Yahoo’s latest online news project is called “The Hot Zone” and is billed as a much-needed look at war-torn regions that have drawn scant mainstream media coverage. But the title could just as easily describe the trouble the media giant could encounter as it ventures for the first time into original news reporting.
Web portals have traditionally played the role of news aggregators, publishing the work of others but doing little or no original reporting on their own. Now Yahoo is crossing over with a new project to be created by news veteran Kevin Sites, who will visit dozens of war zones around the globe and file video and other reports online. Sites gained notoriety last year when NBC aired controversial footage he filmed in Iraq showing a Marine killing an apparently wounded and unarmed Iraqi prisoner in a mosque.
Yahoo has yet to publish a single report from Sites, but already some media watchdogs are wondering about Yahoo’s journalistic integrity, citing recent revelations that it helped Chinese authorities jail a journalist last year. This revelation, and the fact that Yahoo previously censored its Chinese-language search engine to appease Chinese authorities, raises questions about the portal’s ability to deliver transparent and objective news if it fails to protect the first amendment ideals journalists uphold, these people say.
“As Yahoo appears to be evolving in that direction (toward news gathering), it’s something we’ll likely have to address,” said Abi Wright, Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Last week Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organization that monitors human rights and press freedom, revealed that Yahoo’s Hong Kong division helped Chinese authorities track journalist Shi Tao, who sent an e-mail through his Yahoo account allegedly containing state secrets.
The e-mail contained a warning the Chinese government gave officials and the media that pro-democracy dissidents might return to China to agitate trouble on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising.
Shi, believing it wasn’t secret, mailed the information to a pro-democracy group in New York, which published it on its news site. Yahoo’s Hong Kong division helped authorities track the e-mail to Shi’s work computer, and in April he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets abroad.
Reporters Without Borders accused Yahoo of currying favor with the Chinese government. Yahoo and other companies have sought a foothold in China’s lucrative internet market and have made concessions to get it. Yahoo signed China’s voluntary pledge of “self-discipline” that, among other things, asks internet companies to refrain from producing or posting “pernicious information” that could jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability. The company also put blocks on its Chinese-language search engine to prevent users from accessing pro-democracy sites. Last month the company achieved its foothold when it purchased a 40 percent share in one of China’s largest internet companies.
But Yahoo said it wasn’t currying favor when it helped track the journalist, it was complying with Chinese law.
“Just like any other global company, Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based,” the company said in a statement.
While critics like Wright acknowledge that Yahoo, as an ISP, would also have to cooperate with authorities in the United States under a court order, the issue gets cloudy as the portal ventures into journalism.
If authorities in the United States or elsewhere sought access to a Yahoo reporter’s e-mail, the company would have to decide if it was going to act like an ISP or a news agency. And things would get trickier if the ISP side of Yahoo were to give authorities access to e-mail belonging to another news organization’s reporter while the journalism side protected its own reporter’s correspondence.
Tom Regan, executive director of the Online News Association, said the conflict between the business and news sides of media isn’t novel. But the addition of an ISP, which controls e-mail, to the mix is a new wrinkle the industry hasn’t pondered.
Of course, even traditional media companies don’t always make decisions that side with journalists. Aly ColÃ³n, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in Florida, points to Time magazine’s controversial decision to hand its reporter’s notes to Justice Department officials investigating the Valerie Plame leak.
“These decisions are not black and white, and they’re not easy to make,” ColÃ³n said.
Sites’ Yahoo page vows that his reporting will adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code. Journalists upholding the code seek to report the truth, give voice to the voiceless and be “free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”
Robert Padavick, a veteran TV producer working with Sites, said Yahoo fully supports their effort to produce transparent journalism. He couldn’t say, however, how the company might handle journalism issues outside of Sites’ coverage.