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Blogging Al Jazeera – A dilemma? Or a critic’s agenda?

Alvin Snyder, former broadcast journalist, now a senior fellow at USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy, is troubled by the participation of US bloggers in Al Jazeera’s annual forum in Qatar, titled “Defending Freedom, Defining Responsibility”. He offers questions in an essay on USC’s Worldcasting site titled “The Ethical Dilemmas of Blogging”, which questions whether blogggers – including me – committed an ethical lapse by participating in the Al Jazeera forum and allowing Al Jazeera to pay our travel expenses. (The essay appears in today’s Middle East Times, an English-language paper published in Cairo.)

Snyder did not attend the event, which may explain some of the factual inaccuracies in his essay. He asserts, “…at least 100 blogger-delegates had all travel and accommodation costs covered” by Al Jazeera. While I do not have financial details about anyone’s travel other than my own, I can report that the vast majority of the participants in the forum were not bloggers – they were Al Jazeera staffers, journalists from inside and outside the region and academics. I would estimate that fewer than 20 people blogged the event – most participants did not have laptops with them.

Most bloggers in attendance – including Marc Lynch, Dan Gillmor, Haitham Sabbah, Shaden Abdul Rahman and myself – appeared on panels. We were invited speakers at the conference and Al Jazeera paid our travel expenses to attend. As I told Mr. Snyder in an email exchange, I speak dozens of times a year and generally expect conference organizers to pay my travel expenses – in some cases, I receive an honorarium for speaking, though I did not receive one for speaking in Qatar.

Snyder cites an expert in journalistic ethics to determine whether our participation in the forum was on the level:

“Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute told Worldcasting that it would be acceptable to receive transportation and housing if one were asked to appear on a panel discussion at a conference, and to later report about that panel. However, it would be unethical to “double dip” and report on other activities at the event without disclosing that the sponsor paid for the reporter’s trip.”

Snyder also asserts that “Most mainstream media chose not to attend the session.” Speakers at the Forum included Christopher Dickey, Newsweek’s Middle East Editor; Martin Bell, formerly of the BBC, now an ambassador for UNICEF; Alain Gresh, editor of “Le Monde Diplomatique”; Deborah Tunnes, chief editor of ITV News in the UK and Samira Kawar, senior producer for Reuters TV. (The speaker roster is available online as a PDF – Snyder links to it in an earlier article on the forum.)

Snyder follows this assertion with quotes from an unnamed BBC staffer, who says, “Even if a BBC person was speaking at the event, the BBC would still insist on paying its employee’s expenses at the event.” Perhaps Snyder should have asked Richard Porter, the head of news for BBC World, who spoke on the “Challenges to News Organizations in the 21st Century” panel.

Errors aside, Snyder raises an interesting question – what obligations do bloggers have towards financial disclosure? He juxtaposes the Al Jazeera Forum – where the vast majority of bloggers were speakers at the conference – with a promotional trip to Amsterdam where 25 bloggers will travel, expenses paid, in exchange for advertising space on their blogs. While this is not something I would be comfortable doing – there’s no advertising space on my blog, for one thing – it’s a reasonable question to ask whether or not this is acceptable behavior for bloggers.

But Snyder’s solution of weighing blogger behavior against journalistic codes of conduct seems like a mistake. It’s not reasonable to ask that academics who blog turn down travel spnsorship, as it’s pretty hard for us to attend conferences. It may be reasonable that we disclose when we’re attending a conference and our travel expenses have been paid – I have a disclosure policy on my blog which makes this general point, but perhaps I need to be more specific event by event. (And perhaps you guys will let me know what you think I should be saying regarding expenses when I attend events like the Al Jazeera forum.) But I think Snyder’s “ethical dilemma” around my attendance at the Forum is less a dilemma and more an objection to the organization who hosted the forum. Perhaps Snyder has some biases or agendas behind his essay that he should be disclosing?

Alas, I posted this before reading what the good Dr. Aardvark had to say on the topic. It seems he and Mr. Snyder have crossed paths before, as he documents in a post called Snyder Gone Silly! and again in S for Snyd-etta. Ah, if I only had Marc’s gift for Alan Moore references. Check out his posts for a somewhat more… forward… response to Mr. Snyder…

I’ve posted a comment on one of Mr. Snyder’s posts, asking if he’ll correct the factual errors in his post… or whether that form of correcting errors in response to user comments isn’t part of “serious” journalism. No response yet…

7 thoughts on “Blogging Al Jazeera – A dilemma? Or a critic’s agenda?”

  1. your last line/question sums it up for me, ethan.

    keep that info to yourself. if someone wants to make a case of it, just continue along the lines of this post. they’ll shut-up… it’s really no one else’s business. you disclose more than enough.

  2. Is Worldcasting a blog? It rather looks like one to me, so I’m puzzled that Alvin Snyder hasn’t responded to people who have left comments pointing to factual errors in his post.

    It seems to me that most bloggers would respond to questions of accuracy; it’s part of the culture of blogs. Such responsiveness is not part of journalism’s one-to-many view of their craft. When journalists, or journalists turned “ivory tower” academics lob incendiaries at blogs, they do not stoop to respond because of their one-to-many view of what journalism is supposed to be. In other words they don’t imagine themselves as part of a discussion as bloggers in a many-to-many media do.

    Snyder demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the media he’s condeming as well as his failure as a traditional journalist.

    Your disclosure policy is a very good model. More than that I commend you for your transparency generally.

  3. Mr Zuckerman,

    I have been looking for your email address but cannot find it here. I am with al Jazeera Int’l, the new channel and I have a proposal for you.

    So please drop me a line.


  4. Personally, I would rather trust your judgment about what to disclose than bind you and all of us to a code of ethics that is blind to circumstance and nuance, as all general codes must be. After all, you’d be using your judgment about how to apply the code anyway.

    More important, you’ve earned our trust. You did it not by issuing compliance statements asserting that you’ve followed the prescribed code but by using your judgment in ways that manifest honesty and honor.

    If I thought you were doing so because a code required it of you, I’d actually trust you less.

  5. Dear Ethan,

    Danny Glover forewarned that bloggers “ridicule and ostracize anyone who dares suggest that bloggers may be susceptible to manipulation, whether knowingly or unknowingly. That’s exactly the kind of hubris that ultimately leads to ethical breaches and outright corruption.”

    While some unsupported personal attacks were leveled at me, other more serious scholars offered constructive observations, worthy of enlightened debate, specifically on the issue of free trips provided by al-Jazeera.

    You raise interesting points in your comments about my piece, Ethan, and I do enjoy reading your blogs, so let me attempt to address your concerns. I’ve put this as well on the USC Center on Public Diplomacy Newsroom site, in comments following my piece.

    In my article to which you refer I attempted to provide a balanced range of opinions on the issue of blogger acceptance of paid trips, and their non-disclosure, which Daniel Glover first raised in his Beltway Blogroll.

    In my article on the subject, I sought and reported the views of some of the major players in the debate, and attempted to represent their positions fairly and objectively. I solicited the views of (1) bloggers who represent each side of the “free trip” issue (2) mainstream journalists and their organizations (3) academics and others who accepted the free al-Jazeera Forum trip (4) al-Jazeera (unsuccessfully), and (4) a recognized, independent authority on journalistic ethics.

    To write this piece, I have notes of some 45 incoming and outgoing phone calls and E-mails with news sources, including the following attempted contacts with al-Jazeera and its representatives: Abderrahim Foukara, Mounir Daymi, Satnam Matharu, Charlotte Dent, William Stebbins, Nigel Parsons, Kieren Baker, the press information office, and the public relations office. Some responded with a suggestion of someone else at al-Jazeera who might be able answer my questions, but those individuals were not talking.

    In my article, I quote the online news association Cyber Journalist, which wrote that “since not all bloggers are journalists and the Weblog form is more casual, they [bloggers] argue they shouldn’t be expected to follow the same ethics codes journalists are.”

    I wrote that one mainstream journalist “cut bloggers some slack” when he told me that “For journalists from less well-financed organizations…free travel and accommodations may make all the difference between being able to attend events or not,” although he did remark that “journalists who benefit from paid travel or accommodations should reveal this in their writing.” I noted Daniel Glover’s belief that bloggers who had their trip paid for the al-Jazeera Forum ought to have disclosed this to their readers. I also noted the distinction raised by Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride that “academics have very different standards. So you end up with two sets of standards, one for the professionals and one for everyone else. That’s why I think transparency is so important. If the audience can at least discern which writers are financially independent in their pursuit of topics and who might have a conflict of loyalties.”

    The views of academic bloggers were represented who defended their acceptance of expense-paid trips, and their non-disclosure to readers. Another academic told me he believes someone who accepts free travel compromises his or her position. He said it would not be good manners to criticize a host sponsor, and then there is the issue of wanting to be invited back.

    As to the question of the precise number of those who took the free al-Jazeera trip, no one at al-Jazeera would respond to this, which I state in my article. Several bloggers wrote that 100 were flown out by al-Jazeera. One blogger wrote that “hundreds” had their expenses paid. I provided a link in my article to GNN (Guerrilla News Network) whose writer went on the trip with his expenses paid, and wrote that “Al Jazeera has flown out about 100 other journalists…to cover the Forum and the news conference announcing the programming for the new English language service, al-Jazeera International.” I also confirmed this fact in a telephone conversation with the writer of that article, Stephen Marshall, during which we discussed both free air fare and housing at the Doha Sheraton hotel, provided by al-Jazeera.

    While a few mainstream media attended the al-Jazeera session in Doha, most delegates were not mainstream journalists.

    I hope to meet you some time to chat about things. But I’ll pay my own way out.

    Best wishes,

    Al Snyder

  6. Alvin – Thanks for responding, both here and on the USC blog. My intent in responding to your piece wasn’t to ridicule and ostracize – I do think there are real questions to ask about the financial relationships between bloggers and the subjects they write about. My objections to your piece were two-fold: I thought your characterization of the event was, frankly, incorrect. It’s useful to hear the processes you followed in researching the story – despite those 45 phonecalls and references to the blogs, the event described in your original column is pretty far from the event I attended. I came away with a strong impression that Al Jazeera had done an excellent job of recruiting journalists from different corners of the media, and a surprisingly poor job of recruiting bloggers. One lesson from this that I’m taking is that it’s hard to characterize an event from afar, whether you’re writing as a blogger or a journalist.

    I felt that your piece was a bit unfair to Marc Lynch and to me inasmuch as the piece juxtaposed our decision to attend the Doha forum against a code of ethics for a profession that neither of us profess. We both responded to your questions, I suspect, because it was clear that what we were doing was very much within the mainstream of how academics attend and blog conferences. It would have been interesting to see whether the journalists who spoke at the forum accepted compensation for their travel expenses – I wish you piece had included that information.

    Looking forward to meeting you sometime as well. Statistically speaking, that will likely occur at a conference someone has paid for me to fly to.

  7. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Not my conference. A good time nevertheless.

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