Posts Tagged ‘Social media’


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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Facebook Tackles Fake News

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Facebook announced last Wednesday changes to its trending topics section, which is the box of subjects users see on the top-right corner of the screen. The social network’s software will only recognize subjects covered by multiple credible sources, according to The Wall Street Journal. The subjects won’t be adjusted to user preferences.

The new announcement is a step forward when it comes to digital media literacy and the relationship between Facebook and its users. More work is needed, particularly around its trending topics algorithm, which has been the subject of controversy because of the sources that are cited when it comes to certain subjects. Nevertheless, this change shows Facebook is taking seriously its role as a gatekeeper. The social network is adapting to ensure the public receives the most valuable information possible – no matter the subject.

The move is also positive for journalists, who continue to disseminate information ethically on a platform fundamental to the future of the industry. Facebook is a necessary platform for journalists and news organizations to engage with audiences.

The rules for producing ethical journalism for journalists remain the same regardless of the platform, be it through a social media or something more traditional like newspapers. The Society’s Code of Ethics reminds journalists that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy when it comes to informing your audience.

Overall, these changes implemented by Facebook are a win-win for the members of the public who seek news and information 24 hours a day, and for the journalists who continue to seek truth and report it – their most important task.


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He also is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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Social Media Ethics Must Be Taught

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Social media remains at the center of news consumption for audiences. The platforms have become ubiquitous with news consumption, as they become publishers and media companies in their own right. They also have been ingrained in how audiences see and perceive the news.


Oxford Dictionaries announced last month that post-truth is its international word of the year. Post-truth, an adjective, is defined as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The decision by the Dictionaries comes as Facebook is under scrutiny for promoting inaccurate or fake news articles, and people question the information and facts spread on social media during U.S. and UK political votes. Though Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media are new to the market, it does not excuse journalists using those platforms from the evolving rules and ethics of journalism.

The Society’s Code of Ethics calls for journalists to seek truth and report it, and that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Seek truth and report it presents a two-fold role in the social media age – informing audiences with the most up-to-date information but also using it to get the facts, verifying user generated content and help it tell the most accurate and impartial story possible.

In a time where relations between audiences and journalists in the U.S. continue to be strained, it is quintessential that a particular emphasis be made on ethics in the social media age, an emphasis that should be made not just in newsrooms here and around the world, but also journalism schools.

While ethics is a cornerstone of the journalism curriculum, it needs to adapt to meet the needs of the student looking to have a career in 21st Century journalism. They need to know that Twitter is more than an opportunity to build one’s brand in 140 character messages, and that Facebook and Instagram are more than just platforms to talk about food or popular culture.

Social media curriculum should include how to be thorough, and how to make the best possible contribution to the public good. That includes the importance of verification and newsgathering in the social media age, why audiences continue to be important as the platforms change, and that it isn’t about trying to one up a competitor, but about educating and engaging anyone who is looking for information on a certain story.

Most of all, they need to know how social media can help journalists tell the best story possible.

Social media platforms, in spite of their faults, are important to the business of journalism, and will help shape the idea and role of journalism in the years ahead. As such, everyone needs to be aware of how all of that correlates with the practice and production of quality, ethical journalism.

Ethics in journalism is something that must not be taken for granted, no matter the platform being used. Neither the evolution of technology, nor journalism ethics, take a holiday.

We as journalists are educators – education is in our DNA – to help inform, engage and do the most good for the public. We are educated by educators, and colleges, universities and newsrooms are doing a disservice to the journalism community without properly incorporating ethics training on these social media platforms.

More of that must be done, so the individual, be it in journalism school or starting in a newsroom, looking to achieve a career in the industry can continue the traditions so paramount to journalism’s objective in enriching a democracy.

It also guarantees one other thing – the goal central with journalism and democracy, seek truth and report it, can continue, and not be in vain.


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He also is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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Ethics Week 2015: Reporting from the Internet

Illustration Credit Sean MacEntee

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.

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEKThis 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.

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Social boundaries

Social media tools (especially Facebook and Twitter) have found a niche in the practice of journalism.

But is this an example of technology moving faster than careful thought?

There are pitfalls in sending out a knee-jerk tweet or stepping into someone else’s Facebook network to cultivate sources on deadline.

Here are new guidelines issued by the Radio Television Digital News Association.

I’ve been asked a few times whether SPJ has updated its code of ethics to keep up with social media.

I’m not sure we need to. The ethical principles in the code, for the most part, don’t pertain only to one form of communication. Fairness, accuracy, context and other fundamentals certainly can apply to BlackBerry or cell-phone texters, too.

But my position isn’t immutable, and the rest of SPJ’s Ethics Committee has a wide range of views, which might lead to some degree of change. The committee will talk about this soon as part of a broad review of the code of ethics, which hasn’t changed in 14 years.

(I’m not sure about this reference in The Washington Times, which seems to suggest SPJ recently updated the code to address social media.)

Does the SPJ Code of Ethics need new language to guide journalists on the ethical use of social media as part of their work? Please tell us what you think.

-Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

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An ill-gotten sawbuck

Thanks to NPR’s health blog, among others, for reporting on the latest thoroughly bad idea connected to social media and journalism.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2009/11/osteopaths_group_offer_gifts_to_journalists_for_follo.html

The American Osteopathic Association is giving a $10 gift card to those (i.e., journalists) who follow the organization on Twitter.

It’s not for me to comment on the AOA and the line that it crosses (that’s paying for access and attention, no matter how you try to spin it).

But any journalist who goes along with this needs to think a little harder about the relationship. You’re being paid to listen (in a new-world, new-media sense) to a source.

Maybe this doesn’t require additional comment. No journalist would agree to this. Right?

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