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Blogging and Ethics, 2: “It’s Only a Blog!”: The Cloak of Commentary

“It’s only a blog.” “I’m not a reporter!” “This is just commentary.” “Everyone knows it’s just my opinion.” Sound familiar? To quote one of my favorite cartoons, “I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it.” Once you put words into print for all to read, and particularly once you implicate other people’s lives and events with your writing, you are responsible for what you say, and whether you like it or not, whether you intend it or not, people will be influenced by what you have to say.

Originally, I was going to use this post to write about the difference between commentary and journalism. But in researching ethics in blogging, I realized that the most important ethical code statements to date didn’t distinguish between the types of writing. Look again at the ethical codes of conduct proposed by and Rebecca Blood: these codes of conduct apply to any type of blogging (and really, any type of writing). And in thinking about it, that’s correct.

On too many blogs, the writer and hides behind the cloak of commentary, using the excuse that what he or she is writing is not “journalism,” just the happy noodlings of an amateur with time on his or her hands. This excuse then becomes a blanket exemption for excursions outside of the normal boundaries of ethics and integrity, such as misrepresenting the facts, confusing opinion with reporting, failure to reveal sources, leaping–or in many cases hurtling–to conclusions, and general “blog first and ask questions later” behavior.

This kind of blogging is not only unethical, but counterproductive. The decision to be an ethical blogger does not condemn you to a bland, unopinionated world. Just the opposite: your willingness to fact-check, reveal sources, limit bias, and emphasize fairness will help make your commentary readable, and your conclusions credible. You can present opinions, even very strong opinions, in a manner that is fair and ethical. Frank Rich does this every Saturday in the Arts section of the New York Times. It’s the difference between truly good commentary and the trash-talk in far too many media venues. It’s the difference, in essence, between opinion and bias.

I’ll repeat my concern that librarians, in particular, need to be very cautious when they blog. This is a meta-ethical issue: when you blog as a librarian, even as a librarian “just goofin’ around,” you are representing what people think about librarians. Yes, that weight IS on your shoulders. You know how you hate it when we’re represented as frumpy, meek shushers? I’m with you, but I hate it even more when our own kind represents us as clueless, sloppy, and uninterested in the ethical issues related to the world of information and how it is represented. In the same vein, I love it when I read a blog such as Tame the Web or Shifted Librarian, where I can catch the enthusiasm, real-world observations, and yes, opinion of Michael Stephens and Jenny Levine, presented with a minimum of typos, a maximum of style, and a certain je ne sais quois–that friendly, fact-based, service-oriented approach–I’d call “library flavor.”

I’m hoping that those of us blogging PLA’s meetings at the ALA Midwinter 2005 conference are willing to talk about, and agree to, guidelines for our own blogging, and are willing to commit to standards of blogging that won’t make us cringe when we look back at our activities ten or thirty years hence. We have a great opportunity to show the world that information specialists represent the sine qua non, the absolute go-to-gang, for today’s citizen bloggers. Library flavor: it’s mmm-mmm good!

And on that note, I must anon for the evening, as I am Baker in Residence for a major church party here at the home next week. As I said to the checker at Trader Joe’s this afternoon, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your gingerbread!”

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