I’m puzzled by Tim Worstall’s critical view on a recent New York Timesarticle on the need for blogger ethics.

Worstall is right to highlight the Times reporter’s misunderstanding of how the blogosphere sees itself working. Seeing the blogosphere as a collective endeavour where the “hive mind” is the appropriate unit of analysis is something most traditional journalists have a lot of trouble with, because this is a radically different conception from their own media, which seek to be definitive at the level of rival publications. As Dan Gillmor says, blogs are a seminar, not a lecture.

But Worstall’s view — that blogger ethics are undesirable — leaves a lot to be desired. Worstall says that the blogosphere seeks truth at a system level, and that restrictive ethics at the individual level is therefore unimportant or even counter-productive:

… Blogs are quite rightly not held to those standards of “ethical journalism”. Only what comes out of the system, after the unsupported allegations, the rants, the foam-flecked screaming, only after the filtering process provided by 8 million blogs shouting at and correcting each other, only that should be considered ethical journalism. Each individual blog post, he is correct, is simply the unsupported word of a partisan … but the system as a whole works very well.

The unfortunate truth is that if each blog post were held to the same standards of “ethical journalism” then we would be just as lame as the MSM at processing data. Probably even worse, in fact, for none of us individually have the same resources as one individual newspaper. Yet the system as a whole has vastly more resources than not just any one newspaper but all of them added together.

What I would want to make sure people understand is that we are aiming for truth in the end, the blogosphere being a method of attempting to reach that that works at the system level, one that has its own inbuilt ethical checks and balances, that it is a system that only works if we do not have ethical policies at the individual level, for if we do, how can we process all of the data?

Actually, it could be argued that in that respect, “MSM” journalism is actually a lot like the blogosphere. Individual stories build up a body of material in the public realm that is picked up by other outlets. Errors of fact are exposed by rival media. Stories develop over time and across outlets. The investigative, book-length version of events corrects the errors hidden away in the cuttings library.

In other words, Worstall’s laissez faire logic could be applied to journalism just as much as it could to blogging — after all, it’s the final, collectively-constructed narrative that ultimately counts, not the contributions to the “first rough draft of history” provided by individual reporters. If you adopt this logic, it doesn’t really matter if a lot of misinformation is produced and promulgated. In the end, the truth will bubble to the surface.

This could work as it (sort of) does in the blogosphere. But what Worstall fails to realise is that ethics applied to individuals are often about defending the credibility of the system as a whole.

Journalism (in most countries) is not held to its ethical standards by any external regulator. Even where there is a formal system of self-regulation like the the UK Press Complaints Commission, journalistic ethics are primarily enforced within the profession. No hack who has sold out a source, is a known plagerist, or takes money for column-inches will ever write again for money.

The reason for this is that journalists, collectively, understand that their trade cannot continue if readers and sources lose faith in it. There’s a lot of enlightened self-interest underlying all those ethics codes journlists like to cite. Lapses in a given newspaper’s reporters&rsquos; credibility translate into lost newstand sales and reduced profits. Poor treatment of sources translates into reduced access for individual reporters, leading to reduced scoops and hence, reduced profits for their employer.

The same self-interest could come to apply to the blogosphere. The best bloggers, in the long term, will be those with a reputation for accuracy and uncovering or amplifying legitimate stories. Big bloggers who hype nonsense stories will see their credibility undermined. Some will decide that the best way to avoid this is not to make such avoidable errors in the first place.

For Adam Cohen of the New York Times, bloggers aspire to be a new breed of journalist while failing to live up the the standards that the profession has developed over the past century or so:

Many bloggers who criticize the MSM’s ethics, however, are in the anomalous position of holding themselves to lower standards, or no standards at all. That may well change. Ana Marie Cox, who edits Wonkette, notes that blogs are still “a very young medium,” and that “things have yet to be worked out.” Before long, leading blogs could have ethics guidelines and prominently posted corrections policies.

Bloggers may need to institutionalize ethics policies to avoid charges of hypocrisy. But the real reason for an ethical upgrade is that it is the right way to do journalism, online or offline. As blogs grow in readers and influence, bloggers should realize that if they want to reform the American media, that is going to have to include reforming themselves.

Both Worstall and Cohen are wrong. Bloggers need ethics, but not because they should be more like professional journos. Bloggers need ethics because this is essential for the blogosphere as a whole to retain and expand the influence they already have on public discussion. The blog form will only flourish if it is seen by its readers to have some predictable level of credibility.