Ethics in New Media: Gizmodo iPhone flap raises serious concerns

Ethics and New MediaIt’s quite possibly the biggest story in tech this year. And that’s unfortunate. Apple’s next generation iPhone that was lost in a Redwood City bar by an engineer is a mistake (granted, major) that could have ended quietly. But instead, because a tech blog allegedly purchased it for $5,000, the story has turned into a major headline grabber, especially within tech circles.

Cirque du Soleil may have left the Bay Area months ago, but a new circus is in town.

However, there is another, sober angle to this story: Ethics in new media.

Regardless whether a law was broken or not—and it appears this fiasco may indeed have its day in court—it raises serious concerns about the behavior and actions of new media, the sometimes self-professed shining light of the future of journalism.

Say it ain’t so.

Nick Denton, who runs Gawker Media, appears to value getting a scoop, grabbing headlines (and pageviews) at all costs, even if it means having people’s names dragged through the mud (e.g. Gray Powell, the Apple software engineer that lost the phone, and now Jason Chen, the Gizmodo editor that published several pieces about the next-gen Apple).

Last week, Gizmodo’s entire front page was dedicated to “uncovering” the next generation iPhone. It published several stories, some even profiling the unwitting Apple engineer with his photo plastered front and center, and others dissecting the device in detail. Inquiring minds must know! Assuming this is not a publicity stunt (anything’s possible), it smacks of questionable ethics. On the other side, Engadget, a tech blog competitor, downplayed the event with limited coverage. It’s possibly the tale of two personalities: Nick Denton of Gawker and Gizmodo, and Joshua Topolsky of Engadget.

Sad though, that Gizmodo, an example of all-things future tech journalism (as we’re reminded oh-so-many times) should need to resort to the most tabloid of techniques.

The story is almost completely of its own manufacturing. The $5,000 transaction is dubious, and may amount to a crime. And hanging names out for public display before all the facts are in smacks of Enquirer-like thinking.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Gizmodo is the poster child for ethics. Sure, being bold and aggressive at times are required to elbow your way out front of the competition. But something doesn’t feel right about the way this was handled. At times it feels like Risky Business: The parents went away for the weekend, and the kids donned sunglasses, took the Porsche out, smoked a doobie or two and partied like it was 1983. Hey, it’s fun while it lasts. But not so much the day after.

There’s more to come from this saga. Perhaps it will pass, and become an amusing tech footnote to 2010. Or—my hope—it wakes up all us new media types; that we can be successful and still hold true to ethics and fundamental principles of quality journalism that have stood the test of time.

Then again, Denton must be salivating. If he loves attention and pageviews, then this debacle should continue to stroke his inner Orson Welles. Meanwhile, Engadget is looking classy.

Blogs, videos, social networking may all be new tools, but bedrock human values should still be celebrated as well.

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  • Mick

    Paying for a lead amounts to unethical journalism?

    • Mark

      They paid for stolen property. That is much different than paying for a “lead”.

  • Mick

    Paying for a lead amounts to unethical journalism?

    • Mark

      They paid for stolen property. That is much different than paying for a “lead”.

  • GS

    Err. Really? And Apple is all shiny and nice, right?

  • GS

    Err. Really? And Apple is all shiny and nice, right?

  • M. Rhoads

    I am a blogger, and therefore – according to many – a journalist. Since I assume that the shield laws apply to me. I would like to offer a small reward to anyone who finds a lost cellphone or laptop, or thumb drive. I will copy the contents, disassemble the device, and post anyone’s personal, financial, or medical information online and try to get ad revenue for doing so. If I find unpublished music or lyrics, technical specs, or company information, I will also publish that. In addition, I’ll sell the user’s contact lists, photos, and anything else I feel the public might be interested in, to the highest bidder. After I’ve made a little money off of this, I’ll try to contact the person who lost the device and send it back to them, after insisting that they send me a letter formally requesting its return, of course. Is everyone here OK with this business plan?

  • M. Rhoads

    I am a blogger, and therefore – according to many – a journalist. Since I assume that the shield laws apply to me. I would like to offer a small reward to anyone who finds a lost cellphone or laptop, or thumb drive. I will copy the contents, disassemble the device, and post anyone’s personal, financial, or medical information online and try to get ad revenue for doing so. If I find unpublished music or lyrics, technical specs, or company information, I will also publish that. In addition, I’ll sell the user’s contact lists, photos, and anything else I feel the public might be interested in, to the highest bidder. After I’ve made a little money off of this, I’ll try to contact the person who lost the device and send it back to them, after insisting that they send me a letter formally requesting its return, of course. Is everyone here OK with this business plan?

  • Jon

    What you fail to realize is that they did not sell/ buy the device, but rather ACCESS to it. That is not illegal.
    Also, Engadget may be looking classy, but so is the DeLorean. Classy-ness doesn’t pay the bills, but rather, sales do!

    You all believe in ‘survival of the fittest’ and this is a great example of it: Gizmodo doing what it needs to in order to survive and thrive in a competitive market.

    I say, way to go Gizmodo!

    And to the likes of Clinton Stark that are a bit prudish on this, the stark reality is that the world is going the way of the actions of Gizmodo. So suck it up and embrace it or you will become extinct too!

    Jon

  • Jon

    What you fail to realize is that they did not sell/ buy the device, but rather ACCESS to it. That is not illegal.
    Also, Engadget may be looking classy, but so is the DeLorean. Classy-ness doesn’t pay the bills, but rather, sales do!

    You all believe in ‘survival of the fittest’ and this is a great example of it: Gizmodo doing what it needs to in order to survive and thrive in a competitive market.

    I say, way to go Gizmodo!

    And to the likes of Clinton Stark that are a bit prudish on this, the stark reality is that the world is going the way of the actions of Gizmodo. So suck it up and embrace it or you will become extinct too!

    Jon