Results are in: Ethics in Blogging survey
Last May, I participated in a survey of bloggers designed to discover our concept of ethics and our practice of those principles. The surveyors, three undergraduate students at the School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore (Andy Koh, Alvin Lim, Ng Ee Soon), were able to survey over 1000 bloggers by eMail. After some time to analyze the results, they have published their findings online—in a blog, of course.
The Principles: The researchers were concerned with four general ethical issues: truth-telling, accountability, minimizing harm, and attribution.
These are expandable topics; truth-telling, for example, means the desire for fairness, equality and honesty, and "completeness" (telling the whole truth). Accountability covers honesty as well, especially in disclosing conflits of interest, as well as accepting the consequences for posting the contents of your blog. Minimizing the harm one's blog does to others involves respecting privacy and confidentiality, avoiding or controlling "flaming," and having consideration of other’s feelings, including other cultures and societal groups. Attribution brings in concerns about plagiarism and intellectual property rights, in addition to properly crediting one's sources.
The researchers had identified two distinct groups of bloggers to contact. Personal bloggers create an online diary or personal journal. Non-personal bloggers focus on specific topics and content, and their content is usually intended for a larger audience. "In addition to different types of content and intended audiences," the researchers believed, "these two types of bloggers are likely to have different perspectives on the functions and impact their blogs have, which may in turn influence their ethics in blogging."
The questions in the survey were designed to reveal this divide (if it existed), as well as to assess the extent to which the surveyed bloggers adhere to ethical principles defined by the group. (In fact, the survey did reveal a disparate approach to ethical concerns by personal versus non-personal bloggers.) In addition, the group wanted to determine if bloggers saw a need for an ethical code of blogging.
Participants were selected randomly from amongst pre-identified groups of blogs. "A purposive stratified sampling method that selected weblogs according to the distribution sizes of various weblog service providers was used, augmented by snowball sampling." Voluntary participation, and confidentiality of all information provided, may have increased the response of the 6,000-strong sample group—"1,224 completed surveys were used for analysis."
The Results: I can only pick some interesting items out of the report. Those who are interested in the complete findings should follow the link to read the entire paper.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest differences between personal and non-personal blogs came in the reason for blogging (Personal: "Express thoughts and feelings" and "Document one's life" were the major purposes; Non-personal: "Provide commentary" and "Provide info" were), the primary audience for the blog (Personal: "Do not have one" and "People known personally" were almost equal; Non-personal: it was "People not known personally"), and people blogged about (Personal: "Self"; Non-personal: "People not known personally" and "Do not blog about people" were almost equal). One category, the topics the blogger covers, seemed more like a by-product of defining whether a blog was personal or non-personal. (Personal: "Events in my life" was selected most often; Non-personal: "Government and politics" was.)
Overall, attribution was judged most important by both groups of bloggers, and accountability came in last.
... belief in the importance of attribution was paramount. This could be due to the nature of blogging, in which bloggers show readers links to other pages to illustrate a point or to share information. Attribution in blogging is quite different from that in traditional journalism in that, other than giving proper credit, it also serves a community-building function (Blood, 2002).
The last-place finish for accountability provoked some speculation by the authors.
First, there is less perceived social risk (i.e., diminished personal cost if interactions or relationships fail) and second, there is less social responsibility toward others than traditional face-to-face communication (Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 2000; Turkle, 1995; Wallace, 1999; Walther, 1996). In a concrete example of this, Viégas (2004) found that most bloggers do not believe people can sue them for their weblog content.
That last line is significant, I think: most bloggers do not believe people can sue them for their weblog content. And while this is speculation from the survey authors, and was not directly covered in the survey questions, it is ominous in light of the other major finding of the survey: The majority of bloggers surveyed do not believe a "blogger's code of ethics" is needed.
The surveyors expected to find a difference here between non-personal bloggers, who "take a journalistic approach to blogging," and personal bloggers. To their surprise, there was no significant difference; "...it is estimated that no more than two dozen individuals in the US earn their living from blogging (Drezner and Farrell, 2004). For everyone else, blogging is just a hobby, so it seems unlikely that many people will have developed a sense of responsibility and a system of ethics comparable to journalists and other communication professionals."
Their final conclusion rather begs the question the authors set out to define: Do bloggers have a code of ethics, or does one need to be imposed from without?
In addition, the limited support from bloggers for a blogging code of ethics poses a serious problem for advocates of on-line social responsibility. If any inroads are to be made in terms of bloggers regulating themselves, consensus in the community must be developed.
Otherwise, as they point out in each discussion of an external code of ethics, such an other-imposed code is doomed to fail.
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