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The Great Blogging Ethics Debate

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2003; 10:10 AM

The war in Iraq put blogs in the public spotlight, but it also has given the blogosphere its first real scandal -- a scandal that is provoking a new debate among bloggers about what ethics, if any, apply to their medium.

Yesterday's Filter was devoted to the case of Sean-Paul Kelley, a Texas blogger who admitted to Wired that he copied material from a subscription service for his popular war blog, The Agonist. Kelley lifted verbatim material from Stratfor, a Texas-based intelligence firm, apparently to jazz up his own war posting and to curry favor with potential intelligence sources.

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Filter readers have chimed in. The verdict? Many don't seem to think that Kelley's actions were that big of deal. They insist that blogging is free -- i.e. a free-flow medium and not a journalistic endeavor. But a number of voices have spoken up on the other side of the debate, including blogger Ken Layne, who has come down squarely against Kelley.

Layne is joined in his view by blogger Meryl Yourish (www.yourish.com), who offers a slew of postings on her site about the Kelley incident. "Kelley's plagiarism is a blow to the credibility of the blogosphere. And it should be big news in the blogosphere. The Agonist has been a high-profile, high-visibility blogger since the start of the war. The war has caused his popularity surge. His seemingly uncanny line to information (now revealed to have been lifted whole cloth from Stratfor) helped him achieve that high visibility. And he still has it. The blogosphere has barely mentioned this," she writes. Yourish also links to other bloggers who have piped in on the debate. Yourish, in an e-mail to Filter, wrote: "What Sean-Paul Kelley did was reprehensible, but worse, he isn't really taking responsibility for it. Nowhere in his apology can you even figure out what he did."

Yourish's comments come partly in response to blogger/professor Glenn Reynolds, who noted on his site, InstaPundit.com, that he hasn't linked to the Agonist that much: "But the real reason I haven't linked to him a lot is simpler: most of his posts didn't have links to sources. I didn't suspect plagiarism, really, but I'm generally skeptical of secondhand reports without clear sourcing."

Blogger Daniel W. Drezner writes in a posting on his blog: "It does change my opinion of Kelley's ethics. ... The Wired story makes it clear that what Kelley did was plagiarism, pure and simple. He copied source material word for word without attribution. ... One could also argue that Kelley had a larger obligation to the Blogosphere, since he was one of the poster boys of the spate of recent coverage of warblogging by MSNBC, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and The Washington Post. As a graduate student in international relations, Kelley knew (or should have known) he was in the wrong as he was lifting Stratfor's content, and he was in the wrong again when he initially tried to deny the plagiarism."

As for Kelley, he has offered up an apology on his site: " I make no excuses for what I did." Kelley says that the situation has been corrected and that he has worked out some sort of arrangement with Stratfor. When another blogger first questioned some of the Agonist's work, Kelley wrote that he would be go back to attributing anything he could on his site.

The Professors' Take

Two media experts took the time to talk with Filter about their own thinking on the Kelley incident.

Larry Pryor, executive editor of the University of Southern California's Online Journalism Review, said that while many bloggers maintain they are not journalists, "bloggers have become too important to brush off this question" of journalism ethics. While bloggers might be one-person shops, Pryor said he believes whether bloggers "like it or not, they have to follow ethics." He noted that bloggers seem to want it both ways -- to be taken seriously, to make an impact on discourse, all while being free of traditional rules. "If they are going to be taken seriously, they have to follow [ethical] rules." Those rules include providing attribution and avoiding plagiarism, he said.

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