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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Urban Legends Reference Pages: Inboxer Rebellion (Internet Petitions) 

I received another email petition today. This one is in support of a Nobel nomination for Stephen Lewis for his humanitarian work.

If the web response is any indicator this one has a broad base of support.

I have nothing against Stephen Lewis (I'm sure he'll be glad to know ;>)but journalists shouldn't sign petitions if you ask me. Objectivity is a enough difficult thing to maintain. Backing causes is the quick way to ruin it. IMHO, a journalist can do more for/against something with an objective, well-balanced article on the issue. Write the truth and let the people decide.

This particular petition is online only which raises another set of issues.

Renowned urban legend reference site Snopes.com has 79 entries on Internet petitions on every topic from saving the space program chimps to revoking the Peace Prize awarded to Yasser Arafat.

Snopes has this to say about Urban Legends Reference Pages: Inboxer Rebellion (Internet Petitions): "Claim: Signing and circulating online petitions is an effective way of remedying important issues.

Status: False.

Origins: These
past few years have seen the birth of an Internet phenomenon: the e-petition. It offers instant comfort to those outraged by the latest ills of the world through its implicit assurance that affixing their names to a statement decrying a situation and demanding change will make a difference. That assurance is a severely flawed one for a multitude of reasons.

Often petitions contain no information about whom they are ultimately intended for and instead are no more than outpourings of outrage. Expressions of outrage are fine and good, but if they don't reach someone who can have impact on the core problem, they're wasted. Thus, a petition that doesn't clearly identify the intended recipient may have some small value as a way for its signers to work off angst, but as an instrument of social change it fails miserably.

" ... Those in a position to influence anything know this and thus accord e-petitions only slightly more respect than they would a blank sheet of paper. Thus, even the best written, properly addressed, and lovingly delivered e-petitions whose every signature was scrupulously vetted by the petition's creator fall into the same vortex of disbelief at the receiving end that less carefully shepherded missives find themselves relegated to."

This isn't the first time journalists have dealt with issues of online advocacy. When the Miami Herald fired Jim DeFede on Friday, July 27, 2005 a online petition had collected 513 names by the following Tuesday evening.

In an article on Poynter Online Jim DeFede said "I have no qualms or concerns about somebody who's an opinion columnist signing the petition and expressing their opinions [...] but for a reporter… I hate to be the one to make that judgment, since I'm involved in [the story]."

If a staff member is not actively covering the DeFede story, Fiedler said, he does not object to his or her decision to sign the petition.

"I would discourage a reporter from signing a petition that might be designed toward influencing public policy," he said. "That would clearly constitute a conflict of interest, just like putting a bumper sticker on their car for a candidate… but signing a petition that is more or less within the profession, I see no ethical issue arising there."

It would be a shame for a stand taken on one issue to later diminish a journalist's credibility on a more important story.


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