Posts Tagged ‘Journalism ethics’


Reporting on Disasters

Expected path of Hurricane Irma as of Tuesday, September 6 (via @NOAA)

Hurricane Harvey last week devastated parts of the Gulf Coast of the United States. The storm and its aftermath also led to a discussion on social media about how to best report from areas in the middle of natural or man-made disasters.

As the United States faces another potentially deadly hurricane, it’s important to revisit the role of journalists during such complex and emergency situations.

One question often posed to the Society of Professional Journalists during and after disasters is whether the ethics of journalism are different in emergencies, for example. The answer is no. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is written broadly so it can be applied to all media and all situations. Journalists – especially during emergencies and breaking news – should keep its tenets in mind.

  • Seek Truth and Report It
  • Minimize Harm
  • Act Independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

Journalists must also expect and prepare for criticism while covering emergencies.

Journalism often looks opportunistic and vulture-like during disasters. Television and radio journalists are especially susceptible to being perceived as exploitive since the emotions of victims are much more apparent and palpable.

Journalists should be especially careful when selecting people to interview on-air during traumatic events. People should not be put in front of cameras or microphones during such events unless they want to tell their stories. Some people will want to speak about their experience as – almost – a form of therapy. Other people may not be ready to share, and that’s okay.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should be especially sensitive to people not used to dealing with the press. Pre-interviews or brief discussions off camera can go a long way to preparing people to tell their stories. If after those conversations a person is still unsure whether to share their experience, a journalist should feel empowered to decide not to move ahead with the interview for the sake of the source and the people watching or listening to the report.

Even the best planning may not offer complete protection against offending a person, however. CNN’s Rosa Flores on-air interview with a mother during Hurricane Harvey took a turn for the worst despite taking precautions.

Journalists must also be especially mindful during emergencies about the comments or reports they publish on social media. A post on Twitter may lack important context due to length restrictions and result in misinterpretation. If cell service or internet access is compromised, journalists may be unable to clear up questions or concerns in a timely manner.

ABC NewsTom Llamas ignited a firestorm on social media during Hurricane Harvey when he published a post on Twitter saying his team informed police of nearby looting at a grocery store. He later clarified that they mentioned the looting while discussing the discovery of a body with the police.

Of course, journalists are human and will make mistakes while reporting these and any stories. They and their news organizations must work to quickly correct any incorrect information and clear up any confusion. More than ever, people cling to information on social media and it’s important to give them the most accurate picture of what’s happening on the ground.

What’s most important is that journalists not forget the service they provide during emergencies and disasters. People – near and far – want to know what’s happening. Journalists put their safety and health on the line by charging into these situations to bring that information back to people. Those images lead people to call charities or take to social media asking about ways to help. Those reports result in people calling their lawmakers and telling them to act.

Journalists serve a purpose in these situations.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists‘ ethics committee.

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CNN Source Agreement Odd, Not Blackmail

Screenshot of President Donald Trump's Twitter message.

Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s Twitter message.

Post updated Monday July 5 to include CNN’s statement.


CNN announced an unusual anonymity agreement with a source Sunday.


After tracking down the source of a video posted on Twitter by President Donald Trump, CNN said it agreed to keep the person’s identity a secret since he is a private citizen, showed remorse for his online activities, removed his online posts and promised not to repeat his past behavior.

“CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change,” according to the story reported by Andrew Kaczynski.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy posted a statement from the news organization Monday on his Twitter account about the matter.

Journalists and news organizations offer sources anonymity for various reasons, but the specifics of CNN’s agreements with its source makes it unusual.

Specifically, what would CNN do if the source breaks the agreement by once again becoming an online bully? Would CNN specifically write a story about the person breaking the agreement? Would it retroactively add his name to Sunday’s story?

Journalists should support the open and civil exchange of views, but their role is debatable when they try to police good conduct on other platforms.

Additionally, where would these types of agreements with sources end? Would journalists agree not to identify a thief because he or she promised never to steal again?

In general, concealing the identity of this specific source would not go against the spirit of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The Code says journalists should consider a “sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

Additionally, it says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”

In the case of CNN’s source, he appears to be a private individual who made offensive posts online that somehow made their way to the Presidents of the United States. He’s apparently sorry for his actions. Little is gained by identifying the person. The key is getting information explaining how such a post made it from an online forum to the President of the United States.

All of those goals can be accomplished without CNN turning into an online version of Emily Post.

CNN’s agreement with its source should not be interpreted as blackmail, however. Anonymity agreements between journalists and sources should be detailed and often include qualifying statements. The specific qualifying statement in this agreement is not something that should be common practice, though.

Of course, CNN needs to keep its promise now that it’s agreed upon by both parties.

Journalists should “be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make,” according to the Society’s Code.


Andrew M. Seaman is the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee chairperson.

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Is It Ethical to Interview People Who Cause Harm?

Screenshot of Megyn Kelly's Twitter feed.

Screenshot of Megyn Kelly’s Twitter feed.

People are calling on NBC to forgo showing an upcoming interview between its journalist and a well-known conspiracy theorist.


Megyn Kelly posted a teaser on Twitter Sunday night to promote her upcoming interview with Alex Jones, a well-known conspiracy theorist. The brief video caused an immediate backlash with people calling on NBC to forgo airing the interview on Sunday.

Foremost among people’s concerns is that Jones will get airtime on NBC after his website InfoWars pushed untrue and harmful conspiracy theories that claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that resulted in 26 deaths was a hoax.

Part of the video shows Kelly in conversation with Jones. He first says the September 11, 2001 attacks were an “inside job.” Kelly then prompts him with the words, “Sandy Hook.” The answer Jones provides is as nonsensical as the stories found on his website.

The Society of Professional Journalists is often asked whether certain people or subjects should be avoided due to past harmful actions or the immense emotions they cause. The answer – like most – is more complex than just yes or no.

Journalism that focuses on controversial topics and figures is not inherently unethical. Journalists around the world dissect and analyze these types of topics each day in front of readers, viewers and listeners. What matters most is how the stories are reported.

At this point, people don’t have enough information to know how Kelly’s interview with Jones ultimately transpired beyond the few seconds published online.

For example, people may feel differently about the interview if Kelly aggressively challenges Jones about his words and confronts him with the unnecessary pain and torment he helped unleash upon grieving families.

On the other hand, people’s concerns may be justified if Kelly’s interview proceeds as a simple back and forth conversation.

In his nightly newsletter, CNN’s Brian Stelter included quotes from an interview between his colleague Dylan Byers and Liz Cole, who is executive producer of Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.

“Until you see the full program, in the full context, I wouldn’t judge it too much,” Cole is quoted as saying. “Judge it when you see it. Megyn does a strong interview, we’re not just giving him a platform.”

Society should not get into the habit of forcing journalists to shy away from harmful, painful or emotional subjects. Instead, it should push journalists to uphold their profession’s abiding principles and show people what is fact and what is fiction.

If nothing else, the public outcry over the upcoming interview sends a very loud and clear message to NBC and Kelly that they must be conducted with extreme care and awareness of the subject’s complexity.

People will learn on Sunday night whether NBC and Kelly got the message.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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The Press Must Rise to the Challenge

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Journalists must be a source of confidence in the United States as allegations are made at the top levels of government.


The press should always be accurate and fair in its work, but certain moments in history require journalists to be beyond meticulous while reporting, composing and disseminating their stories.

The United States is now in one of those moments.

President Donald Trump removed James Comey as director of the FBI on Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said later that night that Americans may believe “the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover up” if a special prosecutor is not appointed to carry on the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s associates.

To put it plainly: One of the nation’s most senior lawmakers says people are right to suspect the U.S. president fired the director of the FBI to impede an investigation.

Rarely is such a serious accusation thrown around among the nation’s leaders.

The press needs to serve two purposes during these moments. Journalists must use their tools and knowledge to find the truth and report it. They must also inform the public about the actions of government officials.

While fulfilling these purposes, news organizations and journalists must convey to the public that they understand the seriousness of the circumstances and will work to get the truth. The public also needs to know they can turn to journalists and news organizations for accurate and up-to-date information about their elected leaders and government.

In these moments, journalists and news organizations may want to be direct with their readers, viewers and listeners about their mission. Editor’s notes and brief statements during broadcasts can get those messages across.

Words without actions are meaningless, of course. The press needs to follow through on these assurances by paying attention to details, being more cautious with words, thinking twice before sending out social media posts, reminding themselves of the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics and adhering to time-tested editorial processes that ensure accuracy and fairness.

Mistakes are bound to happen, but the press must do its best to correct errors as quickly as possible and prevent irresponsible journalism from making its way to print or broadcast. Good journalism tells the story. Bad journalism becomes the story.

The public deserves and expects journalists to find and report the answers to these serious questions – no matter where they lead. Three quarters of adults in the U.S. last year believed news organizations keep political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done, according to the Pew Research Center.

More than ever, the press can’t let the public down.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists‘ ethics committee.

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#PressForEthics on Capitol Hill

Ethics Week focused a lot on trying to engage journalists and the public in discussions about the press. An important part of that outreach must also include the public’s elected representatives.


President Donald Trump often attacks the press. So far, he used the term “fake news” on Twitter over three dozen times. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week would not rule out prosecuting news organizations. A congressman from North Dakota also threatened in November to hold a hearing on “network media bias.”

The attacks and vague answers regarding the press from politicians and government officials not only makes journalists uneasy, but threatens one of the foundational elements of democracy. A dialogue is needed between the press and lawmakers as much as one is needed between journalists and the public.

The Society of Professional Journalists is using Ethics Week to begin that conversation with lawmakers in the United States by sending a letter to every member of the Senate and House of Representatives. Enclosed in each letter will be a copy of SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

The letter introduces SPJ to the lawmakers and explains the organization’s role in setting the profession’s best practices. There is also an invitation to meet with SPJ in June, when many of the organization’s leaders will be in Washington, D.C. for the annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards dinner.

SPJ is no novice when it comes to interacting with lawmakers. The organization often works alone or in concert with other groups to push for open government initiatives and improved access. In fact, SPJ closely worked with then-Representative Mike Pence in the early 2000s to implement a federal shield law that would protect journalists from prosecution. Unfortunately, those efforts fell short.

During Ethics Week, SPJ feels it’s important to show lawmakers that there is more to journalism than government and access issues. After all, ethics is often not about what is legal; it’s about what is right.

The organization wants to show lawmakers that the press largely makes ethical and responsible journalism a priority.  Mistakes are sometimes made, but the profession tends to hold those serious
offenders accountable for their actions.

The public benefits from an environment that allows and encourages journalists to provide in-depth and ethical journalism. If lawmakers care about their constituents, they should also care about the health of the press and work to foster an environment of openness as envisioned by the country’s founders.

The press belongs to everyone, and it’s up to everyone to take care of the press.

You can help this effort by encouraging your representative and senators to engage with SPJ and learn about the press, the organization’s Code of Ethics and the importance of open government.

Efforts to engage with your legislators are easier than ever thanks to SPJ’s staff who created a tool that will formulate a state-specific Twitter post: CLICK HERE


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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The Ethics of Looking Away

President Barack Obama departs the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House after he delivers a statement on the federal government shutdown, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pretend for a moment that a building inspector is assigned to inspect a building. He tells the facility’s management. The very helpful building manager escorts him into one room that has been carefully arranged beforehand. The manager stays with the inspector as he inspects that pre-arranged room. Then he escorts him out of the facility. They part on great terms and the inspector writes a report accurately describing what he has seen. But, as is customary, he says nothing about being blocked from seeing any other part of the facility or about the manager escorting him at every step.

What do you call that, other than astounding? Can it be anything but corruption? Doesn’t it go beyond being horribly dangerous to all but ensuring public harm?

But aren’t those controls parallel to what journalists do when they always or almost always go through public information officers or other management to get a comment or interview someone, whether at a government office, a business, nonprofit or other entity? And don’t those similarities hold true whether journalists do it voluntarily or involuntarily?

What about all those other “rooms” — or the people who are prohibited from talking or prohibited from talking without PIO oversight?  Don’t such controls almost guarantee the story will be skewed (or partially skewed) in the way management wishes? What would members of the public think if they understood how such journalistic “inspections” work?

And then, when the building later burns down due to faulty wiring –or, say, the Veterans’ Administration is found to have all kinds of problems–aren’t those highly controlled “inspections,” by an inspector or journalist, a basic and foreseeable part of the dysfunction?

Aren’t journalists arbitrarily waiving the public’s right to understand how government and other institutions are working?

The Society of Professional Journalists has taken an historic step over the last several years in leading other journalism groups in saying these controls through public information officers or others are wrong and dangerous.

It may be time to look closely at what working under these restrictions does to the ethics of journalism itself.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should, “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” Reporting that’s accurate but misleading due to the controls of the powerful represents poor accuracy indeed.

The code also says, “Verify information before releasing it.”  Please take it from some veteran reporters: when staff people can’t talk without the oversight done for the bosses, some among them might very well be able to blow your story out of the water.

Indeed, the best guess is always that if you were able to talk to several people fluidly, without the controls, the story would be different and better.

The SPJ code says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”  But the PIO controls are constructed of conflicts of interest. People in management who want to maintain a good image, their jobs and their agenda use the PIO controls to manage what the public is allowed to hear. Reporters are conflicted by the fact they can have their access cut off if they don’t submit to the controls or they otherwise do or write the wrong thing.

How could people not perceive conflict of interest, if we told them about the controls? Actually, the process would look to many people like public relations being sold as journalism.

For the journalists’ who don’t want to fight these intense restrictions, the reasons generally come in two categories. The first is, “We can’t do anything about them.”

One thing to consider there is that we can’t do anything about them probably because journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.

But more basically: what kind of journalistic ethics is that? Massive systems are constructed to control what the public hears—a hazard to the public, one might say—and journalists decide it’s best not to talk about it?

The second reason journalists give for not fighting these controls is that “good” reporters get the story anyway.

Notice, first off, that it is just not happening very often. Many stories are initiated by the offices or agencies themselves and there is little more in the news coverage than what the officials say and (maybe) some outside opinion. How is it possible there is nothing happening other what the centers of power announce?

But also, how can journalists ethically assume they have the whole story when millions of people are specifically silenced?

Those many, many closed doors behind PIO controls are in government, schools, universities, police forces and elsewhere, across the culture, as we know from surveys sponsored by SPJ and done by Carolyn Carlson for Kennesaw State University.

They regularly conceal much education and perspective that journalists need. But given the vast numbers of those doors, some of them also hide some of the most astoundingly evil things in our society. Think, for instance, about the institutions that hid child abuse for years and, then, about the rules against school personnel talking to reporters.


Kathryn Foxhall is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.

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A Day of Giving for Ethics Week!

SPJ’s Ethics Week takes over Times Square in New York City on Monday, April 24.

We need ethical journalism now more than ever. That is why the Society of Professional Journalists and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation support programming that encourages truthful, compassionate, independent, transparent journalism.


The SDX Foundation and our donors have supported:

  • JournCamp and the Excellence in Journalism annual conference, have delivered practical training to more than 15,000 journalists. Ethical, credible journalism is a constant theme.
  • “Journalism Ethics,” the pre-eminent textbook exploring the theory and real world applications practicing ethical journalism. It’s now in its fourth edition.
  • Movie licenses for SPJ chapters to screen the film, “Spotlight,” and engage the public in a discussion of what makes for ethical journalism.
  • Efforts to extend traditional ethical guidelines to new technology. For instance, the Foundation supported this program, which showed journalists how to use drones ethically in their news coverage.

This is on top of funding for skills training, support for freedom-of-information issues and signature programs such as the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship, all of which seek to improve journalism and add to the democratic conversation.

But we can’t do it alone. SPJ and the SDX Foundation rely on donations from members and supporters. Today is Day of Giving. Show you are PROUD to be part of an organization that promotes ethical journalism. Make a contribution TODAY.

There are three ways to give:

  • Go to spj.org/426 and fill out our online form.
  • Call 317-920-4785
  • Text ENCOURAGE to 243-725 to donate to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

No amount is too small. Please help us ensure that a vibrant, ethical press continues for generations to come. Contribute to SPJ Day of Giving now!


Robert Leger is the board president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

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The Secret to a Successful Journalism Career Is Strong Ethics

Joseph Pulitzer’s bust is displayed alongside his quote in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York City.

That might sound old school or boring but for me it is true: developing, adhering and staying true to journalism ethics has helped me every step of the way throughout my career.

When you are adhering to ethical standards you are able to build and keep your community’s trust. As I have moved around the United States pursuing my career, I continue to receive tips from people living in the previous markets I have worked. 

Why? They trust me. Now, they don’t necessarily mention that it is because I was ethical, but they use other words like “fair,” “responsible” and “respectful.”

You may hear those words and think what does that have to do with being an ethical journalist? What’s important to remember about journalism ethics is that it’s different than what is legal. Something that is legal may not always be ethical. If you start to think about the issue of what is legal and what is ethical separately, you’ll begin to see why the words “fair,” “responsible” and “respectful” apply to ethics.

Fair is probably the most obvious. At a basic level it means providing all (not just two) sides and individuals involved in the story an opportunity to be heard. For me though it also means going above and beyond to add context to our stories. When you’re putting together stories you are anticipating what answers may be. If you don’t receive those answers from those involved it’s still important to include and explore them in stories.

Being responsible means being honest with your users. Telling them when you get something wrong, when you don’t know something, when you couldn’t get answers, etc. Be transparent and let them into the storytelling process. If you receive information after the story airs that changes what the story was about, share that with your users and engage in the debate. As journalists we have a responsibility to inform our communities. Don’t hold back because of sweeps, competition or pride.

The old adage, “treat people how you would like to be treated,” has taken me far. That doesn’t mean I back down when there are complaints or pressure from powerful agencies or leaders. It does mean that I always encourage and welcome a conversation about the stories I produce. It means I reach out to individuals named in the story, even if a public information officer has asked me not to. I my team to do the same because I know I would want the same if my name was being mentioned in a story. 

Being ethical has not always been the easy choice. It’s also not always made me a lot of friends. But, when I have been faced with tough decisions or questioned for the ones I have made, I have been able to defend and standby my choices because I made them based off of ethical guidelines I believe in.

So, as the Society of Professional Journalists celebrates Ethics week, I encourage you to revisit your ethics, read our Code of Ethics and develop a set of guidelines you can defend.

If you’re an ethical and responsible journalist, more tips will come your way, you’ll produce better stories and you’ll be rewarded with opportunities. 


Lynn Walsh is the president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Broadway’s Latest Star: SPJ’s Code of Ethics

SPJ’s Ethics Week takes over Times Square in New York City on Monday, April 24.

After endorsing an ethical code for almost a century, SPJ’s Code of Ethics finally gets its time in the spotlight.


The Society of Professional Journalists works every day to improve and protect journalism through its advocacy and education efforts. A big part of that work centers on SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which outlines what the profession views as ethical and responsible journalism.

As the President of the United States continues to attack the press and people’s trust in the information it provides continues to wane, SPJ wanted to do something BIG to launch its annual Ethics Week, which runs from April 24 to 28.

Nothing is bigger than New York City’s Times Square. Also, no lights shine brighter than those along Broadway.

So, the SPJ Code of Ethics and its messages are being displayed this week on nearly 7,724 square feet of digital billboard space in Times Square in New York City. The billboards sit at the intersection of 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue and soar hundreds of feet into the air.

The images will periodically pop up on the billboards throughout Ethics Week. In addition to promoting the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics, the billboards promote the Ethics Week hashtag #PressForEthics.

The hashtag works on several levels. The press is encouraging and advocating the use of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. The press is standing by ethical journalism. Additionally, the hashtag encourages the public to call for responsible and ethical journalism.

One of the main goals of SPJ and its ethics committee is to bridge the gap between journalists and the public. The hashtag #PressForEthics creates an opportunity for people to engage with journalists, discuss issues and build relationships.

The billboards shining bright over Times Square is just the first big surprise for Ethics Week. Stay tuned to this blog and SPJ’s Twitter and Facebook accounts for more.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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Streamed Crime: A Challenge for News and Social Media Companies

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Social media ignited Sunday afternoon when news broke that a man in Cleveland streamed a video of himself on Facebook allegedly shooting an elderly person. The crime is part of an ongoing challenge for news organizations and social media companies.

The challenge is different for each of the entities, however.

News organizations are tasked with taking in raw material and determining what, when and how to describe and show that information. In this and similar cases, journalists are challenged by several factors, including:

  • The raw material is graphic.
  • The raw material often cannot be verified.
  • The raw material is likely available online.
  • The family of the victim(s) may not know of the crime.

Before the internet, modern journalists didn’t often come into contact with graphic material to use with stories. Additionally, they often heard of crimes from official sources that could verify material and knew whether the family of the victim was notified. Plus, graphic images, video or audio weren’t circulating in public.

The instinct of many people – including journalists – is to share what is publicly available, but the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics makes a clear statement by saying “legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

Some news organizations and journalists take the position that they should not hide information from the public, but that’s a ridiculous stance. One of the central missions of journalism is to distill the world into concise reports that tell the public what information they need in their day to day lives.

Journalists in the 20th century decided those who were part of their profession should act ethically while fulfilling that mission. The current version of SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” Additionally, they should “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”

There will never be one answer for how journalists and news organizations deal with video of crimes streamed online, but taking the time to think beyond access of material to the responsible retelling and synthesis will lead to much better decisions than have been made in the past.

The challenge for social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat is somewhat different, but the answers are not.

Unlike journalists who get the opportunity to pause before publishing information, social media companies are more like newsstands that allow any person to put their information or publication on display. Except, the companies have more control than many people think.

The people in charge of Facebook and Twitter clearly care about what happens on their platforms. Otherwise, Facebook wouldn’t prioritize some content over others and Twitter wouldn’t weed out certain notifications or posts.

While these companies historically shut down any claim or notion that they are media companies or news organizations, they can’t be so ignorant to the fact that they exist in the same orbit. In that case, they can find answers within SPJ’s Code of Ethics, too.

If Facebook can prioritize an advertisement or post, the company can also put protections in place that will prevent the abuse of their platforms and tools. The same goes for Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and the rest.

Again, there will likely be no one answer for every company, but the people in charge must at least try to prevent members of the public from using their  platforms and tools for sinister purposes while allowing others to use those same elements for good.

These problems are not going away. Fortunately, there is still time to address them before they get out of hand.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of SPJ’s ethics committee.

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