Journalistic Integrity in The Online World

I’ve been considering “journalistic integrity” and how it relates to those on the Internet we call bloggers or journallers or diarists. These are groups who, in various forms and to various degrees, share personal thoughts, stories, news items, interesting links, and other sorts of information with whoever happens by their website. In some cases, they are professional writers, but in most cases they are casual individuals who are merely enjoying the various aspects of this medium.

The blogosphere — that term coined to indicate the vast “land” of people who publish blogs — is a place of variety, sometimes good, sometimes not. It is populated by human beings who are sometimes sublime, and sometimes fallible, and sometimes even a little gullible. They, too, are just as prone as the next person to making mistakes, to falling for hoaxes, and to re-publishing those mistakes and hoaxes.

Before I go on I feel compelled to point out that though the Internet can sometimes be a hotbed of hoaxing intrigue, that is not its most prevalent aspect, nor does the existence of the Internet do anything more than make hoaxes somewhat easier to perpetrate. Chain letters, for example, have existed for decades, so have cons of other types, and just as many people fell for them before the Internet was a gleam in its creators’ eyes.

Because the Internet is made up of people, and because people are, well, people, is why I don’t get upset by the appearance of yet another Internet hoax. I’ve fallen for any number of them in the past, truth be told. There are, of course, hoaxes serious enough to warrant attention from persons in a higher position of authority than a lot of outraged online bloggers. Some of them are dealt with by persons of authority, but most hoaxes are just simple jokes, and should be treated as such. Yet there are people who become overly upset by such things, which brings me to my point — several points, in fact.

Being a long time keeper of various online journals and blogs, I’ve been exposed to a lot of things that may seem meaningless to persons who aren’t in the habit of blogging; and it means that some of my annoyances might take on a larger, sharper tone than they should otherwise have.

Journalistic integrity is a nebulous animal at times; hard to navigate and hard to define. It’s not always easy, or possible, to ensure that you’ve checked all your facts and acquired the best sources, or to not fall for the same lines and games that everyone else falls for. Journalists aren’t ubermenschen; they’re humans liable to just as many mistakes as the next person. There are times, too, that a person can believe they have checked all their sources, and have found as much truth as there is to find, and only realize they are mistaken when when it’s “too late”.

Perhaps journalists should be held to higher standards of informational integrity than the average casual web writer, or the average person, but nevertheless, “caveat lector!”: reader beware. When it comes to the veracity of anything you read, it’s up to us as readers to bear in mind that as much as the journalist or blogger is responsible for the material they produce, we as readers are just as responsible for not swallowing whole-and-all whatever is put in front of us. If you fall for some hook-line-and-sinker piece of media, then that’s not entirely the fault of the person who created and published it. You read it. You fell for it. You have to take responsibility for having done so. Yes, we do place a lot of faith in media of all types — and that includes those published on the Internet, and perhaps that faith is sometimes misplaced, but your own beliefs are not the responsibility of others. I’ve had to swallow the embarrassment pill any number of times. I’ve made mistakes in reporting, and fallen for the mistakes of others reporting to me. It just means that in the future I hope I’m sharper and wiser.

I have seen, recently, a few online writers denigrating actions in others that they are themselves guilty of, at least in part. I have seen, for example, one gentleman moaning about the journalistic integrity of online writers of all kinds, who does not always practice it himself. When it comes to integrity of the online writer, one of the most important things besides checking sources is also citing them. If you’ve found something interesting somewhere, you should give credit where credit is due and say where you found it — even if it’s just some goofy online game. You should do this if for no other reason than to say “thank you” to the person who wised you up to the information in the first place. The World Wide Web is a web for a reason — because it is an interconnected, fluctuating storehouse of information. That “web” network can’t exist if people don’t make it exist.

A good chunk of the blogging world are just casual users out to experiment and have a little fun, but many are very serious about it; trying to create, foster, and live up to standards of quality comparable to paper media. Some are not quite so serious, but attempt to be as honourable as they can about what they publish. It is, therefore, somewhat on the haughty line — especially as an online writer yourself — to stereotype bloggers as a whole, saying that because they write online means they are not capable of standards of quality and ethics, and that you don’t expect such standards of them. Let me tell you now, that some online writers are just as capable in all respects, as print writers or professional journalists — and some aren’t. Then again, there are some print journalists who, I think, couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag. The medium doesn’t dictate the quality, the person creating does, as does the person reading it.

The medium can dictate the amount of something a person sees, so of course the Internet is going to sometimes be viewed as a mecca of bad creation. It appears this way because there are more people using it than appear in your average print magazine or newspaper. The Internet is like any large city, in fact: the more people that are in it, the more you’re going to notice certain things — both good and bad. It’s a percentage game. And it’s true, as I said, that much of the blogosphere is populated by casual users who don’t need or warrant the sort of microscopic scrutiny to which we put the average journalist. But, it’s unfair to blanket all online writers with the stigma of incapability, particularly if you’re part of that group yourself, and particularly when what you decry in others is something you are also guilty of.