September 19th, 2012
SPJ’s Code and Social Media
By Kevin Smith
In an effort to bring some sense of ethical standards to the unbridled spirit that often accompanies social media, people have traditionally reverted to the default settings of the legacy mediums for a sense of guidance. These codes, based on traditional media practices, can serve as a centrifuge by taking new, technologically driven media and breaking it down into its simplest components of journalism. These components are universal for all media. In SPJ’s ethics code they are truth, fairness, harm, independence and accountability.
The Society of Professional Journalists relies on its current ethics code to be a standard-bearer that can be applied to the varied mediums, rather than addressing social media specifically. This has been a source of debate from external influences, as well as from within SPJ.
The debate comes down to a singular focus – Does the code require rewriting to directly reflect the new technologies, specifically digital and social media, or can it serve this new journalism through a more overarching interpretations of its existing standards? To put it another way, is the code about functionality or inspiration? The answer for SPJ can be both.
To complicate this debate is the code’s existing language. The code does offer specifics as it relates to broadcast news and other times with print. It mentions news teases for broadcasting and headlines for newspapers. It talks about readers, listeners and viewers in a time when newspaper, radio and television were the three legacies. Today we might reference crowd-sourcing where the public provides integrated collaboration with the media. The question that arises is, if the current code was written to take into account specifics in 1996, why is there a resistance to do that same today to acknowledge the differences between old media and social media?
The retort then is to fairly ask why the current language doesn’t serve the ethical concerns of these new mediums sufficiently and provoke the pragmatic question: Must the code need revised every time technology advances and introduces another form of journalism? If we rewrite it today to address the ethics of Twitter, what happens if Twitter disappears? Do we rewrite it to address Twitter’s replacement?
The real test of the current code’s value comes from reading it line by line. For instance, Under Seek Truth and Report It, the first instruction is “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” Does this mandate speak clearly enough to the use of reporting via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Four Square, Tumblr, blogs? Is there a discernible difference between testing the accuracy for a newspaper or TV news cast and doing the same for Twitter? If the answer is yes, then that needs to be explained in a forthright and logical manner. In short, a case needs to be made for how it’s different and why the current code should be changed. If no, then the code has provided sufficient advice.
Identify sources whenever possible. Are the rules the same for all mediums or does it need to change for social media?
What about promising anonymity?
Using undercover tactics?
Differentiating between news and advocacy?
Giving others the opportunity to respond to allegations before publishing?
Showing sensitivity with interviews?
Promoting good taste?
Being judicious about naming criminal suspects, victims?
Identifying yourself as a journalist?
Denying favorable treatment?
Showing a reasonable guarding of a person’s privacy?
If these questions cannot be specifically applied to social media reporting practices, then more viable, directed solutions are in order.
As always, the most sensible way to producing a strong code of ethics is to field test it repeatedly. If it comes up short in providing you with reasonable solutions or guidance, then it’s not doing its job.
To that end, my advice is to give the code a chance; at the very least, when in doubt, use it as the default setting. If you are looking for the solution to a social media ethics question and you have any doubts about what is ethical, always err on the side of applying the same standards as those used in other mediums. It may not please you or jibe with your reporting style, but it will almost certainly put in a group with others who follow these standards and give you a defendable position.