your blog publishes rumors? What I’m saying is just be honest with your users.
  • Advertising — Advertisers consider blogs even less valuable than social networks. Why? Stigma. Many people feel that bloggers have no ethics. That’s not true. Many bloggers do, but they aren’t clear on what their ethics are. Many bloggers and online publications want ethics policies, but where do they start? We’ll make selecting an ethics policy as easy as selecting a Creative Commons copyright policy.
  • Ease of use — Why develop your own ethics seal and policy, if you could adopt an open source policy that is widely used and understood by users? Developing a custom ethics policy can take a lot of time. Instead, you can mix and match different seal categories to form your own policy in a matter of minutes. Want customization? The seals are open source. Customize our seals and wording. Just make sure to post what you have changed.
  • Our users will thank us — Even the most staid of traditional media sources make it tough to know how they report (almost every news organization has an copyright policy on every page, but an ethics policy is no where to be found). They are not transparent about the reporting process, but our readers deserve better. Imagine if my blog and The New York Times had the same open source ethics policy? It’s possible. This would ultimately be really great for users, because users would be able to easily understand how each site reports because our ethics policies are open source, widely used and easy to identify.
Our users will ultimately be the biggest winners:
  • Let’s be transparent — Why are copyright policies so widespread and yet ethics policies are so clandestine? What is ultimately more important to our readers? How we report and blog or how they can use our content? If you think you have better ethics than “those bloggers,” prove it. if your blog practices journalism, prove it. This is about being honest about who we are.
  • This will help users find relevant content — Part of the ethics seal is a central Web site and database that lists participating Web sites and blogs by seal type, content type and geographic location. If I want to look up a local sports Web site in my area, with a certain ethics seal, I can do so. Maybe I’m looking for technology rumor blogs. By utilizing the same open source seals, people will be able to find similar content. If you don’t want your national security news to contain anonymous sources, you can select from news outlets and blogs that do not use anonymous sources.
  • It comes with cool icons — Obviously entire ethics polices cannot be embedded in the footer of Web sites, but cool, memorable icons can be. Each seal category will have its own icon. Each “level” will have its own color. The five seals will be placed in a row in a footers on every page of a Web site to help people quickly comprehend what kind of ethics policy that Web site has. Each seal will link back to a page on our Web site that lists the full ethics for that given seal.
  • No legalese, please — Each seal will be written in plain English. Ethics seals are non-binding. There is no reason for them to read like the back of a credit card offer. So, they won’t. We’ll make them easy for anyone to understand.
Take action:
  • Post suggestions — Post your thoughts in the comments section of this post or on your blog.
  • Join the Wiki — We have an online ethics wiki. Join the Wiki and help shape the future of this project.
  • Spread the word — Link people up to this post. Tell them about the seal. Tell people about how together we’re going to usher in a new era of reporting transparency on the Web. It doesn’t matter anymore on the Web if someone works for a newspaper or a blog. What ultimately matters is how we go about reporting and creating content.
  • Andrew M. Roman

    I liked this idea when you first heard about it at ONA. I like it even more, now that the concept has been solidified into a proposal.

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  • I definitely support the idea, will post about it tonight!

  • The analogy to Creative Commons really works for me. The concept of opting in and having the community helping set its own standards has a lot of merit. Thanks for crafting this into a real proposal: It begins to help show it can all work. Will be linking people to this post.

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  • Looks great! Hopefully this post will seal the deal.

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  • Still one question to answer, I think: how do you hold bloggers accountable?

  • pat


    Accountable for what?

  • @Pat

    Accountable in terms of they are doing what they say they are doing. It’s one thing to have a seal on my blog that says I only report primary sources, but if you are an institution lending ethical credence to a blog, the institution will have to verify occasionally that the blogger in fact does only report primary sources. Does this make sense? I think Verisign is one parallel (that your data is transmitted securely) and that “USDA Organic” is another (that the food I buy is in fact organic and not just labeled as such.

    In short, I see the ethics seal as a set of standards bloggers can adopt, but you’ve got to figure out a mechanism for making sure people stick to the standards.

    PS You should install Subscribe to Comments so that I can track comment discussions on the posts I read.

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  • Excellent idea! 🙂

    It shouldn’t be just for blogs though, it should also be for commenters.
    (the major blogging platforms should have a comment field for “ethics seal”, and provide a link back to a person’s disclosure if they have a nonstandard one, or a(text) icon for it if it’s one of the standard ones.)

    Then give us the ability to choose to view a comments thread showing only those commenters meeting a specified seal level.

  • @Daniel – I think one way of making people stick to it is that you take their status away if they don’t… i.e there should be a way of the online community reporting misuse of the seals. And they get taken off a centrally held list (even if they use the logo) maybe?

    The beauty of the web is that even if someone doesn’t accept negative comments on their blog, you can publish elsewhere to make people aware of the ethical problems with the content.

    Of course, in the same way you get dubious Fairtrade logos popping up on clearly non-fair trade products, it could happen with this, but I don’t that should put off the introduction of this kind of system.

    A few Qs spring to mind:

    I’m left thinking about how it differs from Creative Commons (not the same legal fear for breaking the code for example) and how we can learn from some of the problems CC has faced… Creative Commons is about protection of your material whereas this is about legitimising your content, if I understand it right.

    How do you build it have such a credibility that mainstream media would want to use it as well?

    Also how do the varying legal systems of different countries fit into this? What if someone’s content is ethical by the standards of their home country, but not of another?

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  • JQuimbly

    “It’s not about casting judgement. Just about transparency. So what if your blog publishes rumors? What I’m saying is just be honest with your users.”

    Let’s say a hypothetical blogger is doing investigative journalism. He’s not publishing rumors, he wants to be regarded as a credible journalist, right? How’s that ethics seal going to look to him, when it also adorns et al.?

    A seal has little value unless it’s backed up with some well-defined form of accountability. Those are some notions that have been developed over the last hundred years, in newsrooms around the world. You should be looking over the fence to learn how they did it.

    Imagine the following scenario- You’re a dogged investigative journalist/blogger who makes a contact in the federal government, who informs you of a grand jury investigation into a (pick a party) Senator who has allegeded to be taking bribes from (pick an industry).

    Your source, however, doesn’t want to go on the record. ‘Capital Hill source’ is as close as they wanna get. You think “fine, but this is red-hot and man my pageviews will go through the roof!” So you write it up and post it on your blog.

    It’s an overnight sensation. It’s referenced by many other blogs, and indirectly mentioned on Sunday talking heads programs. Accolades from the opposition party, natch.

    But then the calls start coming from the other party, “This is unfounded, he doesn’t have a named source, it’s only a rumor.” Et cetera.

    Party flacks and like-minded bloggers start clicking through on your blog’s ethics board seal, and register complaints (or whatever the procedure is) with the board. Then a member of the ethics board contacts you. They do what any newsroom editor would do, and ask if you can verify the story with them.

    You call your DC source. He says, “No way, if my name gets beyond you, my career is fucking toast.”

    You tell the board member, “Sorry, but my source wishes to remain anonymous.”

    Now, what should the ethics board do? Should you be allowed to keep the seal? Unlike a traditional newsroom, you’ve got no formal oversight, no editor or verifiers to vet the story before it goes online.

    And then, the grand jury issues a subpeona. You make the three hour flight to DC, and appear before a group of professionals in a nondescript office in the district. They want to know how you found out about their investigation of the Senator. “Who is your source?”

    What, also, will you do when the Senator sues for libel? Newspapers employ lawyers, should bloggers also?


  • JQuimbly

    Interesting conversation about journalist licensing in various countries-

    Doesn’t apply to the United States, of course, except with one exception. Access. If you want access to photograph in or around a crime scene, you’ve got to have a PRESS badge. The rules for obtaining a press badge vary by police department, but generally they want to see at least three articles you’ve previously published in a newspaper.

    Some thing applies, in a vaguer way, with access to politicians and DC staffers. If they’re going off the record, they want to know they can trust you, that their identity will not, under any circumstances, be revealed. That they’ll know if you work for a major news org. If you’re a blogger, then it’ll help to have gone to college with ’em.