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Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D. Headshot

Why Old Media Rules Still Count in New Media Age

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Not everything goes in journalism today.

It just seems like bloggers can get away with saying and doing anything, despite the harm to a person's reputation.

Shirley Sherrod's speech about her inner struggle to assist a white farmer as an official with the USDA made great material for Andrew Breitbart's conservative blog. But he might have remembered the journalistic maxim: Be kind to your enemies.

This is because what Breitbart did in an effort to criticize the NAACP was decidedly unkind and journalistically improper.

At least he owed Sherrod fairness and a reasonably competent editing job even if this was supposed to be editorial content.

What he accomplished through a devilishly clever cut and paste job was a terrible injustice that got a decent woman fired -- at least until officials paused to read and hear what Sherrod was talking about.

I know there are those saying Sherrod should sue or that what Andrew Breitbart did amounted to a cybercrime, but at minimum Breitbart should fess up and apologize.

There's no excuse for journalistic incompetence that inflicts harm. Yes, the act targeting a public official may be protected by the First Amendment, but no journalist should use that privilege to be reckless.

What this indicates to me is that words on the Internet are still meaningful, perhaps even more so. There is still a public that knows what is right and what is wrong. It also means that journalists require training in professional ethics, in copy editing, in the necessity of avoiding libel or repeating slander.

What we need are thinking journalists, and often Breitbart had a reputation for imparting some quality material. Without adhering to any standards, without issuing an acceptable apology to Sherrod, Breitbart confirms that he is no better than the worst yellow journalist, the kind that think they are better than the public and do not need to be accountable to anyone. Some background on Breitbart:

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Wasn't this what new media accused traditional media organizations of doing? Wasn't this how blogging was supposed to be better, less full of itself, more democratic and participatory? So much for that.

Not in Sherrod's case. Her spliced video speech -- meant to achieve a political point -- was unconscionable. I understand Sherrod's comments on CNN that she'd like to "get back" at Breitbart.

She's wrong to ask that his site be shut down because it does more to divide us. Free speech is always a good thing and at least his site has sparked dialogue across this country and across the races.

The problem is that popular sites like Breitbart's need to be held to some kind of standard in order that they uphold basic journalistic values -- yes, yes, the ethics that were supposed to be taught in journalism schools but have not always taken root.

What are they again?

In short, from the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (1996):

Seek the truth and report it.

Minimize harm.

Act Independently.

and last, be accountable.

Seems pretty basic.

Maybe you should take a remedial ethics course in a J-School or digital journalsm program, Mr. Breitbart. You have shamed the blogging world.

Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D., is lead faculty for digital journalism at National University, based in San Diego. The school will begin an all-online program in digital journalism for undergraduates in October. An all-online master's degree is pending accreditation.