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Online journalism ethics addressed

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Elizabeth Zwerling, associate professor of journalism, offered a lecture on “Ethics (and the Lack of Ethics) in Electronic Media” Monday in the President Dining Room. Various faculty members participated in discussion of the topic. Many ethical problems were brought up, for which there are no easy solutions. Still Zwerling said journalists must embrace the new communications modes. / photo by Debora Escobar

Annunciata Williams
Staff Writer

Elizabeth Zwerling, associate professor of journalism at the University of La Verne spoke about the “Ethics (and the Lack of Ethics) in Electronic Media” in the  faculty lecture series Monday in the President’s Dining Room.

More than two dozen students and faculty attended Zwerling’s lecture about the ethics or lack thereof in the online news world.

“There are rules and then there are exceptions to the rules,” Zwerling said.

The first part of the lecture focused on how news archives are accessible online indefinitely, and the second part looked at ethical problems with journalists’ use of social media.

There are more than 850 million active Facebook users and many more use Twitter, Google+ and other forms of social networking.

“Many journalists use social media posts, status updates and photos in stories,” Zwerling said, adding that this creates ethical concerns. Also, communications law and journalism ethics policies have not kept up with advancements in technology.

“I did kind of find it disturbing that people post what is online as fact,” said sophomore biology major Nathanael Morales, who attended the lecture.

“Journalists are not going out into the field as much, or fact checking their research and are assuming that what is online is complete fact,” Morales said.

While information is widely available online via Facebook, Wikipedia and other websites, the information at those sites is not necessarily accurate.

A journalist is supposed to seek the truth and report it while minimizing harm, acting independently and being accountable, per the SPJ code of ethics, Zwerling said.

So any information found or posted online needs to be verified. The difference between truth and something less is sometimes blurred online, however, and the pressure to get the information fast and first sometimes drives journalists to use unverified information or photos found on Facebook.

In fact, Zwerling said, some television news stations routinely use photos taken without permission from Facebook

“It was really interesting,” said sophomore psychology major Elizabeth Janetzke, who attended the lecture. “I’m going to be more careful about what I post online.”

Teens and adults alike are finding that posting their lives online can be hazardous for job security and personal privacy.

“It is almost impossible for freelance journalists to earn a living” Zwerling said.

Once online, articles can be picked up, shared, republished and archived among the many search engines.

Everything is archived by Google and other search engines so that every article can always be found on Google.

“What do you do when a 10-year old story tops a Google search?” Zwerling asked. “Once a story is written, the article will live indefinitely online.”

Problems arise when people or events in the stories change.

An example of this could be an article about person who was charged with a crime.

That same person might have been found to be innocent, however the original article online has not changed, so it is like the charge lives on.

Newspaper editors field frequent requests to delete and alter such archives, Zwerling said.

It is nearly impossible to change what has been archived into the search engines, as they will always retain the original format as well.

“It’s history and it shouldn’t be changed,” said Al Clark, associate vice president of academic affairs and coordinator of the Lecture Series.

At times the lecture turned into discussion as audience members offered their own thoughts on the issues.

Zwerling put the ethical issues in the context of journalism being in an extended state of transition and upheaval.

When asked where she believes journalism will be in 10 years, Zwerling said that she wasn’t sure, but right now “We’re just going to try and roll with it.”

Annunciata Williams can be reached at

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