Online journalism raises ethical concerns

Many say that the journalism of tomorrow is happening on the Internet today. If that’s the case, I’m afraid I’m a bit conflicted.

As a writer I think this is perhaps the most exciting time to be in the business. Never before has a world-wide audience been available to anyone with an Internet connection and a computer. Never before has print journalism been able to present stories in such an interactive medium as we see today on the Web. And never before has the technology been in place to allow a person to research and cover a story happening miles away.

As a geek I think this is absolutely the most exciting time to be around. Technology is doing some amazing things. It makes seemingly limitless information available with just a few clicks of a mouse. It makes music, videos and software accessible through phone lines, cable lines and even through the air, and it can put all of that in a pocket-sized device.

In the world of journalism, technology is just as exciting. The Internet takes the newspaper out of that locked, coin-triggered cage and throws it onto our screens and into our pockets. For news creators, the days of actual cutting and pasting have been replaced with digital counterparts, and even as a copy editor, I’m thankful for my Mac’s system-wide spell checker.

In short, it’s an exciting time, but it’s also a bit scary.

As a consumer of news, I can’t help but wonder whether one day we’ll look back on the path journalism has taken to the Web and wish it hadn’t worked itself into the cut-throat, bottom-dollar frenzy taking over newsrooms today. When the dollar rules the newsroom, I get worried.

Such was the case last week when the online gadget blog Gizmodo decided to drop some serious cash for a used iPhone, reportedly a cool $5,000.

“Yes, we’re proud practitioners of checkbook journalism,” tweeted Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, the parent company of Gizmodo. “Anything for the story!”

Instead he should have said, anything for the page hits, which in the Internet world really means, anything for the millions of dollars in advertising revenue. And that’s fine, profit is fun, and exclusive photos and videos of the iPhone Steve Jobs is likely to announce later this summer is even more fun.

What’s not fun is the ethical mess that this type of “journalism” creates. What’s not fun is the fact that legitimate journalists are left to compete against the sometimes unethical, often sensationalist world of Internet journalism.

It’s a competition that nobody really wins. Sure, Gizmodo is flying high right now in page hits. They could have an office party to roll around in the money this story will bring in, but there’s also a criminal investigation going on. Doors are getting busted in, computers getting jacked by police with search warrants and attorney fees will quickly grow.

Maybe news shouldn’t be so much about being the first to the story at all costs and maybe it shouldn’t be about cutting budgets to a shoestring and throwing everything online for free. Maybe it should be more about producing exceptional, truthful and ethical news and less about the dollars attached to it.

Or maybe it’s time to replace the ethics lessons with business classes.