May 08, 2005
When "Ethics Code" is Code For "Meaningless Drivel"
Posted by Christine Hurt

Adam Cohen has a fairly strident op-ed today in the NYT arguing that bloggers need to have a code of ethics, like journalists do.  Ann Althouse writes that a code is unwarranted, while Larry Ribstein (who we know is generally against regulation) argues that while a code should not be regulated, a market could develop for voluntary code adoption.

Mr. Cohen makes the galling statement that "[m]any bloggers who criticize the MSM's ethics, however, are in the anomalous position of holding themselves to lower standards, or no standards at all."  I want to ponder the gaping divide between posting a "Code of Ethics" on a blog and having "no standards at all."

What is a "code of ethics"?  Sarbanes-Oxley requires reporting companies to have one posted on their website, and apparently journalists have one, too.  The Pink Ladies and the T-Birds had a "code" in Grease 2.  What do all of these codes have in common?  They are unenforceable to the extent that there is no external body to sanction individuals who breach the code.  The existence and breach of the code may be some evidence in a trial under a separate cause of action for say, breach of fiduciary duty by directors who approve of loan transactions to officers in violation of a code of ethics, but the breach itself does not trigger an enforcement action.  (The Pink Ladies code may have been useful as some evidence in an IIED action by the Michelle Pfeiffer character ("Stephanie"), but I doubt she would have prevailed.)

Lawyers adhere to a code of ethics, but that code has been actually codified into rules adopted by bar associations and state supreme courts.  Violations of those rules can result in losing one's license to practice law, in addition to the violation's being used as evidence in a malpractice proceeding.  However, if an officer of a company breaches a code of ethics, that officer doesn't have a professional license to return and isn't barred from being an officer in the next company that comes along.  The market may (or may not) restrict his mobility, but no regulatory agency does.  If a journalist breaches this sacrosanct code of ethics, the journalist may be fired, but that's about it.

So, if Gordon and I came up with a code of ethics (and surely we could come up with a better list than Mr. Cohen's check sources/note conflicts/post corrections list), I don't think that anything additional would happen to me if an unethical action of mine breached the code.  Right now, if it came to light that W.R. Hambrecht was paying me to argue night and day about online IPO auctions (I wish), I think I would feel the heat whether or not I had a code conspicuously posted on my blog.

Now, it may be that we blog in a rarefied part of the blogosphere.  Most of the blogs we read are written by law professors or lawyers, and we operate under a set of professional norms; as Larry noted, norms constrain behavior.  Few of us blog anonymously, and even those who do blog with colleagues who surely know who they are.  No one blogs anonymously to mask conflicts of interest or sloppy fact-checking; anonymous blawgers are anonymous to be more honest, not less.

Right now, Gordon and I blog under an unspoken code of human beings, which I'm sure is broader than the journalistic code of ethics.  I would hate for us to aim lower in our standards.

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Comments (7)

1. Posted by DSmith on May 9, 2005 @ 6:44 | Permalink

Journalists have a code of ethics? Since when? Is there any evidence that such a code exists in practice, as opposed to theory? I haven't seen any in some time, but I'm willing to listen.

As of right now, what I think journalists have a lot of isn't ethics, it's gall.


2. Posted by Steve on May 9, 2005 @ 7:08 | Permalink

Gall, and a ton of self-denial. They're above it all.


3. Posted by Jim on May 9, 2005 @ 7:20 | Permalink

If journalists have a code (or codes) of ethics, shouldn't the code (or codes) be in writing, for of all professions, it should be most objectionable to jounalists to quote something inaccuarately? If it or they are in writing, should a search engine turn it or them up, if it or they are on the Internet? If not in electronic form, is journalistic ethics taught in J-school, and shouldn't there be a textbook? These questions should be looked into, and answers posted here, so other blogs can pick up the story. These questions should be directed sharply to journalists who tout their own "ethics" but down bloggers for their lack of a written code. Please, give me a URL cite or a textbook name and author and ISBN number.


4. Posted by WildMonk on May 9, 2005 @ 7:42 | Permalink

It seems to me that the blog reader community already enforces a reasonable - if unstated - 'code.' That is, the community itself has a direct means of challenging falsehoods, illogic and poor thinking on your site (via comments) or on a site of their own. What would your code say that the community doesn't already believe important?

The only reason the MSM needs a 'code' is to build confidence that they will not abuse their position of dominance over the flow of ideas. Once the dominance disappears and the discussion begins, lofty statements of principle serve only the vanity of the writer.


5. Posted by submandave on May 9, 2005 @ 8:49 | Permalink

Once upon a time, the following were common sentiments:

  • a man's word is his bond
  • a handshake can be trusted
  • honesty is the best policy
In the areas of the blogoshere I frequent, these thoughts are commonly accepted as the way things are. If I don't trust the author, I go elsewhere. The blogoshere differs greatly from MSM in that the consumer has infinitely more choice and that there is no middlemen (employers, editors, etc.) limiting the consumers' options.

A former CNO (ADM Trost maybe?) once said "Integrity is what you do when you don't think you'll get caught." Character and integrity can be neither created nor enforced by a "code of ethics."


6. Posted by Ken Pierce on May 9, 2005 @ 12:08 | Permalink

I was amused when Matt Sedensky did some crowing about how much more ethical journalists were than most people, based on the fact that they say they'll do the right thing (but with no investigation into what they actually do). I couldn't help but be reminded of when the CFTC decided to try to solve the problem of brokers' cheating their customers by making sure all we brokers took ethics training courses so that we would learn that stealing money from customers was a Bad Thing...apparently the CFTC didn't think we understood that complex ethical point...

Having a code of ethics never made anybody in the world honest; it just makes the dishonest folks sneakier about what kinds of dishonesty they try to get away with.


7. Posted by Kevin on May 9, 2005 @ 14:37 | Permalink

Isn't there that saying of Tactius, maybe, that "when laws multiple, the republic has become corrupt."

I think its like that. If you actually have and live by a set of ethics, you probably don't need a code. If you need a code to tell you right and wrong (outside of say some highly technical issues), it ain't gonna help.

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