Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Is LVRamblings a Rag Blog? Is it Ethical to Report a Rumor?

Last week and yesterday, I reported a rumor concerning Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. I never elevated the story beyond rumor status, and it was eventually denied by information officer Joe McDermott. But was it ethical for me to have reported a rumor? You wouldn't see that in a newspaper.

Two of my fellow bloggers, and I respect their opinions, think I went too far. House of Crayons from EastonUndressed had this to say. "Reporting on rumors is never a good idea. A man's character is a bit more valuable than an innuendo. As it stands now we went from questioning the Mayor's character to questioning Wiess's. You wield a mighty shotgun my friend." LVDem had a problem with my headlines. "I know the nature of a blog is editorializing, but reporting on these matters creates an obligation, especially if you are reporting first news. Continue to cover, but on breaking news items like this, tone down the headlines is my suggestion. Don't stop the reporting, but recognize that headlines have some power in the world."

They may be right.

Wait. Are those dudes calling me unethical? Hey, I went to catholic school! I majored in philosophy!

CyberJournalist has a "bloggers' code of ethics." It's based on a similar code for mainstream news reporters. But blogs and newspapers are completely different forms of media. In Blogistan, the weakness of the blogosphere is also its strength - it's an uncensored, unmediated, uncontrolled voice

It's also immediate. Unlike the print media, blogs are real time. We have a unique opportunity to get to the heart of a matter, and quickly. Thanks to the comments feature on most blogs, we get instant feedback. We can learn quickly whether a rumor has any validity. And if something we publish turns out to be wrong, we can note the error and correct it immediately.

That doesn't justify publishing every rumor we hear. It's no excuse for publishing a rumor as fact. In this case, there was an allegation that the Mayor of the Lehigh Valley's largest city was playing favorites with campaign donors. It was already out on the radio. Chances are it was circulating in other circles, too. I first tried to find out what was going on from both the mayor's office and the employee involved, and probably should have tried a bit harder. I thought it important to get to the heart of the matter, and the best and quickest way was with this blog. It worked.

Although I won't be bound by any code of ethics, I do try to follow these guidelines from Rebecca's Pocket.

1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true. (If your statement is speculation, say so.)

2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.

3. Publicly correct any misinformation. (These corrections would appear in the most current version of your blog and as an added note to the original entry.)

4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry. (Changing or deleting entries destroys the integrity of the network. I will correct a spelling or grammatical error anytime I discover one. And I have a fifteen minute rule for changing posts. Once it's up for fifteen minutes, it's there for the entire world to see even if I know I'm dead wrong. At that point, I have to do a correction.)

5. Disclose any conflict of interest. (This is particularly important for an anonymous blogger.)

6. Note questionable and biased sources.

I think I followed those rules when I reported the Pawlowski rumor. But let's face it. Uncensored, unmediated and uncontrolled voices end up being unread voices if they lack credibility. Although I don't think bloggers should be equated with journalists for many reasons, no one will read a reporter or blogger who is untruthful. Now excuse me while I make up my next story - Stoffa wears diapers. Really!

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would not be too hard on yourself. You had sources to back up your posts. It was not like you made up the story, and you attempted to get a response from Mayor Ed's office. You just repeated a rumor. No harm done. Many of fine newspapers have done less to verify rumors and have published articles based on them.

If you are guilty of anything, it is bad taste for listening to the Ron Angle Radio Show.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Hey, I guest host that show! I think LVDem and H/C both have very good points and I want them to know I thought about it. I did act within those guidelines, but it's something to consider in the future.

A Big Fat Slob said...

Well, the MSM obvioulsy thinks it is okay to report on rumors. I mean, how often did we hear about the biological and dirty nukes that Saddam had?

What you did was not only ethical, it is exactly what makes local bloggers like yourself so valuable.

What you reported was source-based, and from more than one source. A blog posting something like this serves a public purpose -- it gives those out there with direct knowledge an opportunity to confirm the information. If it turns out to be deniable, as in this case, even that serves a positive purpose. You did the right thing by giving the denial as much play as the original report.

But without local blogs like your's, many stories of public corruption would never see the light of day. Report what you hear and attribute the proper level of authority to the source. But don't censor your reports becuase they might not bear fruit.

Bernie O'Hare said...

ABFS, I appreciate your input and advice. I certainly respect your viewpoint as well, and that is the direction I took.

Chris Casey said...

You can play it safe, or get on the field. We are out on the field, playing the positions we chose. Some are timid, and it shows. You pushed the issue, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Chris, Now I know I must have been wrong. I'm jumping off a bridge.

LVDem said...

BFS raises a good point.

Thanks for doing your due diligence Bernie. That's important.

But yeah, that Angle show is a clear demonstration of a personal defect or something.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I only listen to the show so I can hear the commercials for Ralph's Radiator & Repair Shop. That's the dude who installed a starter on my jeep. He's my hero. And I still owe him a slice of pie.

Anonymous said...

If I understand this right, you reported on a rumor that was contained in letter that was mailed to politician Ron Angle who reported it on his radio show (which is nothing more then sort of a vanity opinion show) who represented it as the truth.
Since one has the advantage of hindsight here, I guess what might bother me most about your 'report' was the headline: That "Something stinks in Allentown," which implied that what followed was true.
You didn't feature a headline such as "Could this possibly be true?" or "Rumor has it that ..." which may have been a more prudent way of handling something so random.
Instead you 'reported' on the news that the Mayor of Allentown is corrupt just as if you had verified it. You did call the code enforcement office and whoever answered the 'phone confirmed that Mr. Weiss was being discharged which, again, raised your report to the level of 'fact.'
So, while I too don't think you ought to be too hard on yourself, I think it is a good lesson for all of us who participate in online discussions.
Real people can get hurt. Lies and misrepresentations can be elevated to the 'truth.' Reputations can be tarnished.
One can say so what? But if you were the target of malicious rumors such as this, would you be so complacent or jocular?
Continuous mistakes will destroy credibility. And for all your joking around, I think one thing that you want is to be considered a credible source of information and opinion.
In some ways blogs are just mental masturbation: people who have entirely too much time on their hands talking amongst themselves about subjects of mutual interest to no particular end other then to see their 'intelligent' words in 'print.'
Blogs also are a virtual rendition of the barber shop or cracker barrel bullshit sessions of my father's time. No harm was done in those sessions either as long as no one took everyone seriously. Things tended to sort themselves out over time.
And that is probably the case here.
Someone hears something wacky, reports on it, finds out later that it was a false report, gets called on it, there is sort of a feeding frenzy of points and counterpoints, opinions and counter-opinions, and sometimes scatalogical humor and eventually everyone gets exhausted, shuts up and the matrix is restored.
Sounds like a lot of fun to me. I may send Ron Angle a letter myself.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 7:56,

I've got to thank you for taking the time to tell me what you think. I appreciate it.

Actually, I never did report that Allentown's mayor is corrupt. I made it pretty clear we were dealing with a rumor. I was able to confirm that Weiss was on his way out, but wasn't able to confirm WHY that was so. I really don't think there was anything wrong with my reports. I never elevated a rumor to fact, as you seem to suggest.

You and LVDem both think, however, that my original headline was a bit misleading. I even disagrred with that because something did stink. But after thinking about it for a day, I agree. I should have put it in question form, as you suggest. I often do that when I'm not exactly sure of the facts, and should have done it in this instance, too.

The blog posts would remain as originally reported, but the headline to my first post would be in interrogatory form. The "City of Two Tales" was OK, but "Something Stinks" would be changed.

Your criticism about blogs is true and false. I love to write and do have an irreverent sense of humor. And sometimes we do get silly. I make no apology for that. But you fail to credit blogs for their positive impact. We each of us have our strengths and weaknesses. I could list many things that this blog alone has accomplished. They're mostly little things. I won't bore you by listing them. You seem like an intelligent writer so you must know this to be true. They would never have happened without the blog, sometimes combined with the mainstream. I believe blogs do complement the mainstream. Other local blogs have been equally if not more effective. I believe they're much more than the local barber shop, although those barber shops were not so bad.

One point you do make, and this is at the core is this - real people can get hurt. I agree. I do take pokes at all kinds of officials who really set themselves up for it, but I'm just letting air out of their baloons. When Voter Registrar DePaul refers to her tenure as her "reign," I believe it is entirely appropriate to refer to her as HRH. If a party boss physically threatens me, it's fair to point out. If Lamont McClure comes on my blog and disguises himself to start calling me names, I say out him.

Having said that, I don't really attack people personally. In fact, I don't like personal attacks. I hit people hard, but on the issues, their records and statements. I was deeply concerned about the impact this could have on Mayor Pawlowski or Mr. Weiss, and that's why I made it clear I did not really know what was going on. That's why I took the time to write about it again. I do think we needed to know if the rumor was true. If you don't think that's important, we'll have to disagree on that point.

It's like one of the commenters on this blog has said before - Do No Harm. That statement is at the top of my blog. I try to follow that principle, and a little jocular humor is a good thing. We should not take ourselves that seriously.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Bernie!

1) You need to double your meds and take your finger off the panic button;

2) Ball-less anonymous should get a helmet and get in the game instead of philosophizing from his throne way up in the cheap seats far away from the rough and tumble of the real world of politics;

3) You raised a question about a possible conflict of interest that started a productive, open discussion that allowed other facts to surface and allowed ALL sides to be heard;

4) Unlike a former news reporter for the Morning Call (Mario Cattabianco), you at least HAVE a code of ethics that guides what you write; and

5) You can't change the world by whispering.

Please don't change one single, sick-and-twisted, cynical quality that makes your blog so great!

I am not worthy,
Bernie Takes No Prisoners

Bernie O'Hare said...

Bernie TNP!!!

Glad to hear from you, as always. Believe me when I tell you I'm not panicked. I have every intention of remaining a miserable bastard. I did want to discuss this bc two bloggers who I admire took me to task. And that anonymous poster made some good points. In retrospect, I agree that one headline was misleading. A little constructive criticism is a good thing, especially for me. Although I am sick and twisted, I started this discussion bc I really do care about being clear in my writing.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to watching this video I found near Broughal middle school. I'm amazed by the things gerbils do.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, keep the faith and make no apologies.
"Private Joker is silly and he's ignorant, but he's got guts, and guts is enough."

Anonymous said...

Bernie!

Well, you know... if you left it up to some "standards committee" to approve every word and every headline you wrote on this blog, you'd be posting once a month, if that.

Life happens fast, folks. You can criticize and second-guess other bloggers all you want if that makes you feel "superior," but Bernie ran with what he knew when he knew it.

And, unlike a 1-day hatchet-job article in 1 of the papers, he kept the dialogue going, gave ALL sides a fair chance to be heard, and did a hell of a job of "reporting in real-time."

As far as the GERBIL PORN tape you are referring to... I only hope, for your sake, that gerbils have such poor eyesight that they won't be able to identify you in a police line-up. (Not to mention whether your inflatable girlfriend would be willing to post bail for you!)

BTNP

House of Crayons said...

I never called you or alluded to you being or having acted unethical Bernie. And if you frequent our tagboard on our blog, you know that I proponent of being read literally.

The rumor issue concerned me for these reasons:

1) Validation. You stand a great chance of making a rumor truth by becoming the back-up source. (some people probably still refuse to believe that Pawlowski has not been caught playing favorites)

2) Credibility. I feel like our blog's credibility is somewhat tied to yours. Both blogs try to advocate for the people without selling out for access to our politicos. We are pains in some peoples asses, but we deal in truth and advocate business in the light (all of the facts).

We have latched on to an effective tool. There is a definitve difference between opinion and reporting. Our blogs use facts(reporting) to justify our opinions. We use our opinions to garner support. We use the support to get things done.

We are not tabloid...

...We just play one on TV.

Anonymous said...

House of Crayons!

If everyone had your sense of ethics and purpose, baby birds would never fall from their nests and die... horribly... every day... eaten by rats and stray cats... while other birds pecked out their dead-gaze eyeballs... and ants feasted on their sweet, newborn feathers... and worms burrowed into their skulls... before field mice picked their tiny bones clean...

You may say I'm a dreamer.
But I'm not the only one.
Someday you'll join us,
And the world will live as one.

Imagine all the people
Living for today... ah-HAH...

BTNP

Rising Sun said...

You can run with the big dogs or pee with the puppys. A certain someone else seems to think we bloggers are all vain nothings too, but that's laughable, as the very reporters who are covering politics in our local mainstream media are on the blogosphere themselves. This is the influential medium of the future, and if you fear writing the news you hear and bringing it out to light, it has no chance of ever seeing the light of day with the public. You're doing a service here.

LVDem said...

no more late night posting for Gonzo... things just got too weird on that last post there buddy. And what was with that dig at Mario. Daylin Leach did the same thing and Dutch Laroo was in turn broadcasted for the world to see. I'd hate to see your words somehow twisted into something about you killing birds and terrorizing rats. Not that any reporter would ever do that.

House of Crayons said...

If Bernie's goal is to simply entertain, I say "type whatever", but if his goal is to affect change in government (as he has done for years) than I have to say, "be just, fair, and valid."

We discount quacks and hacks all day long. Stay valid and stay pertainent.

Now that I know it's ok to lower my ethical expectations, because those damned baby birds are damned anyway-- I take it all back!

Bernie O'Hare said...

House of Crayons, I spent a lot of time considering your concerns. I respect your view, but reject your concern about reporting a rumor. So long as I make clear that it is just a rumor, I intend to do so when I feel it is appropriate.

The other point, concerning being "entertaining," seems to be based on the assumption that one can't be informative if she wants to be entertaining as well. I reject that assertion as well.

I think we can inform and be entertaining at the same time. Take a look at the logo for EastonUndressed. Pretty entertaining, eh? I think we can do both. No need to take ourselves too seriously. take care.

Anonymous said...

LVDem!

Late at night is the ONLY time I get to post! In the immortal words of my hero Hunter S. Thompson: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

Now I'm going back to listening to my John Lennon 8-tracks....

BTNP

Bernie O'Hare said...

BTNP, You are PURE gonzo.

Anonymous said...

The county administration is using the excessive reserve as a SLUSH fund for pet projects.
Council members Dertinger and McClure are correct in asking that a portion of the reserve be returned to the taxpayers.
This administration increased the size of county gov't to a point where a 20-25% tax increase will be necessary to cover cost.