Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Harry McCracken’s guide to Ethics in On-Line Journalism

If you don’t have readers who trust you, you don’t have a business. Period.

Good ethics are good business and smart media companies understand that.

You know the story: about the resignation of Harry McCracken, Editor-in-Chief of PC World, and the sudden return. We manage to get Harry to speak at The Fourth Conference on Innovation Journalism at Stanford. He was late to the conference the due to a road accident at 101. But he did the presentation. His first on this topic since the turmoil.

“On-Line journalism has different issues than print” he said. “First, figure out what’s wrong right and wrong at a high level, then apply them to every potential pitfall you encounter.”

High-level rules that work

Journalists still need to serve the readers, not the industry.

They must be willing to criticize advertisers without giving it a moment’s thought.

Top editors must be enabled to serve as a firewall between the editorial staff and the business.

It should be clear what’s an ad and what’s editorial content.

When in doubt, label.

Don’t try to fool your editorial customers.

Always ask yourself: “Would an intelligent reader understand what’s going on here? Would he or she be okay with it?”

Set ethic rules that avoid both actual conflicts of interest and the perception of conflicts of interest.

Disclose relationships between your company and those you report on.

It’s okay (but tricky) for industry people to contribute to your site, with proper disclosure.

Make your rules public.

Don’t loosen ethical guidelines simply because it’s a tough time to make money in the media business.

If you have a solid basic framework for ethical decisions, you can approach the Web confidently, and the fact that it’s different from print won’t be scary.


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