Journalism Ethics in a digital world: In an nutshell

For the last six years or so I’ve done a guest lecture on a colleague’s Journalism Ethics module around the title ethics in a digital world. All the lectures tend to be around the same theme – if you want to be treated as a journalist, you need to behave like one and that might be at odds with the way everyone else does it.

The slide above represents the lightbulb moment when I realised what that six years really boiled down to.

The detail is in what that means, who sets the behaviour etc.  is the lecture – these sitting through it might have preferred the slide! It’s also worth noting that my attempts to wrestle with the issue have resulted in a little of the devils-advocate/challenging ideas. This is presented in the same spirit.

So, here’s a bit of meat on the bones (not the whole lecture) of the slide for which I am massively indebted to Wil Wheaton for 


As I’ve researched the lectures, one thing thats become clear is that most conversation around journalism ethics conversations fall into one of two categories:

  1. Legal issues – most of what are considered ethical issues are actually legal issues. This seems especially common around the issue of comments and using user generated content and social media.
  2. Most ethics codes are about the process not of being fair and good but of not looking like a dick/idiot.

A good example of number 2 is the use of material from social media. A lot of ethical guidelines focus on the way you can verify images and multimedia from social media so that you don’t fall foul of hoaxes or people with agendas. Outsides of a, frankly academic, debated about the difference between professional ethics and, well, ethics,  I don’t see fact checking as an “ethical issue”. Integrity? Brand protection? Yes. Ethics? No.

Ethics asks you why you did something not how.

On being an idiot

It could be argued that no one wants to look like an idiot but experience has taught me that this very much depends on the audience and if nothing else, as journalists we play to an audience. The web and social media in particular have been instrumental in giving the audience a voice, but they have also raised the curtain on journalism and allowed all journalists, not just the chosen few a channel for their own voice and the audience that comes with the social and cultural capital journalism as a profession gives us. More chance to be seen and heard and more chance to be ‘unethical’.

Katy Hopkins: The Ethical Journalist?

You may look, for examples, at Katy Hopkins and think Idiot!*  But there’s a huge audience who think that she isn’t. So, she doesn’t care if you think she’s an idiot and neither do they.  You may, fully believe that you’re right and she isn’t, make this point clear to her and her followers (who by association you think are idiots too); feel good about it but reap the vitriolic whirlwind that follows.

If you did it because you genuinely think they are idiots and you need them to know that – well done! Stick to your guns and fight your corner and that’s an ethical decision.  Do it to get a few articles/retweets and follows out of it  – less so. Ethically you’re in danger of being as much of an idiot as they are.

Increasingly the underlying argument by many media ethics people (interpreting journalists actions and responses)  is that in a digital world to be ‘ethical’, you have to ask yourself why you’re doing something not just rely on the existing structures around you – in many peoples eyes the underpinning principles of those structures (balance etc.) aren’t fit for purpose anymore.  You also need to be happy that you’ve thought deeply about it, but you’re also prepared to live with the consequences.

I realise that by this definition, it could be argued that Katy Hopkins is actually quite ethical. On two of my counts. Maybe.  But she falls foul of the last one. Because no matter how existential your own reasoning may be, as a human being (not a journalist) you still have a duty of care – we’re not Iain Duncan Smith!. So if what you do intentionally causes harm to others and you know it will, that’s not ethical.

Here’s a less contentious/cleaner version for your newsroom.


(*I’m using idiot and dick interchangeably here) 

Ernest Hemingway on Adblocking

Whilst doing my daily read around of various things, I found myself at Forbes’ website. I was greeted by the usual pithy ‘quote of the day’ pop-up but with an added element – it was asking me to turn off my adblocker. To be honest I didn’t even know I had one turned on.

Forbes Welcome

What struck me in this instance was not the message; I get the reasoning and I hear the for and against for this strategy. What got me, was the juxtaposition of the quote and the request.   Problem and solution all in one.

What are the ingredients for creating a journalism portfolio?

I’m currently putting together the details for one of my modules for Semester 2. It’s called Multiplatform Journalism and its aimed at first-year journalism students.  The general aim is to introduce them to the idea of digital informed journalism in a genre agnostic way. In plain english –  it doesn’t matter if you want to work in newspapers, broadcast or any other ‘type’ of journalism you want to make, digital skills are going to be a part of what you do.

We know that using digital skills in finding and developing stories makes for better content and using platforms like social media and the ubiquitous web presence, helps build a bigger audience for your content. So my general theme this year is the use of digital to enhance and amplify.

We have to assess this in some way and broadly, the assignment takes the form of a portfolio – a guided collection of content that shows a range of digital skills. Just to head some possible issues off at the pass, I’d also expect that the work would also show a good standard or ‘journalism’ – some news sense, proper sourcing and attention to some basic editorial standards etc.

I’ve got some ideas of what should be represented or contribute in the portfolio:

  • Audio and video skills
  • Meaningful image making
  • Social media and UGC awareness
  • Data journalism and visualisation

I’m also pondering things like analytics and mobile but thinking about how that is represented in terms of content outside the broad areas above.

That said, beyond my thoughts, I was wondering if people had other ideas about what they would look for in a portfolio to show some forward momentum. This is first years but I’m convinced that the kind of exit velocity you need to push into the industry these days means taking all the opportunities you can from day one.

So should I make a listicle mandatory? Should a liveblog of an event be the kind of thing to assess a first year on? What kind of video is good video?  Let me know.

My thoughts on #CJ15: What next for community journalism?

Yesterday I spent a packed but interesting day at Cardiff Uni for the Centre for Community Journalism’s What next for community journalism conference. I was there to offer a quick overview of the Media Mill project I’m researcher on (my presentation is online). It was a fascinating day with lots to mull over and I wanted to share a few thoughts and observations:

  • Investigative journalism is alive and well: There were some really inspiring examples of passionate and committed local storytelling that any investigative journalist would be proud of. Take a look at The Bristol Cable and for example.
  • Hyperlocal’s don’t know what they are: A clear message for me is that hyperlocal community is a broad church and there isn’t one clear thread that you could pull out that would define hyperlocal.  It also strikes me that a number of ‘hyperlocals’ in the room didn’t really seem to be bothered by that – they do what they do. It seems more an issue for those who want to represent them.  Efforts to map the sector have simply highlighted the issue. I think there’s some great scope in the map to be able to ask some questions about the capacity of the sector – I think that ‘parish pump’ newsletters, which might be seen as nothing more than notice boards, could be called in to ‘active’ journalistic service if a local issue demands it. (later: John Hickman makes a good point about how inclusive the term hyperlocal is in this context) 
  • The BBC is not the Media: The various BBC announcements made earlier in the week didn’t get much play in the room. I’m not sure if that’s because there weren’t many open forums (not a bad thing) or because people didn’t really care. But those ‘advocating on behalf of hyperlocals’ like Nesta and the CCJ seemed quite exorcised by the BBC. One of the keynotes of the day was from Damien Radcliffe, showcasing the Where are we know report . (and here) Its a good report, but I was struck by the way that the BBC and commercial media were treated differently when it came to what they need to do to support hyperlocal. You might say ‘but they are!’, except that I think what’s being asked of them is the same – ‘give us some of your money’.  
  • The BBC is not the competition:  Given the general conversation around the commercial and ideological motivations around hyperlocals its pretty clear that for some in the room, particularly those with a more liberal market reform view, that the BBC is an easy target.  Of course the biggest threat is the regional newspaper industry but you can’t lobby them! It was also interesting to see Facebook get a poking from Dan Glimor (who played the libertarian in the room  more than once) by suggesting that Facebook wanted to be like electricity (in it’s fundamental utility) which was fine by him as it invited regulation. It got a big laugh and a good deal of sympathy but I get the sense that, beyond the political, given their scale, for most hyperlocals Facebook is more like a passing supertanker rather than the indiscriminate steam roller many in the mainstream media think it is.
  • There is no single, viable, transferable business model for hyperlocal: There are hyperlocals that make money, those that don’t. They do it through ads, some don’t. The reality is, that the diversity of the sector means there is no clear way for them to make money (if that’s what they want to do).
  • There is no such thing as a level playing field: I heard the term ‘we need a level playing field’ a lot, especially in the debate around where money for support should come from. I hate the term because it really means ‘get off my grass’. The truth is that the media ‘field’ is like a big bubble. ‘level’ one bit and all that happens is the other gets distorted. Leveling a playing field doesn’t just mean lowering the field to a level (often a lowest common denominator) , it means the players need to raise their game. The price of that is often a compromise between the motivation and the practice for a hyperlocal site. Which brings me to my last point…
  • Ethics and Law are BIG weak spots: I saw some, frankly, unethical practices in some of the journalism on display – good journalism with great impact but there could be some really serious trust issues if not legal issues. (later: Judith Townend noted in a comment below that her research has suggested that law is a bit of an issue in general). There was also a really revealing debate about the value of signing up to a press regulator called the Impress Project –  a kind of independent re-imagining of the press complaints commission, right down to asking the editors code of conduct (which very few people had heard of). Some in the room didn’t like the idea of any regulation – a strong anti-establishment vein or that liberal market view raising its head again. But for me, ethics and regulation is not an ideological issue – its a commercial and editorial reality. It’s also an issue of trust. Getting called out for your ethics is one thing. Having that picked over in court is another.  If nothing else, the debate around what constituted a ‘relevant publisher’ would be enough to convince me to stump up the 50 quid to join; I can only imagine what that would cost if it was lawyers arguing that when an aggrieved reader took you to court!

All in all it was a fascinating day with some really passionate and inspirational stories to tell. I really appreciate CCJ and Nesta pulling it all together and asking me along.

There’s some really good and thoughtful round-ups by Russel Todd over at independenttropicalwalesRichard Jones  Miljenko Williams,  John Hickman and Dave Harte

Email in a social media world

A little observation I wanted to share. Over the summer I went away for a few weeks and put my out-of-office message on.  At the same time I had a few students emailing me questions about assignments and I was surprised that some of them replied to my out-of-office as if it was a real email. It made me think about norms of communication.

Out of office messages are a common part of my working life – not much of anything gets done without email! But I know that email isn’t the main form of communication for my students. It’s conversation that is the norm. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that any response is seen as a ‘live’ response.  That’s underlined by the number of emails that have no title or any of the usual ‘dear andy’ or ‘hi’ that you’d expect. They are the next line in an asynchronous conversation. In future, I know I’ll have to make it clearer that an out-of-office is an automated response not a status update.

Let’s be clear. I don’t think that’s a ‘problem’ with students not getting email or somehow not being good communicators. It just underlined for me that there is no normal any more.

There needs to be communication between me and the students but I don’t want to dictate what form it should take. At the same time, I can’t change some of what I do. We need to meet somewhere in the middle, but the landscape moves so fast finding a middle-ground feels more challenging.

Advice to journalism students for being online.

Its getting to that point in the academic calendar where I’m writing documentation for the modules I’ll be teaching this year. Looking back over previous years, I’ve noticed how bits of information appear and disappear in the guidance notes I write; notes about certain types of kit have been replaced with general advice about phones; Reading lists become increasingly digital.

But in all of the changes, and beyond the standard academic boilerplate, there are some elements that have stayed the same. One is a section called ‘guidance on blogging’. I started including it nearly 10 years ago and I based it on the ethics guide put forward by Suzanne Stefanac in  her book Dispatches from Blogistan: A Travel Guide for the Modern Blogger:

Be fair:

  • Acknowledge any personal bias or influence
  • Clearly distinguish opinion from fact
  • Research all facts thoroughly and honestly
  • Never mislead or misrepresent
  • Be transparent
  • Never plagiarise.

Be Accountable:

  • Identify and link to sources whenever possible
  • Invite feedback and respond to it
  • Admit mistakes promptly and publicly
  • Be courageous when holding those in power accountable
  • Avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest

Minimise harm:

  • Avoid pandering and sensationalism
  • Recognise that private individuals have a greater right to an expectation of privacy than public officials or those who court power, influence or public attention
  • Practice discretion when writing about those who may be adversely affected by blog coverage.
  • Recognise common standards of decency
  • Seek approval for content distribution of any material which is not your own

Sometimes it feels like we spend an increasing amount of time thinking about how to ‘do’ and less on how to ‘be’ online.  So it’s nice to reflect that even when the form changes, the basic approach can still stand.

I know that blogging is fast becoming a bit of a legacy concept, which I think is a real shame; I still think a blog is about the space to say why you think something in a world of people saying what they think in 140 chars or less.  But the sidelining of the concept doesn’t undermine the usefulness of  Stefenac’s advice. So I’m going to keep it in. Relevance might dictate that I  replace blogging and blog with publishing and publish, but they still work for me as a guide for being online.

Media Mill: Open data newsletter and slides

You may have noticed that I’ve been posting about Open Data a lot recently. It’s mainly because of a project that I’m working on as a researcher called Media Mill.  One of the things I’ve been doing is pushing out a weekly email newsletter to the project members with related open data, hyperlocal type stuff.  The project focus means the content is not as broad as some open data newsletters so I’ve not pushed it to a wider audience;  It’s never been private, more under the radar.


But it’s always open to new subscribers and now that it’s on it’s 15th one I thought I’d let people know about it.  You can see the archive online and subscribe if you like the look of it.  It’s out every Wednesday at 11:30ish. Feedback always welcome.

Open Data Presentation.

Northern Lightsinson  nlnetworking http htVoxJaltS

As part of the general conversation around open data, I hear a lot about innovation by SME’s (small to medium size enterprises) – companies building their business on or with open data. I’ve been pondering whether the knowledge of open data amongst SME’s is up to making good on that promise. So I gatecrashed a networking event by the universitie’s Northern Lights project (thanks folks).  I did a quick presentation about what open data was and why people thought SME’s should be interested.

It wasn’t evangelising or trying to sell the idea of open data. I wanted to ask them if they knew about open data and if they thought it might be for them (hence the slightly crass show me the money bit which was more impact than money). I asked if they’d do a little questionnaire for me and given that Northern lights have over 500 businesses on their books I’m hoping for an interesting overview of SME attitudes to open data. I’ll share when I have more. In the meantime, heres my slides from the event, you can also get them in an editable form over at canva. They are CC0 and if I’ve missed any attributions set me straight.

I also made a handout (excuse the risible design skills)


How open is Data Journalism?

Where does data journalism get its data?

  1. In a brown envelope or mysterious memory stick
  2. From freedom of information requests
  3. From free (open) government data sources
  4. Some will collect their own via the crowd

It’s the brown envelope stories that invariably get the headlines (and the data-J love) and, although I think it gets the best bang for it’s money, there aren’t that many doing the collection from the crowd one that well. A look at majority of stories that ‘use’ data shows that it’s FOI that does the heavy lifting.  But when you look beyond the text at infographics, interactive and visual data journalism it’s open government data that provides the backbeat to most data driven content.

In the UK, the ONS are the mainstay of much of the casual data journalism you see out their. Data from the census for example, underpins a good deal of the comparative work of data journalism. The food standards agency hygiene ratings do a roaring trade in local newspapers.  What’s surprising is how little of the data, and the subsequent data developed from it is shared, let alone open.

The open government licence (OGL), which covers much of the open government data out there doesn’t require anything other than you:

acknowledge the source of the Information in your product or application by including or linking to any attribution statement specified by the Information Provider(s) and, where possible, provide a link to this licence;

Data from FOI requests does not carry any copyright restrictions (unless the original data carries copyright) so there shouldn’t be too many barriers to sharing that directly – being more open and transparent.

Journalism is pretty good at attribution – we know where it’s data comes from,. But we very rarely get to handle the data. We see it, in charts and interactive pieces, but the days where news orgs happily gave us a link to a spreadsheet seem to be long gone (Data champions the Guardian’s list of data sets ends at 2013)  It would be great to see newsrooms, as users of open data,  be a little more open with the data they collect. But in the first instance it would be great to see newsroom simply acknowledge sources for data more fully and more accessibly  – working links, licence details etc.

Some examples:

Politicians claim £500,000 expenses for low-profile meetings abroad – This story from the Guardian is a Press Association piece is one of those neat stories where FOI  gets in the gaps and opens things up. But why not link to a spreadsheet of all the expenses?

UK has 2.3m children living in poverty, government says – This BBC story uses ONS data ‘helpfully’ linked in a PDF. They’s clearly released the data from the PDF so why not push that data out in a more open way.

Outrage as Bristol City Council credit card bill revealed: UGG boots, cinema trips and iTunes songs – Great council story from The Bristol Post. To their credit they even have a ‘text’ version of the data at the end of the article. But the original FOI data could have been linked in.

These are all great stories – this isn’t a comment on the quality of the journalism.

I’m increasingly hearing the refrain that data isn’t enough. We need the context, the stories that go with it. This and the tonne of other DJ content out there show how far we’ve come with this stuff.  But, the flip side is that if we have the stories then we can’t lose the data – the facts behind the story.  This is really important when that data is often second-hand. A number of stories I looked at had data from third-parties i.e. charities.  It’s not that the data is hokey but making it available would make it transparent.

I’m not sure that we are getting the best out of this data if it remains locked inside organisations – regardless of it being a government org or a private org. Taking a bit more of an open mindset would start to make the journalism even more usable.

Image by Kate Ter Haar via Flickr

Open data and rent-seeking economies

Yesterday, I was introduced to a concept I hadn’t heard of before – rent seeking behaviour.  Its an economics term that essentially means that instead of investing time developing things that you can sell, you spend all your money making it really hard for the other guy to sell their stuff. The best analogy I’ve seen for it so far uses pirates – don’t all the best analogies have pirates!

As someone who works in journalism it was nice to finally have a way to describe the approach of commercial news organisations to the BBC.  But I digress. I came across it in the context of open data. Chris Taggart Co-Founder & CEO at OpenCorporates used it, saying it was the kind of behaviour that making data open discouraged.

It makes sense. In an information economy we tend not to make stuff other than information and increasingly we build economies around protecting that information. It’s collected and combined (and I’m not discounting the value of that process) but it’s not ‘ours’.  As consumers we are becoming more aware through our own understanding or by others efforts to lift the stones, of the value of data. So anywhere there a low level of transparency there’s a risk of rent-seeking that directly impacts us.  You can see how open data would ‘bust’ that except that it relies on two things:

  1. it assumes that those that benefit from the rent-seeking in the first place would change their ways. Yes, the logic of diminishing profits is compelling but in a world where we trade at micro-second speed, who’s in it for the long game?
  2. it assumes that the open data ecosystem isn’t in danger of rent-seeking itself.

At the moment, much of the open data economy may not be rent-seeking but it does seem to do a lot of sub-letting *. It borrows data from others to make its own products. It often add a lot of understanding (and value) but often not very much new data.

Advocates of open data would perhaps point at the Government as the biggest rent-seeker in the data market. But open data is now as much a business as it is a movement for transparency and accountability. Instead if using lobbying and legislation of traditional rent-seeking, it’s licensing that seems to be the means of control.  So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at the amount of ‘open-washing’ I see in the open data community but it would be a shame if the lobbying took over from the core business of making more data more open.

* I know, the kind of rent in rent-seeking is not the same as housing rent but

Image from Peter on Flicker 

#HLDJ Conference 6th and 7th November 2015


This isn’t meant to be a conference about Hyperlocal data journalism (but it could be!)

It’s a conference about the way that Hyperlocal AND/OR data AND/OR journalism might work together. I think that there are three distinct but related areas where there are new opportunities. I’ve got some basic definitions of the three areas below for you to agree or disagree with (have at ’em in the comments)

Each of the areas has it’s own distinct ideological and practical approaches.

  • they operate as an identity
  • they operate as a service
  • they all have a role to play in social, economic and political innovation

This would be a free conference in Preston and I’d like your help in what it should cover. My idea is to have one day of insight and examples (not an academic conference). But because I know that some people think there’s too much talking and not enough doing,  I’d like to have another day that’s more workshop based – practical how-to sessions. Time to think and time to do. Best of both worlds.

If you think you’d like to come then you’d really be helping me out by filling in the survey below.



The NESTA Here and Now report broadly defines hyperlocal as:

“Online news or content services pertaining to a town, village, single postcode or other small, geographically defined community.”

Open Data

The Open Foundation has produced a wildly accepted definition of Open Data:

“Open means anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose (subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness).”

Put most succinctly:

“Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose


A definition of journalism that all can agree on is less straightforward. The  Wikipedia definition, calling on a well respected textbook for journalism says that:

“Journalism is gathering, processing, and dissemination of news and information related to the news to an audience. The word applies to both the method of inquiring for news and the literary style which is used to disseminate it.”