Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reflections on Cyberethics Lunch

Just wanted to pass along some reactions to the excellent discussion of cyberethics at the Carnegie Council this afternoon.

I think it is very important to acknowledge how important 9/11 is, and will continue to be, to the substance of today’s discussion. There was consensus among the panelists about the benefit of tapping into informed online communities on particular topics, and September 11th is an event around which perhaps the largest, and most diverse, such community has naturally coalesced.

While it is important for the New York Times to acknowledge, as they did, the deficiencies in their reporting leading up to the Iraq war, it is equally important to recognize the damage done by those deficiencies, and others like them. The atmosphere which contributed to the failures the Times acknowledged would have been impossible without September 11th, and as someone who was serving a gatekeeper function for newspaper editors in years immediately following September 11th , I can personally attest to the emotional component of the limits that developed on mainstream reporting during that period.

It just so happens that 9/11 occurred at a moment in history when citizens were not confined to traditional outlets of information. Official secrecy surrounding the event motivated many reasonable people to search for alternative sources of information. The credibility of the most of sources which ended up filling those gaps is certainly open to question, but it is important to acknowledge that the ability of conspiracy theorists to influence so many people stemmed in part from the (largely excusable and not conspiracy-related) short-comings of mainstream coverage. As a result, 9/11 became an important test-case for what contributions the Internet can make to educating the public about the world.

I was shocked to hear the questioner’s assertion that 1/3rd of Americans believe the CIA had something to do with 9/11, and if that is the case, it does not speak well of what the Internet’s contributions have been thus far. Whether or not the percentage is accurate, even the use of that figure in a setting like today’s discussion is striking.

It is often repeated that newspapers constitute the first draft of history, but the question of what role blogs will play in drafting history is only starting to emerge. As one of the panelists pointed out, there have already been instances in which individual bloggers have impacted a story such that it would be impossible to write an accurate historical account without mentioning them. I want to be 100% clear that I am not saying that I think the CIA had anything to do with 9/11. What I am saying is that our collective understanding of the event itself, and the factors leading up to it, has certainly been informed by the presence of the Internet- and that is important. As that history continues to evolve, I believe it will be one of the most important battlegrounds where the competing forces discussed today will vie for the public’s trust.

Continuing with a forward looking focus, the other comment I have is about something that was referenced in Devin Stewart's opening remarks; the generational element of the range in perspectives regarding the role of the internet in journalism.

I feel very lucky to have “grown-up” with the Internet. When my father first brought the net into our house, it was all text-based chatrooms and it took so long to download anything you weren’t supposed to be looking at that it was hardly worth it. While I think its important not to overestimate the influence the net has on kids’ mental development, I’m not sure how I would have handled the today’s Internet at the age when I first encountered its basic predecessor. I recently had the opportunity to discuss these themes with some high school students, and while it’s difficult for me to put into words, it was clear that we were approaching the Internet from two very different perspectives.

There certainly was at least one generation gap separating today’s panelists and I suspect another huge gap in perception already exists between people my age (26) and those ten years younger about their relationship to the net. As the medium continues to develop and these young people enter the marketplace of ideas, I am very curious to see how their perspectives on the role of the net in journalism will differ from someone like Mr. Koppelman, who, by that time, is likely to be serving the editorial role discussed as being so important to the continued evolution of the medium.

I think a well informed teenager would have made a useful contribution to today’s discussion. While he or she would not have the depth of knowledge and background on the issues being discussed, I think it would give the audience a preview of the attitudes of that will be taking the medium in yet undefined directions.

1 comment:

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