Among the many differences between running your own independent news operation and working at a corporate news job, ethical dilemmas rank high. As Poynter’s Kelly McBride says, there is a generally agreed upon set of principles among journalists in the Fourth Estate. When you’re talking about the Fifth Estate – her term for independent new media news startups – all bets are off and values and principles can vary from one site to another.
McBride led a session at a Poynter seminar I’m helping to lead this week called Bottom Line News: Creating Sustainable Journalism Startups. She took the group of 20 aspiring journo-entrepreneurs through case studies and exercises to help them define the values and principles that will guide them in the future.
McBride started with a list of “ethical pressure points” that news entities can expect to feel at some point:
- Content you create
- Content others create, often these others will not get a paycheck from you
- Technology can undermine you
- Conflicts between mission and revenue
- Rapid growth
The biggest, she says, are conflicts between mission and revenue. “Money itself isn’t tainted, but it comes with stipulations always. There’s no clean money.”
She referenced the widespread controversy over “mommybloggers” accepting free stuff in return for positive reviews and discussed the recent controversy stirred up by ScienceBlogs with its Pepsi sponsorship (aka Pepsigate). In the new media era, journalists are forced to deal with issues that were the province of other departments at a news company.
“You’re responsible for upholding the standards and worrying about the bottom line,” McBride says. “You get to wear both those hats.”
The best way to guide your mission, your new venture, is to define both the values that you stand for and the principles that will support those values. “Principles are action statements,” McBride says. “Truth may be a value, but telling the truth is a principle. Principles are not a code of ethics. They are the infrastructure that can support a code of ethics.”
Fleshing out the values and principles that you will stand for as a news entrepreneur will help you make tough decisions down the road. You’ll have a document to refer to, and one that you should probably post on your website (especially if one of your values is transparency).
(Full disclosure: I was recently named as a Ford Fellow for Entrepreneurial Journalism at Poynter so realize that anything I write about Poynter could be considered somewhat self-promotional.)