The main hook for highlighting the need for better ethics regulation is the ludicrous Maura Kelly post, “Should Fatties Get a Room?” article in Marie Claire. The example discussed for what an ethics code might was the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, which has four main principles:
* Seek truth and report it.
* Minimize harm.
* Act Independently.
* Be Accountable.
My initial reaction to this was ‘Yes! This is a great idea!’. I think ethics is hugely important in any kind of work (really, any kind of work at all) and it is never a waste of time to think through the implications of what you’re doing.
However, as I thought more about it, there were a number of issues I came up against. None of these issues are necessarily reasons not to have an ethics code for bloggers, but they do mean it’s not as straightforward as it might at first appear.
Not all fashion bloggers are the same
This is kind of obvious, but worth pointing out anyway – there is such variation within the blogosphere, or even the fashion/personal style blogosphere. I’m sure there are many bloggers out there who see themselves as journalists and would subscribe to all of the four principles of the journalism code, but then many would not. I personally don’t subscribe to no.1 at all. I don’t do news, I’m not reporting anything. And while I obviously try to make sure all my facts are correct, and I do always try to cover both (or all!) sides of an argument, I’m not after some objective truth. What I write is my point of view. I’m hoping that people will find what I write persuasive, but it’s still just me and my brain. Anyone is welcome to disagree, and as I said before, I actively encourage criticism provided it is respectful.
In researching this, I found a few examples of people attempting to go beyond the four principles of the journalism code, and come up with something more blogger specific. This one by a gaming and technology blogger seems pretty comprehensive, but then because it is so comprehensive there are a few things that won’t be relevant for everyone. There are definitely a couple of things in there I don’t subscribe to.
The boundaries of blogging are fuzzy
One thing that distinguishes blogs from traditional forms of journalism is that most explicitly set out to encourage interaction and discussion through the comments (and often though social networks as well). This is one of the great things about blogging, but brings with it a whole range of challenges. Discussions can get out of hand and with anonymity guaranteed, abusive comments can get thrown about very quickly.
This had led one person to call for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct which is all about commenting, arguing that bloggers should take responsibility not only for what they themselves write, but also for the discussion that goes on on their blogs. I’m not sure what I think of this yet (maybe a topic for another post), but it brings me neatly on to my next point:
Ethical issues are not straightforward
Ethics codes aren’t simple ‘tick a box’ type exercises. What they are is tools to make you think about what you’re doing then taking an informed decision. I think the reason that everyone was so up in arms about the Marie Claire thing was because it was just so completely, ridiculously *wrong* and if anyone had thought about it for two seconds they would have realised it was a *bad* idea. But it’s not always so black and white.
Take the avoidance of harm principle for example. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that didn’t agree with it, but it all depends on how you define harm. A few people in the IFB discussion said that they generally avoid anything negative at all, and that is certainly one approach. If you don’t say anything negative, noone will ever be upset. I personally think it can be ok to criticise what people have said, as long as you are respectful and keep the criticism to specifics, rather than attacking the person outright. But it’s conceivable that people get upset temporarily by even very respectful criticism. Does that count as harm? Some people would go even further and think that if a person has put their life out there for the world to see, they have to live with people slagging them off. At the end of the day, it’s all about where you, personally, draw the line.
(which makes me think of this quote – a short interlude)
Codes need enforcing
My final point is that codes work best when they are enforced by some central membership organisation like the journalism one mentioned above, or an employer. You know that when you join or when you work there these are the rules you must follow. And there will probably be some sort of procedure to follow to demonstrate that you have fully considered any ethical issues (for info, at my work we have this checklist – pretty comprehensive, huh?). And then a line manager or an editor checks and satisfies themselves that everything is alright and provides support if not, because ultimately they are responsible (or they should do, anyway).
But blogging isn’t like that. Anyone can be a blogger, and some people blog purely for themselves and never engage with a wider blogging community before they start, and therefore have probably never thought about all this, ever. We’re mainly just people alone in a room, we don’t have editors and bosses to keep us on our toes.
So when we as bloggers subscribe to an ethics code, or make up our own one, it’s really just a statement of intent, not a guarantee we will actually be ethical in practice.
Just to reiterate, I’m not totally opposed to an ethics code or anything, this is just a reminder that it’s not a matter or ‘subscribe and go’. Ethics is complex and can be hard work. It’s important to act in an ethical way, but ultimately everyone needs to decide that they personally define as ethical and to think through their own actions.
Does that make sense? Thoughts?
Little red riding hood photo via here. It’s sort of relevant – the wolf means her harm, you see? Plus, Grimm’s fairytales always have a moral of the story, in this case if you eat little girls, you will get your stomach filled with stones. Oscar Wilde quote thingy via here.