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The Online News Association announced April 1 that it was introducing an ethics code for newsgathering practices on social media.
The ONA Social Newsgathering Ethics Code – whose founding supporters included CNN, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian and Storyful – was designed to give guidance on social newsgathering practices, from rights and verifying information, to the safety of sources and journalists themselves.
Eric Carvin, the social media editor for the Associated Press and a co-founder of ONA’s social newsgathering working group, wrote in a blog post announcing the code that it was in response to the growing trend of newsgathering by social media, and had been made available after three years of development.
Carvin wrote that recent incidents, including the attacks in Brussels earlier this year, served as a reminder of why the practices were important.
“Moments like these challenge us, as journalists, to tell a fast-moving story in a way that’s informative, detailed and accurate,” Carvin wrote. “These days, a big part of that job involves wading through a roiling sea of digital content and making sense out of what we surface.”
The introduction of the code comes amid a continuing conversation about the role social media has in journalism today, from the business aspects prompted by features on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, to how news organizations can engage audiences and uphold the same standards of journalism on these new platforms.
This code has the only specific mention of social newsgathering of any journalism development organization. The SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which itself was revised in 2014, does not mention social media platforms specifically, but the Ethics Committee advises to apply the four principles of the code (Seek truth and report it, Minimize harm, Be accountable and transparent, and Act independent) to all types of journalism, irrespective of platform.
Yet, what does the introduction of this code mean for ethics in social media journalism, and how have these principles impacted how journalists think about journalism in the age of Facebook and Twitter? Additionally, should other organizations, like SPJ, follow ONA’s lead and add specific ethics requirements to social media journalism?
Randi Shaffer, a social media assistant with the Chicago Tribune, says while the ONA guide can be helpful for younger journalists, no other guides, including SPJ’s, should be changed.
“It’s important for social media managers to keep ethics in mind when posting, but for our line of work, it does not differ from traditional journalistic ethics,” Shaffer said in a telephone interview. “Ethics have always had a huge part in journalism. Just because social media presents new ways to tell stories does not mean you can throw them out of the window.”
Shaffer says that journalists should be aware of the ethics that surround social media newsgathering, and there should not be an issue when it comes to the technology.
“If you remain true to the heart of journalism, if you understand the ethics, there shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to tech,” Shaffer said.
Laura Hazard Owen, the deputy editor for Nieman Lab based at Harvard University, says although ethics in social media newsgathering is an open and ongoing debate, it would not hurt for organizations to include provisions on social newsgathering and raise issues of discussion to members.
“There is a general understanding of a need for ethics but it is not agreed on what those ethics should be,” Hazard Owen said in a telephone interview. “I would be interested in seeing a revised Ethics Code, but it would be difficult to take different situations into a one size fit all approach.”
Indeed, Shaffer says, social media has influenced how content is presented in the public interest. The case is true surrounding a graphic video released late last year by the Chicago Police Department of the shooting of African-American teenager Laquan McDonald, which later saw the firing of the city’s police chief and increased calls for the resignation of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
At the time the video was released, the Tribune posted disclaimers and warnings surrounding the content, and while criticism of the release of the video came, Shaffer says the Tribune made the right call in publishing it in that sense.
“Readers have the right to see it from their own eyes,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer adds ultimately that no matter the platform, the ethics still apply.
“Social makes it easier to get to the tip of the iceberg, but it does not give any insight to below the water,” Shaffer said. “Journalism is still journalism. No matter the medium, the message is the same.”
However, Hazard Owen says it’s a good idea to stay on top of new platforms and changes in technology, and to think about the ethics of working on those platforms.
“The new platforms will keep arising,” Hazard Owen said. “It’s good for organizations to be thinking about these things and have an updated list of standards or guidelines. It doesn’t ever hurt to tell your members you’re thinking about this.”
Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and founder of the SPJ Digital community. He blogs for Net Worked, SPJ’s digital journalism blog, on social media’s role in the future of journalism. Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is Long Form Editor and a contributor to Kettle Magazine, an online publication based in the UK. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.