Social Media’s Place in the Society’s Ethics Code

The term “social media” is used once in the latest draft of the Society’s ethics code. The term’s single occurrence is too little for some, but it’s just right for me.

The ethics code the Society endorses serves all journalists regardless of how their work is produced – print, broadcast or digital formats. While the final products may vary, the guiding principles used in their creation should be the same.

During Saturday’s meeting to hammer out the final draft of the code, I opposed inserting a proposed line from the second draft that specifically addressed social media and the content journalists glean from places like Twitter and Facebook.

The line appeared under the tenet “minimize harm” and instructed journalists to authenticate all content, including any gathered from social media forums.

The line was rightfully left out of the final draft, because it was redundant. The first item under the tenet “seek truth and report it” already instructs journalists to verify information before its release.

There are no qualifiers or footnotes to the line about verifying information. It’s that simple. The latest draft of the code says to verify information whether journalists are at school board meetings, on phones or on Twitter.

The code serves journalists of all types and those who use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and any other social networking platform will find guidance to most questions in the new version of the Society’s code.

For example, the newest version of the code says journalists should “gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.” The new code also instructs journalists to “always attribute.” These are all applicable to social and digital journalism.

Several pieces of the new code – including “always attribute” – will link to position papers from the Society’s ethics committee and journalists from outside the organization. These papers will provide additional guidance on specific situations. The papers will update as journalism practices change. The idea is currently known as the “living code.”

The newest version of the code also acknowledges the influence of “online” and “social media” formats to underscore specific points without becoming redundant.

Specifically, the code says journalists should “weigh the consequences of publishing personal information, including that from social media.” It also says journalists should “consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication, especially online.”

While I opposed inserting “social media” and “online” into the code, I understand the process is collaborative and that it’s important to acknowledge these technologies exist.

People may balk at the lack of mentions of the term “social media” or the lack of medium-based guidance, but it’s important to remember that the code is meant for all journalists, including those who may have a minimal presence online and social media.

Andrew M. Seaman is a medical journalist for Reuters in New York and a member of the Society’s Ethics Committee.

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