The New Ethics of Online News: Q & A From ONA 2013
November 29, 2013
Mary Clare Fischer

I recently attended The Online News Association’s annual conference, armed with a list of questions about the evolving nature of digital news.

One of the more revealing discussions came during the panel about online news ethics led by a handful of online news journalists, including Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride .

I snagged an interview after the session with McBride  to dive deeper into the murky rules of  publishing on the web.

Here’s a round-up of my big takeways from my talk with her:

  • On paywalls: “Making money is an ethical imperative — as long as it doesn’t harm the marketplace of ideas.” The fact that publications have taken down their paywalls in crisis situations, such as the Boston Marathon or Hurricane Sandy, means that outlets still have compassion for the public.
  • On aggregation: Use the copyright test; if more than 50 percent of your article includes content taken from somewhere else, “that’s stealing, not aggregating,” especially if you’re not attributing or linking back to the original work.
  • On links: “Links give a level of intellectual honesty to a story.” They provide more transparency as to where you’re getting your information, which is quickly becoming as important or more important than objectivity for journalists.
  • On memes and viral content: “There’s a value in marking a moment. To the extent that those are cultural criticism, they have real news value. If you can bring more context to them and highlight the social aspect of it, they’re journalistically valuable.”
  • On what journalism educators should be teaching about ethics: “Preparing students to enter an industry that has uncertain ethical standards. Recognize that the industry doesn’t have it figured out.” This means you need to ask more questions and focus on analysis. (“Don’t imitate social media; advance it.”) But even if you’ve figured out the rules today, know that they’ll be different in 10 years.


Here are a few key points from the ONA session on ethics:

  • On user-generated content: You must verify it and provide evidence to your readers of its authenticity in order for it to succeed.
  • On online advertising: Advertisers are now asking for access to the content management systems of publications in order to make their ads look more like articles. Opinions varied on whether this was acceptable, but all agreed the content has to have inherent value, even if it’s an ad.


My takeaways from the ONA ethics panel?

  •  As a senior journalism major at the University of Maryland, I’m learning every day about my field. I came away from ONA thinking not only about how news platforms are evolving, but how the rules and ethics of news gathering are evolving too. Put simply, these are not questions that have answers. The answer of what is “right” and “wrong” might be different in six months.
  • Shortly after the conference, I started my process of applying for summer internships. They want to know my goals. My answer? I want to tell stories. I’m not sure in what form — maybe it will be a hologram? Who knows. I have to be able to adapt, but still be a journalist.



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