An effort to give more bloggers journalistic ethics

Sep 16, 2013

Doctors and lawyers can’t practice medicine without a license, and plumbers and electricians have to be certified.

But anyone can call themselves a journalist. There are no rules, licensing or regulations, and anyone who understands the First Amendment to the Constitution knows it has to be that way.

Journalists are free to write and publish, thanks to the First Amendment, which says that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.“ In other words, nobody can legally define who is a journalist or who can call themselves one.

Now, that can be annoying. I have been a professional journalist for 36 years. I have multiple degrees, have won various awards, and am head of journalism at Wayne State University. But legally, I have no more standing than a high school dropout who publishes a blog from his mom’s basement.

However, if the government were to be able to say who can call themselves a journalist, that would mean they could also say who could not practice journalism. And sooner or later, that could mean the right could be denied to those with certain political or social views, and there goes freedom of the press.

Distinguishing what was reliable was less of a problem 30 years ago, when almost all of what was broadcast or published came from professional news organizations. But the coming of the World Wide Web in the ‘90s meant anyone could publish online.

That was exciting and thrilling in many ways. But there are now millions of blogs, which differ wildly in terms of quality, reliability, fairness and accuracy. There is a real, and growing problem as to how to know which can be trusted.

Trish Brown is a dynamic former journalist and independent public relations consultant from Detroit, who today runs a company called TPE Multimedia Group, in both Detroit and Los Angeles. She’s been wrestling with this problem, and has come up with a scheme for voluntary accreditation of everyone from journalists to bloggers. She has put together a preliminary set of ethical rules she calls LSJ, for “Legendary Standards in Journalism.“ Personally, I hate the name. But I like her ideas.

Basically, she sketches out a set of standards for bloggers that include a commitment to always tell the truth and label opinion as opinion. She wants bloggers to agree to state any conflicts of interest they may have, credit sources and reveal where they got their information. What she wants to do is set up panels of experts that would award some sort of blogging and social media seal, something like the old Good Housekeeping seal of approval people used to look for on their appliances.

This would, if enough people knew about it, give readers some kind of assurance that the content of any particular source is reliable. In the near future, Brown tells me, she plans to meet with some prominent media types to ask them to consider her idea.

Some of her suggestions may need refinement. But I think the concept makes a lot of sense. Traditional journalism always served partly as a filter to help the public find reliable information. It’s now clear that on today’s information superhighway, new signposts are needed.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.