Writing responsibly is something that the vast majority of on-line writers and bloggers do instinctively, without any training, on the other hand there are some writers that think every nugget of information must be passed on to the whole world without a thought (or perhaps care) for the damage publication may cause.
Just what is responsible writing?
It is always wise to start a subject as complex as this with a definition. Responsibility is “The state or duty to deal with something or of having control over someone and being accountable (or to blame) for something that happens” and by definition there is moral obligation to behave correctly when in possession of certain knowledge or information, especially when it relates to another person who could be harmed by accusations made.
There is also a difference between accusing a person of something and making statements about an organisation, a business, a charity, or government body, with the latter it is generally considered the public right to know may be overwhelming, yet precautions should be taken before publishing anything.
In some respects it may be considered as acting responsibly to publish information that every person on the planet should be aware of on sites like Wikileaks, yet there is often a fine line between doing right and doing wrong. Where leaking material could for example be defined as treasonable and whether right or wrong there can be valid arguments made in either direction. Documents are one thing and valid arguments can be made in either direction, but when publication relates to a person then it will likely have a different impact. Publishing private personal information about a public figure that nobody needs to know.
Is there a duty for the writer to inform the public or consider that person’s privacy? Which takes priority? This can lead to complex legal questions.
Accusations and Allegations
It is all too easy to publish accusations and allegations about people, particularly those who have attracted the attention of the public, the writer has a social responsibility to consider the words they publish and question whether or not they are hurtful, it is easy to accuse but much harder to check facts.
Journalists, even those who work for trashy newspapers, go through an education about the code of ethics of the things that may, or may not, be published. The modern blogger or on-line writer has no such education, yet in many respects they take the part of on-line journalists and some writers are driven by the need to make money and are prepared to publish any snippet they can get hold of, but should they?
Making unsubstantiated accusations about people, whether they are celebrities, politicians, or notable people may seem trendy and cool but may breach their civil liberties, right to privacy or may be considered libelous and even when the facts can be proven to be true and in the worst case will involve expenses that the average blogger can NOT afford. Newspapers do frequently publish libelous material, but here the management, lawyers, and editors calculate the likely uplift in sales versus the likely amount they will probably pay in damages before publishing. This is a risk few on-line writers can afford.
Simply because you have access to inside information about a person does not mean you should go ahead and publish, caution is required in sensitive posts, you must consider their privacy versus the right of the world to know and as a general guideline is it best to be cautious.
- Plagiarising, copying and quoting
- Access to private information
- Defaming another person
In the on-line world what rules apply and how they are controlled will greatly depend on the location of:
- The person whose rights have been breached
- The person who wrote the article
- The website owner.
Assuming each of these parties are in different countries then it may complicate legal action, but it any of those parties are in the United States the penalties can rise significantly should the aggrieved person wins their case. Contrary to popular belief, rights under the US First Amendment do not provide a license to break the law in order to obtain information, any writers that trespass, wiretap or violate other laws that apply are not immune from prosecution simply because they were gathering information for a public interest news story. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly impugned those for breaching laws.
The Freest Press ever?
Whilst the US Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (under Article 19) may give every person the right to hold an opinion without interference and say what they wish, there are still the rights of other people that writers should consider before publishing their words. This whole area can be a balancing act of rights particularly in relation to “interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence” (Article 12, UDHR). A writer must be seen as credible, present evidence that the things they say are true, without such evidence and a law suit can easily follow.
Generally speaking Blogs and on-line publishing sites are part of the freest press that humanity has known. Rumour, innuendo and gossip are things that professional hard-news reporters generally avoid, yet bloggers live happily in this space, but should they? Remember the well used phrase ‘with great freedom comes great responsibility‘. The writer should think about the things they write and avoid groundless allegations, the job of the on-line writer is arguably tougher than the journalist because of the ability of the hyper-link, if evidence exists then it should already be published and a link should be set-up otherwise they are treading the path of rumour, innuendo, or gossip.
Right to privacy is one of the most complex dilemmas that is found in writing, we live in a society where each person has rights that need to be protected. This right to privacy versus the public’s right to know is one of the most complex questions professional publications face. Here a major ethical question exists about how to balance respect for privacy rights with the need for legitimate investigation. This question is as valid for the blogger as it is for the journalist. A person close to the target of a criminal investigation, for example, may be able to tell all through their blog, but they may be placing themselves in greater danger.
I have seen only a few bloggers breach these guidelines, but many more come very close to doing so, particularly by making unsubstantiated accusations against politicians or stars. This is one of the differences between on-line writers and journalists, the blogger has no editor, no publisher, nor in-house lawyers to stop the article from being published, however ultimately each writer must provide their own process of checks and balances to protect their blog.
About Peter B. Giblett CITP, LLB(Hons)