From the Newsroom


Raji Chacko

An online writer’s code of conduct.

While the Internet offers nearly limitless freedom of expression, it might help to fashion a few ethical rules…

British MP Stella Creasy is one of many high profile women, including feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, historian Mary Beard and journalists India Knight and Laurie Penny, to have received death or rape threats on social networking sites recently. Hiding under false names or using the anonymous sign-in options, people who don’t like these women’s publicised beliefs have undertaken a campaign of online harassment that is disturbing. It also revives a lusty online debate over code of conduct on the Internet, for writers.

Enforcing a code?

In March 2007, author and tech blogger Kathy Sierra was threatened online, apparently because she had stated in an online post that inappropriate online comments should be deleted. The threats, including morphed images of her with a noose, prompted Sierra to cancel a speaking engagement and even withdraw from the Net for a time. Tim O’Reilly, the founder of O’Reilly Media and a blogger himself, reacted by proposing a code of conduct for bloggers. O’Reilly had his share of followers but an equal number were incensed by the suggestion, which they claimed smacked of censorship.

While the arguments for and against a code of conduct have been well-articulated, what I found interesting was a comment by Kathy Sierra herself: “Anyone who would support a code of conduct doesn’t *need* one, and anyone who we *wish* would adopt it never would” (http://edition.cnn.com/2007/TECH/05/17/blog.crackdown/).

A personal perspective

The anonymity that the Net provides is the virtual equivalent of Potter’s Invisibility Cloak. It allows people a more uninhibited forum for interaction and it is only likely that some might take undue advantage of this. There must be some legal recourse to deal with perverts who exploit the freedom of the Internet and harass others with threats that are as terrifying and disturbing as if they were delivered in person. However, in establishing a system to deal with such people, it is important to ensure that all dissenting voices are not silenced by a “code of conduct”.

I believe in (a probably Utopian form of) self-regulation. If I were writing for the net, I would like to ensure that none of what I say could cause intentional harm to another person and I would expect the same courtesy to be extended to me.

What is ethical?

One of the components of my mass media education was Journalism Ethics. In the world of journalism, an ethical code is not prescribed merely because of the profession’s demand for objectivity but also to ensure you are not dragged to court for libel or slander. The same pitfalls yawn dangerously in the path of the blogger. It might help, therefore, to devise for yourself a code as a sort of insurance policy to deal with such potential hazards.

Minimize harm, be accountable

I find the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics succinct and practical (http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp). The code states: Seek Truth and Report It (Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information), Minimize Harm (Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect), Act Independently (Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know), Be Accountable (Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other).

While it might seem like this is valid only for journalists, this code’s relevance can be extended to internet writing/blogs on any topic. For instance, a political opinion should offer criticism on ideology and public performance and not on physical characteristics. It is, therefore, more responsible to criticise Obama’s political performance with the use of statistical data rather than to call him names.

Social commentary should not vilify and thus cause emotional distress to those who might feel differently but should offer constructive criticism and an articulate argument in favour of your own views. So, while you might not agree with the treatment of the girl child in India, your comments need not reflect an “all men are pigs” sentiment, nor does it make sense to target officials who are merely implementing flawed government policy. Another thing to keep in mind is to respect Copyright and intellectual property at all times – give credit where it is due. Check the accuracy of statements you make and verify facts. If you have made a mistake, issue a clarification or correction. Your readers will respect that.

Stay unbiased

Your writing might be considered less credible if you are found to favour a particular interest. You could always say you found a particular brand of toothpaste helped cater to all your needs without saying the other “sucks”, especially if you haven’t tried the other. Documenting a bad experience with a particular product or brand might not be considered favouring a particular interest as long as you are stingy with your negative adjectives.

Similarly, whether you write a cooking piece or offer home remedies for all ills, your readership indicates that certain people take your recommendations seriously. Research and get your facts right. If you are advocating something that is not tried and tested or if you are not aware of possible side effects, mention it. If you’ve made a mistake, acknowledge it. All of this will only add veracity to your work.

You may want to host a writing forum or a blog that is a free for all. In which case, all rules might have to be declared null and void. That’s possible too. That’s what makes the Internet so fascinating. However, if you have a particular readership in mind and want to be considered a serious commentator, it will help to devise your rules and work accordingly.

Tim O’Reilly proposed an online badge that would acknowledge a blogger’s adherence to the proposed code of conduct. However, there doesn’t have to be a uniform code for you to wear a badge when you write online.

For instance, Hewlett Packard clarifies quite clearly what its blog’s code is:

http://www.hp.com/hpinfo/blogs/codeofconduct.html

And if that’s too corporate for you, consider this, the food blog code of ethics:

http://foodethics.wordpress.com/

 

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