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Rules for Bloggers: Rumors, Iran, and the New York Times

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, July 24 2009

There's an absolutely fascinating back and forth in the comments of Ethan Zuckerman's blog. It's enough to make you remember why you love the medium. The context is that Zuckerman wrote a long post critiquing the New York Times The Lede blog blogger Robert Mackey for lending weight to a rumor that has long swirled in the international blogosphere. Mackey has been liveblogging events on the ground in Iran since the mid-June election. And in an update with the lead-in of "While there is no evidence to suport the rumor..." Mackey referenced the controversial idea that a well-known blogger with Iranian roots is actually working on behalf of the Iranian government in infiltrating the Iranian blogosphere, to harass and diminish opposition bloggers. Zuckerman acknowledged that questions about the blogger-in-question's political ties have been asked again and again in the international blogosphere. But he objected to Mackey's amplification of the rumor, given his perch at the paper of record:

We can argue about whether Times blogs should be read the same way as news articles -- they shouldn’t -- but it's certainly a concern that people will read something published by a Times employee on a New York Times website as having a level of credibility that most blogs don’t. With that power to amplify and legitimate comes responsibility.

In Zuckerman's comments, Mackey explains his choice to blog the rumor: "This is a hybrid form of journalism and blogging for which there are not yet clear rules and I am working hard to do it in a responsible manner." There are two interesting questions that Zuckerman and Mackey don't discuss, and those are (a) what we can expect from readers in this brave new world, and (b) what is owed to readers. The first is more straightforward. "The Times" no longer means the same vetted, edited, reported content that once fit between a front cover and a back cover. But the second is more interesting. As Zuckerman points out, this rumor was widely-known. Blogging about it undoubtedly provides context that Mackey's most informed readers -- like Zuckerman, for example -- are going to have. It's out there in the media ecosystem. Mackey knew it. Should he have left it at that?

Should Mackey not have blogged it and left his readers somewhat in the dark? Should he have withheld that context from his readers when a thorough Google search on the blogger's name would have turned it up the rumor? Mackey notes that the same style of blogging that amplified an uncomfortable rumor in this case also served to amplify that powerful video of Neda Soltan's death.

Give it a read.