Darren Smith
Darren Smith

Media ethics and guerrilla warfare

It has been with some interest that I have followed the ongoing discourse over the “us versus them” (mainstream media versus the blogosphere) issue, and its potential impact on the media landscape. Vincent Maher has pretty exhaustively tackled some of the issues in his paper Towards a Critical Media Studies Approach to the Blogosphere, and subsequent update Citizen Journalism Is Dead.

Fred Khumalo has added his 10 cents’ worth, with his view that “bloggers are the guerrilla fighters of the information world”.

Fred goes on to suggest: “Whereas a conventional soldier in a conventional army needs to be trained and observe some conventions, the blogger only needs the barest of weaponry: access to a computer and broadband. And he or she is ready for action, rat-at-tat!”

He does, however, have some reservations. “Whereas members of a conventional army (the media) take commands from a hierarchy, a guerrilla army (the blogosphere) is freer, unencumbered. But while all of these can be strengths, these can also be weaknesses. Some of the blogs are pitifully written and, to the unsuspecting reader who knows no better but needs information desperately, they can be fatally misleading. Badly disciplined guerrillas, to extend the analogy.”

Fred concludes his missive: “So, the long and short of it, blogging is here to stay with us and let’s harness its strengths, and nurture this animal into one of the weapons in our arsenal. If we improve our game as bloggers and aspire to best practices, the bad elements in our midst will wither away.”

The real world
What fascinates me is that I am seeing this transition (a blurring of the lines between what constitutes the mainstream media and the blogosphere) take place in the real world, a step ahead of the online debates. Long since used to seeing only mainstream media journalists, editors and PR spin-doctors at press briefings and media events, imagine my surprise at seeing a number of well-known bloggers at a recent vendor event.

The name tag said it all. “Joe Blogger — Blogger”. Not “Darren Smith — Technews” or “Fred Khumalo — Sunday Times”. Affiliation? None. Credibility? Some. A sign of the times? Absolutely.

I find it quite refreshing that businesses are starting to value the opinions of these independent voices, particularly when the trade press fraternity has itself become so lame, guilty of regurgitating press releases ad nauseam, and failing to apply its mind in critically analysing the issues of the day.

Media ethics
That said, there is one thing that concerns me, and I think that it transcends the debate over the “us versus them”, the angst over the role of the mainstream media versus the blogosphere. It is the issue of media ethics.

Think about Fred’s comments on how a “conventional army (the media) take commands from a hierarchy”, but that “a guerrilla army (the blogosphere) is freer, unencumbered”, and think of the implications of badly disciplined guerrillas. Marry this to a conventional army with a poor code of ethics, and you have a recipe for social instability and communication by propaganda.

Now stand back and take a look at the business-to-business trade media. To what extent is the reader really valued? To what extent are publishers simply paying lip service to them, seemingly beholden to the advertising dollar, force-feeding the masses with vendor propaganda, PR marketing spin and self-serving opinion pieces?

I’d like to suggest that all of us in the media (bloggers included) actually start to debate the more pressing issues … those of media ethics, and how to actually play a constructive role in educating and entertaining readers, which, when done right, will provide the platform marketers and advertisers seek.

Take a look at what the American Society of Business Publication Editors, a professional association for full-time and freelance editors and writers employed in the business, trade, and specialty press, has to say in its Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices (revised, May 7, 2007).

Hopefully it’ll make you think about the standards of best practice in the South African B2B media, and set the tone for a series I’ll be running on media ethics: real-world scenarios in coming months.