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An 'ethical vacuum' in Internet media?

An official inquiry into the abuses of British newspapers calls for tougher regulation of journalist behavior. But it holds little hope for ethics in online media. This ignores the history of journalist ethics.

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Actor Hugh Grant speaks on a BBC show Dec. 2 about the Leveson report into press standards and ethics. He was a victim of phone hacking by a newspaper.

REUTERS/Jeff Overs/BBC

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As you read these words, does it make a difference if they are in print or online?

Yes, if you accept one conclusion of an official inquiry on the British press released last Thursday.

The report’s author, Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, offers many recommendations on how to restore the integrity of British newspapers after recent scandals, which included hacking of personal cellphones, even one belonging to a deceased girl. His main proposals to Parliament are to pass a new law and use a government regulator to help hold newspapers to account for lapses of their own ethical codes.

While he is optimistic that traditional newspapers can be reformed – although his peculiar solutions may be a slippery slope to censorship – Sir Brian is strangely pessimistic that news consumers can ever trust much of what they read in the new digital media.

“The [I]nternet  does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’,” he wrote.

Bloggers and others who write on public topics can act with impunity, he states. Newspapers, however, already have ethical codes and promise a quality product. “The [I]nternet does not function on that basis at all. People will not assume that what they read on the [I]nternet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy; it need be no more than one person’s view.”

History would argue against the view that “new media” – bloggers, tweeters, citizen journalists, or news aggregators like Google – may not ever adopt principles such as truthfulness and fairness. After all, digital media already generally conform to laws on copyright, defamation, and contempt of court. Is it really a big leap to expect them to conform someday to ethical codes like those of traditional journalism?

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