Illustration Credit Sean MacEntee
In today’s journalism world, obtaining and sharing information can be instantaneous.
Especially in breaking news situations we can find ourselves, as journalists, scrambling to collect, verify and publish the latest news we have.
In a lot of cases, this is when we turn to social media and the Internet. Whether you are looking at tweets, photos or posts online to use in your story, it’s important to carefully think about what and how you are publishing and producing this content.
Ethical issues pop up all the time when it comes to social media. Below are some points to consider if you’re going to use information or content from these sites.
Access. Asking yourself, what type of access you have to the information posted, is very important.
If you can only see the photo of John Doe because you are friends with him, is it OK to show that photo on TV in your story? I would argue it is not. But, if the same photo can be seen by anyone, so it was posted on his profile publicly, I would argue it is OK.
This is all about a person’s privacy and expectation of privacy. If the person posted it and made it so that only his friends can view it, is it ethical to share with the world because you have access as an insider or friend? I don’t think it is and wouldn’t do it unless I had permission from the individual or someone speaking on their behalf.
Self-verification. Just because someone claims to be Mary Sue online, doesn’t mean they are. Just because someone claims to be associated with a particular organization or individual online doesn’t make it true.
We have a responsibility as journalists to do our due diligence to verify the identity of the online profile and what is said on it. Use public records to help with this. Pick up the phone and call people or the organization to verify the association.
This goes for photos, posts and videos. Just because someone posted a photo or has it as their profile photo doesn’t mean it is them or even associated with them.
Always attribute. If you are pulling the information from someone’s Twitter feed or a Facebook post, say so in your story. Don’t just say an individual said this and leave out that it was said on social media.
Each social media site had its own lingo and culture. This can be important when telling your users John Doe did or said something. It also provides more insight for your audience into where and how you gathered the information.
Impact of sharing. This example always sticks with me. While at a social media seminar, the presenter (former SPJ Ethics Chair, Kevin Smith) showed a photo of car crash scene on the interstate.
A reporter had just arrived on scene, snapped a photo and posted it to Twitter. Great instant reporting.
Well, what the reporter probably didn’t think about was this: in the photo you could see the very badly damaged car and it looks like a really terrible accident. It was a powerful image for the story and really made you hope the people inside made it out alive. But, what you also saw was the vehicles license plate number.
That number identified the car, the owner and possibly family and friends. When you are just arriving on the scene of situations like this, family probably hasn’t been notified yet. How awful would it be for them to find out from your tweet?
Think about this as you share photos and videos. Try to remember to look at the whole photo before posting and consider things like license plates.
Context. If you are pulling information from social media you really have to give it complete context. If a post you are sharing from Twitter was from two years ago, mention that. I would go further to say, I think you should consider whether or not to use it at all.
Just because it was said at one point, doesn’t make it fair game in my eyes. Also, was it posted as part of a series of tweets or posts? Was it part of a response to someone else’s tweet? Was the photo taken at a theme party of some sort and that may be why the individual is dressed that way.
You really have to think about whether or not the information or photos make sense to use in the context of the story you are working on. You don’t want to misrepresent what you are presenting to the public.
This post is authored by Lynn Walsh, who is the Society’s secretary-treasurer and a member of it ethics committee. She also serves on the SPJ FOI and Generation J committees. She leads the investigative team at the NBC affiliate, KNSD Channel 7, in San Diego, California. Tweet to her, @LWalsh, or send her an email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.
This is one of a series of posts for Ethics Week, which spans April 19-25. Click here to read more about the week and how you can celebrate. You can read the complete and new version of the SPJ Code of Ethics by clicking here.