Max Gogarty is 19 and, like a great many other middle-class British teens, he is taking a "gap year" between what Americans know as secondary and post-secondary education. After joining a young writers' group in London and earning some money by contributing to TV scripts, he is travelling and doing a little writing before entering university. This being 2008, some of the writing about the travelling appears on a blog.
Or it did. Very, very briefly.
Max's first post, a somewhat na've but readable look at his upcoming trip to India and Thailand, was also his last. Within hours of its mid-February debut on the guardian.co.uk newspaper Web site, not only had it attracted hundreds of frighteningly nasty comments but it also had, unfortunately for Max, "gone viral." Vitriolic comments flooded message boards and social networking sites, including Facebook and the gossip site Holy Moly (Davies, 2008). At one point, the anti-Max Facebook group had 366 members, including a charming fellow who wrote on the group's "wall" about the potential "satisfaction of caving in Max Gogarty's skull in a frenzied attack with a hammer."
What was the reason for the outpouring of hatred? Max happens to be the son of a writer named Paul Gogarty, who contributes (occasionally) to the Guardian. For a while, Max shared pride of place, if that's the right phrase, on Wikipedia, right up there with Kim Jong-il of North Korea and Saddam Hussein's sadistic son under the "nepotism" entry. But only for a while. Guardian editors soon shut down the ability to comment on Max's blog, and Max himself decided not to do any more posting just now. Much of the vitriol soon turned against the paper rather than the individual, becoming simply part of the endless stream of abuse directed at Britain's most liberal daily in both its own comment space and elsewhere. Wikipedia editors pulled the reference to Max and clamped a lock on the "nepotism" page, with the note that it would be "protected from editing until disputes have been resolved."
So Max presumably is having lots of new experiences these days, and he may even be writing about them-but he's not about to contribute again to the Guardian site any time soon. Whether Max did or did not benefit from his father's connections-dad vehemently says "no," and so does the Guardian travel editor, whose published denial unleashed hundreds more comments in a similar vein to those directed at young Max-is not my concern here. I am more interested in the ethical responsibility that editors have to those who write for them in this unrestrained and frequently brutal digital environment-including growing numbers who do so from outside the protection of the newsroom.
It is not a responsibility that generally draws a lot of attention. Far more has been written about journalists' broadly conceptualized responsibilities to the public and more narrowly drawn responsibilities to sources. Indeed, since the Hutchins Commission report in the 1940s, the frame has primarily been one of social responsibility. Under this view, journalists have obligations to serve society well. To the extent that they have any responsibilities to one another, those seem to consist mainly of seeing to it that colleagues do not indulge nasty habits that will lead to abasement or abrogation of that social role.
Nor do journalists' own ethical guidelines offer much help. In Britain, neither the National Union of Journalists code of ethics nor the Press Complaints Commission code of practice includes anything about ethical responsibilities to colleagues. For U. S. journalists, the current version of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics offers "Minimize Harm" as one of four guiding principles. It states, "Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect." Yet the last of these is ignored in the explanatory guidelines that follow. Journalists, they say, should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage, especially children; recognize the privacy claims of people in the news, particularly those not generally in the public eye; and be careful about respecting citizens' right to a fair trial. Journalists should try, at least, to "show good taste." But of any obligations to one another, there is no further word.
Yet journalists themselves are beginning to think and talk about the "duty of care" they have toward fellow writers both inside and outside the profession. It has become a particular issue at newspapers such as the Guardian, whose popular Web site (guardian.co.uk) attracts far more users, both inside Britain and around the world, than any other UK newspaper site and continues to grow rapidly (Kiss, 2008). guardian.co.uk is heavily populated with commissioned pieces, such as Max's blog within the site's "Travelog" section. Its "Comment Is Free" section is actually a giant group blog, expressly designed as a platform for the views of both journalists and non-journalists who are invited to contribute to "an open-ended space for debate, dispute, argument and agreement," as the site describes itself.
Editors are realizing, however, that contributors may be quite unprepared for the reaction their musings will elicit. Max is hardly the only one to be blindsided by virulent verbal projectiles hurled from dark corners of the online universe. It happens to journalists, who not infrequently feel the bite of watchdogs that can seem downright rabid. And it happens to people who probably never imagined their words could or would let the dogs out.
"As publisher, we have a duty of care" to writers such as Max, guardian.co.uk editor-in-chief Emily Bell wrote on her own blog (Bell, 2008). "We're used to it, but it is still an absurdly awful experience for the individual on the end of the monstering, particularly if you are a relative novice."
"Comment Is Free" editor Matt Seaton says he is "acutely aware" that giving someone a publishing platform opens them up to criticism and makes them vulnerable in ways they may not expect. He sees helping writers know what to anticipate, as well as helping them develop strategies for responding constructively to users, as important parts of his job.
"You're opening them [writers] up to criticism and making them also in turn very answerable to these quite critical voices. To some it's a shock, and you want to make sure they are aware of that and how to deal with it," he said. "There is a way to constructively engage with it. Usually."
While journalists may be a bit more prepared for their words to have an impact, they also may be quite taken aback at the nature of the response they can generate online, an open and far more rough-and-tumble environment than that of the print newsroom, in which they are relatively sheltered from their readers. Online editors are discovering that in addition to working with inexperienced contributors, one of their unanticipated roles is to help experienced writers don new self-protective armour.
Susan Smillie is editor of the Web site for the Observer, a sister publication whose journalists also are in-house contributors to the Guardian's network of blogs. She says she feels a strong responsibility for her writers and takes time to talk with them about how to write for a guardian.co.uk blog-and what to expect when they do.
"I know if they don't get it right, they're going to have a bad experience," she says. "It's sometimes kind of shocking for people. It's suddenly like you're thrown into the bear pit." Smillie talks explicitly about the "duty of care" she feels to her colleagues.
"They think that they know what they're doing, you think they know what they're doing, and they do. But the rules have changed. That's something I've become much more careful about talking to people about beforehand," she says.
Even experienced bloggers can be shocked and upset at the response they get. Smillie says she tries to be sure her writers are fully aware of what can happen in this "uncharted territory," particularly if they are writing about anything controversial.
"Even if you think you're prepared for it," she says, "in reality, you're not."
One of the Internet's salubrious effects on journalism has been the impetus it has provided for re-examining the responsibilities that come with access to a publishing platform. Journalists are getting a healthy reminder that words and images do, in fact, have potent and immediate power-and that real individuals are seeing and responding to them. But in an interactive network, the power is circular rather than linear:
Journalists can do harm with words but, as Max Gogarty can attest, they also can suffer harm from the words of others. In this environment of completely unbounded communi- cation, media ethics involves finding ways to minimize both forms of harm.
Bell, Emily. (2008, February 15). "The Week That Was-Football Links and Other Problems." Inside guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 23 February 2008 from: http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/inside/2008/02/the_week_that_was_football_lin.html
Davies, Caroline. (2008, February 17). "Hate Mail Hell of a Gap-Year Blogger," The Observer, p. 13.
Kiss, Jemima. (2008, February 21). "Record Traffic for UK News Websites." guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 23 February 2008 from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/ media/2008/feb/21/abcs.digitalmedia