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Like websites, blogs have become ubiquitous virtually overnight. A blog is a Weblog or online journal. Most blogs are interactive and provide for feedback from readers. Whereas most bloggers write about mundane matters, the blogosphere has also emerged as a viable alternative news medium. Blogs are having a growing impact, sometimes supplementing or correcting reporting of the mainstream media. In 2004, blogs quickly exposed the inauthenticity of the documents used in a 60 minutes story about President George W. Bush’s National Guard Service. Many other blogs consistently provide a unique and unconventional perspective on the local and national news.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the audience for alternative media is expanding: “The number of Americans reading blogs jumped 58%, in 2004 to an estimated 32 million people…with about 11 million looking to political blogs for news during the [2004] presidential campaign.”

But blogs are not just for online journalists or political commentators. Their use has also grown among doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Blogs have even become popular in the classroom. Many students have their own blogs where they record their impressions about teachers or other school related information in a diary-like format. The use of student blogs has led to a new debate about the amount of control educators should exert over online classroom activities.

Of course, the blogosphere is not without its share of controversies. One such controversy erupted in 2005 after some bloggers posted confidential Apple Computer documents about an unreleased Apple product. Apple demanded to know the source of this information but the bloggers argued that they were journalists, so they should be protected under federal and state laws from revealing their sources. A California judge disagreed, however, as he ruled that the bloggers must reveal their sources. Unfortunately, they judge in this case did not address the central question: Do bloggers deserve the same privileges to protect their sources that are accorded to journalists? On the one hand, these bloggers are acting just like journalists by reporting the news, so why shouldn’t they have the same privileges as journalists? On the other hand, “the prospect of 10, 20, or 50 million bloggers claiming journalistic privilege terrifies judges and First Amendment lawyers alike, [since] they fear that anyone who has a Website, if called to testify by a grand jury, could claim the privilege and refuse to cooperate.”

Because blogging is such a new phenomenon, there has not been much debate about “blogging ethics.” But such debate is surely needed. What are the responsibilities of bloggers, especially those operate alternative news sites? Do they have the same obligations as the conventional media? Should they be held to the same standards of objectivity?

Although it may mot be a good idea to put too many restrictions on bloggers, they are, of course, subject to the same ethical duties as anyone who communicates information.. First and foremost, bloggers have an obligation to avoid lying. St. Thomas Aquinas defines a lie as the intentional saying of what is false. In Aquinas’ view, lying is odious because it is an offense against reason and it disrupts the harmony necessary for our common life. From a natural law of perspective, lying and deception are wrong because they impede the intrinsic good of knowledge. Thus bloggers, like everyone else, must strive to be truthful at all times. They also have an obligation to check their sources and to identify those sources whenever possible so that readers are fully informed; in an online environment, this can often be done by providing links to other sites. Bloggers also have a duty to avoid unjust accusations and to retract erroneous information as quickly as possible. Finally, bloggers should consider disclosing any conflicts of interest in cases where their objectivity may be compromised. Sometimes it may be necessary for a blogger to disclose who pays his salary or who provides funding for the website’s operating costs. As one blogger explained, “The audience should be able to come to your blog and assume you’re not on the take.” If bloggers can follow these simple rules they will engender trust among their readers and the weblog will continue to have a bright future.

Material used in this case description has been excerpted from R. Spinello,CyberethicsL Morality and Law in Cyberspace,3rd edition (Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2006).

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