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Your online ethics

A former colleague who has veered into professing wrote this week to ask if I could send her some comments on ethics issues in online editing. So I dashed off a few quick remarks along the lines of the following.

Wait for the question at the end.

You don't get a pass from ethics or common standards of accuracy and decency just because you're writing fast for the Internet.

The reader is entitled to know how you know what you say. Anything not from direct personal experience has to be sourced. You are also obligated to check out your sources to make sure that you're not, say, repeating something from the Onion as a straight story, or from some wacko conspiracy site, or a premature report of Justin Bieber’s death.

By all means link to your sources so your reader can make independent judgments, but do a little vetting on your own first.

You have to be accurate; and when you are not, you have to correct and apologize for the error. Silently correcting typographical errors is fine, but mistakes in statements of fact ought to be acknowledged plainly and fixed.

Paradoxically, owning up to your errors enhances your credibility.

When you have a stake in the subject—you're writing about someone you know personally, or reviewing a book written by a friend, or advocating for some organization with which you have an affiliation or a financial interest, for example—say so. Transparency should be more than a buzzword.

Quotations should be the words the person uttered, subject to the conventions of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and the like. You can paraphrase, use partial quotes and ellipses, or interpolate bracketed material, but you are not to reword the speaker's utterances.

And if you are quoting text, quote it verbatim.

You do not get to take quoted matter out of context and distort its intended meaning to score some point.

The main ethical principles to be followed are the same ones your teachers told you in elementary school: Don't copy. Don't tell lies.

Got that? Now here’s the question. You can consider it to be rhetorical, or you can take advantage of the comments function to answer it:

What in online ethics is different from print ethics?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:40 AM | | Comments (11)


Ethics as such doesn't change, but you need to do more things to be ethical online, because of the intense fluidity of the medium. For example, if you correct a substantive error, you have to give some notice of what the error was, and not just fix it silently. In print, silent fixes aren't an option (except for new editions of books, where people expect changes), but because they are technically possible online, people often don't bother telling you what was wrong so that they can install the fix into their heads.

Similarly, when citing a print source, the reader doesn't have to care when you read it, so it's ethical not to mention that. When citing an online source, you need to say "Retrieved 2010-09-19", so that the reader has a hope of going to the Internet Archive and seeing the same text you did, or something close to it, rather than looking at the current version of the text (which may not be available or even exist any more).

One of the biggest advantages for online content over print is that of the embedded correction.

If there is an error in the original piece, it can be changed. If the content of the error is inconsequential (such as a fat-fingered spelling error, for instance) it can be altered without notation.

In the even of a more significant error, the original text can left left standing with a [strikeout] tag, then the better information appended -- including attribution to the person who first noted the error.

I fully intend to use this evolved correction scheme on my blog, should I ever make my first error.


Online you have additional ethical burden of link-back to sources with websites. It isn't enough to write that you obtained a fact from XYZ -- the ethical reporter gives a digital nod as well.

Silently correcting typographical errors is fine, but mistakes in statements of fact ought to be acknowledged plainly and fixed.

Please footnote any and all changes.
The date (and time too for busy sites) and the nature of the change should be included in the brief footnote statement.

Some as simple as "typo" for such or "substituted prior unsubstantiated reference to X in paragraph 3 with Y" for the larger edits.


I disagree with MrRational's comment in general, although perhaps not in specific. Who benefits from knowing that you changed a typo like "teh" (for "the"). That's just noise.

However, corrections to typos involving something like names, places, dates, facts should be acknowledged. Thus it depends on the precise definition of "typo," I suppose and "statements of fact."

I actually tell my students that if the mistake is blatant enough, a good solution is to a) create a new online piece (e.g. blog entry) that addresses the issue and its correction and b) at the top of the now-incorrect piece, put a link to the new piece.

3 simple rules:

1) Don't say it unless you know it.
2) If you do know it, prove it.
3) If it turns out you didn't know it, 'fess up and fix it.


David Hobby,

Respectfully, you ironically made two, granted very miniscule, 'typos' in your earlier posted commentary (Jan. 21, '11/ 11:23AM). Oops!

You missed affixing the requisite "t" to the word that should have read "event", and you unwittingly doubled up on the word "left", when only one was required. No biggie.

So your rather unrealistic, slightly braggadocios statement, namely ,"should I ever make my first error", has already bitten the proverbial dust.

Frankly, I suspect the intent of your aforementioned statement was thoroughly tongue-in-check, and not the boastings of an over-inflated ego. So no harm, no foul. Enough said.

At any rate, I thought Mr. 'Mac' hit on some very salient points re/ basic online blogging etiquette, and going forward I will endeavor to put into practice, as much as humanly possible, his thoughtful, and instructive ethical guidelines.


The lack of an editor. In general online writers do't have the advantage of an editor to review their work and act as a backstop. Altough this is obvious in the case of the nuts and bolts of writing, it also means you don't have a consultant for ethical questions, nor someone to question the implications of a statement. You may have meant to fact-check that quote but got side-tracked and neglected to get back to it.


Blogger David Hobby------ In perhaps my overzealous attempt to, dare I say, mildly admonish you in my earlier post for trying to be 'Mr. Perfect Blogger', unwittingly, I too committed a minor 'typo'/ spelling faux pas. (Drats!)

Instead of the correct intended phrase "tongue-in-cheek", I typed "tongue-in-check", replacing what should have been one of the two "e"s in the word "cheek", w/ an erroneous "c".

(Can't blame it on my stubby digits this time, 'cause the letters "e" and "c" on the standard keyboard are not adjacent to one another. Now if say King Kong were pecking out a few lines of his first novella, "Going Ape", w/ his humongous index fingers, I might cut HIM some slack. Just sayin'. HA!)

Ironically, my Speil-Check 'app' recognized my "check" as a legitimately spelled, perfectly acceptable word, but in the whole context of the familiar phase, "tongue-in-cheek", it had no way of detecting the error of my ways. So accordingly, no red flags popped up.

Geez Louise, this newfangled technology stuff can be so checky................Oops, I meant cheeky. HA!

I leave you w/ this, now immortal, most profound line from Brit poet/ satirist, Alexander Pope: "Ye dummy! Ye screwed up royally !"


Wrong quote. (Yikes!)

I meant to say, "To err is human, to forgive divine."

Words to live by, no? (Particularly on this blog. HA!)

Have a wonderful weekend, Mr. Hobby.


Alex - you can't spell "minuscule".


Respectfully. Don't worry your little head off. Not worth the aggravation.

I actually CAN correctly spell "minuscule" (see!), interestingly w/ the same linguistic derivative root as the similar word, "minute", also meaning small, or tiny. Same initial four letters, "minu", w/ the "u" residing comfortably in both.

But unfortunately, like many mortal bloggers out there, I too suffer from the occasional flair-up of 'fat-fingeritis', and an extra heavy-handed, perhaps slightly rushed romp over the keyboard often unwittingly clunks out say an errant "i", which really should have clearly been a solid "u". (Oops!)

Zythophile, as you are acutely aware, the letters "u" and "i" are virtual bosom buddies, resting cheek-to-jowl to one another on the standard PC (or iMac) keyboard. So please, could you find it in your heart-of-hearts to cut me a little slack, eh?

Aren't there much bigger, far less minuscule fish-to-fry out there in the greater blogosphere?

Really, if we wanted to squander our valuable blogging time nit-picking at every minor typo that shows up on this, or any other online site, then we are sadly doomed to chronic petty fault-finding, and very little constructive shared discourse. We are better than this, no?


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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