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:
- Objectivity/advocacy/opinion journalism or opinion
- Copy editing/fact checking (does a second person fact check?)
- 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.
- 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.