Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category


The social question

There is no question that social media has challenged how audiences consume journalism, but it has raised several ethical concerns, notably surrounding the algorithm. But not enough is being done, nor is enough being asked about it.

That was a point Jon Snow, a presenter of Britain’s Channel 4 News, raised this week in Edinburgh, Scotland. Giving the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, Snow said that few questions have been raised by news organizations about the social network’s reach, despite the positives presented for organizations.

Snow said that two organizations had held such a monopoly over the world’s information – Facebook and Google.

“We are in an age where everyone from Trump downwards is a publisher,” Snow said. “In any given year, more photos and more information is published than in any decades of the 20th century.”

Snow said also that the reach is down to the whim of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, and raised concerns about the issue of accuracy versus viral content.

“He says he cares about news, but does he really?” Snow said. “Or does he care about keeping people on Facebook?”

Snow made a final call for action to Facebook to take action.

“Facebook has a moral duty to prioritize veracity over virality,” Snow said. “It is fundamental to our democracy.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO. Facebook has faced criticism for a lack of transparency surrounding its algorithm. (Photo: Anthony Quintano/Flickr)

At its F8 conference in California earlier this year, Facebook has acknowledged that it hasn’t been the best in communicating measures on the algorithm. But despite that acknowledgment, more needs to be done.

The Society’s Code of Ethics calls on journalists and media organizations to be accountable and transparent. Though Facebook itself is not by nature a traditional media company, it is the curator of much of the information that is published by other news organizations.

It therefore owes it to journalists, news organizations and audiences, to explain its algorithm in detail, why it does what it does, and the impact it has on the relationship between the social network and news organizations.

Today, it announced what is a small step in that direction, by hiring Liz Spayd, the former public editor of The New York Times. A Facebook spokesperson told the technology news publication Recode that Spayd would “help expand early moves to chronicle what it does related to everything from terrorism to fake news to privacy.”

Considering Spayd’s work as a public editor, as well as with top journalism publications, the insight she will provide will likely help Facebook develop its public face, especially when it comes to its relationship with journalists and news organizations.

The ultimate question is if Zuckerberg will take her suggestions seriously and implement them, and whether the priorities, as Snow put it, will be on news, or keeping people on Facebook.

These are questions that must be asked, and journalists should not be afraid to ask these questions – despite the relationship their employers have with the social network. Journalists would not be doing their job if these questions weren’t asked and ensuring Facebook is held to account. The rule also applies to Twitter, Google and other platforms where information is curated and disseminated.

There have been positives for news organizations when it comes to outreach on social media, whether it comes from exposure to new audiences or new ways to publish and disseminate the news. But the algorithm’s prioritizing of stories that no longer appear to be accurate is discourteous not just to the social networks, but also the profession and practice of journalism itself. It also is discourteous to democracy and to the audiences we serve.

The more these questions are asked, the more this is discussed. So let’s keep asking them – so that we as journalists can set out to do what we do each day, irrespective of platform – seek truth and report it.

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 3:34pm CT to reflect the hiring of Spayd by Facebook.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist who writes for publications in the US and the UK. He also serves on SPJ’s Ethics Committee. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

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 Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

An ethical education

President Trump will not change his behavior towards the media. It is down to us to educate the public about the importance of journalism. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

“I don’t know what to make of the news. But I promise we will cover it with fairness and without fear. We work for America.”

That is how Scott Simon, the longtime NPR correspondent and host of Weekend Edition Saturday, put it on Twitter at the end of a day where the relationship between the media and President Donald Trump was a lead story, coming off of a press conference that had been considered to be combative.

The press conference took place days after the attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, amidst criticism of conflicting statements on the attacks from The White House.

Hours before that press conference, Trump had retweeted a tweet depicting a CNN journalist being run over by a train. The tweet has since been deleted.

Criticism of the media by Trump is not new, as he has utilized Twitter to criticize the media on multiple occasions. Indeed, as CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote in last night’s Reliable Sources newsletter, Trump was reported to be furious about media coverage of events Monday evening.

It has been clear for sometime that Trump’s behavior towards the media will not change, as my SPJ colleague, Ethics Committee chair Andrew Seaman wrote last month (for the record, I also serve on the Committee). As a result, the focus within the industry must shift towards educating the American people on the importance of journalism and its role in civic life, instead of responding to Trump’s criticism.

This education is necessary, but it is also quintessential in an age where Americans increasingly get their news online and on social media. New data from the Pew Research Center shows that roughly 9 out of 10 Americans get their news online, and social media is at the core of online news consumption.

Changes on attitudes towards the media will not change overnight, and it will take some time as well as many conversations, both internally and externally, to have an impact on the relationship with journalists and their audiences as the digital age.

Yet, SPJ’s Code of Ethics provides some ideas on how journalists can start this education with their audiences now. That said, here are some tips on how to best go about it.

  • Be honest with your audience. Whether it is uncertainty about a piece of information, or making a correction, tell them about it and explain why you did what you did.
  • It’s better to be right than first. Twitter and the web is seen as a race to be the first person with the story, but it isn’t. Take the time to get everything right before you hit publish.
  • Tell them about it. When you’re making a correction or decide to delay running with a story, have a conversation with your audience as to why this is so. An honest journalist is a credible journalist.
  • Cite early and often. Cite any reports from any organizations as you report a story. Corroborate any reports.
  • Verify everything. It’s so nice it’s worth saying twice! As the Code says, neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy, so take the time to ensure everything is correct in your story. Remember – it is better to be right than first.

We are truth seekers – and in the digital age, the truth is more important than ever. We owe it to ourselves to remember the importance of ethics, to talk about ethics and to not be afraid to do the most important tasks of all as journalists – informing, educating and engaging our audience.

As Simon said, we work for America – and it is for them, and no one else, that we get up each day, sit down, and do what journalists set out to do – seek truth and report it.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist who writes for publications in the US and the UK. He also serves on SPJ’s Ethics Committee. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

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 Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

The pros of verifying

Twitter has become important for disseminating information, but you need to make sure its accurate before publishing. (Photo: Pixabay)

Last Thursday, the UK held a general election which saw a hung parliament. It also saw negotiations begin on a minority government between Prime Minister Theresa May and the Conservatives, and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

But as the news of the election results came down, so did a statistic on youth voter turnout – which indicated that 72 percent of voters between 18 and 24 voted.

There was widespread praise as the statistic was tweeted near and far, as the issue of young people participating in elections had been raised over the course of the campaign.

There was one problem though – it wasn’t proven to be true. As a result, it raised many questions by journalists and from other observers as to its origins, which began from a voting organization that supports the youth vote, and later tweeted by MPs, political advocates and others.

When all was said and done, it was a talking point on Twitter, and it got the attention of many news organizations, as attempts to verify the claim were made.

Twitter has its pros and cons when it comes to journalism, but one of the issues is that of the quality of information. The Society’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists to seek truth and report it, but most of all, neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

What happened on Twitter that election night serves as a reminder that verifying information is important, even more so in this digital age where anyone can publish anything, whether its true or not.

Here is a guide when it comes to publishing verified information, especially on Twitter.

Don’t run on first instinct: If you’re aware of reports of something, be it politics, business or otherwise, don’t assume its right. Just because Twitter and other platforms are new doesn’t mean the rules surrounding ethics change.

Be honest and forthright: Tell your audience you are trying to confirm the information. Then make inquiries and try to figure out what is going on. Being forthright allows you to be a more credible journalist to your followers and beyond.

Don’t be afraid to cite: Be specific about the reports – you can either quote the tweet or cite the user. Explain to audiences how you’ve spotted the claim and anything you’ve been able to find. Yet, don’t cite endlessly, cite when you feel it is warranted.

Once you’ve confirmed it, tweet it: You have sought the truth, and you now know it is true. Now report it.

Disseminating information on social media is a part of journalism today – ensuring its verified helps ethical journalism thrive on social media. Credibility on the platform is important more than ever, and if you take the time to ensure everything is accurate, people will come back to you for the truth.

When faced with dealing with information that may not be true, remember – it is better to be right than be first. You’ll be a better journalist as a result of it.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist who writes for publications in the US and the UK. He also serves on SPJ’s Ethics Committee. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

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 Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Ethics by algorithm

Facebook needs to be more open about its work to help journalism thrive. (Photo: Pixabay)

Facebook’s annual F8 conference began today in San Jose, California. F8 is a two-day conference designed to examine and look ahead to new features for developers and other parties who want to use the social network as part of their work.

The business of journalism and the business of social media have been synonymous. As I wrote on this blog last month, content is king, and with benefits also came questions, notably that of the algorithm, and how it judges the content that users see. Criticism had been made of Facebook for not being transparent enough about it, and news organizations had raised concerns about the algorithm.

The most recent concerns came from Kurt Gessler, Deputy Editor for Digital News at the Chicago Tribune. In a piece published today on Poynter’s web site, Gessler raised concerns about the algorithm as the Tribune worked to engage its audience on Facebook, noting that a third of the Tribune’s posts were not being surfaced by Facebook, causing a decline in the organic reach of the newspaper. This occurred despite a growth in the number of people who like the Tribune’s Facebook page.

Adam Mosseri, speaking today at F8, acknowledged that Facebook had not been the best in communicating its changes to news organizations and publishers. Mosseri also shared some insight into how the algorithm determines what content goes to users.

Mosseri also said that Facebook was training the algorithm to detect content and flag content, in light of the video that emerged this week from Cleveland where a man allegedly shot an elderly person – something my SPJ colleague, Ethics Committee chair Andrew Seaman, wrote about on Sunday. (Disclosure: I’m a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.)

Mosseri said that the social network needed to react more quickly.

Mosseri also said that the social network was considering a new discovery tab that for content audiences might be interested in.

While its uncertain if the Discovery tab will come to fruition, it will likely again cause changes to social strategies for news organizations when it comes to their relationship with Facebook.

Facebook’s role in journalism is unprecedented, and today’s discussions were a step forward in helping understand a couple of important aspects about its role, and what is ahead. However, more needs to be done.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics calls for journalists and news organizations to be accountable and transparent. Though it is not referred to as a media company, Facebook is by nature a media company, and it too should be transparent, whether it comes to issues about its algorithm, its news feed, or new features.

This transparency helps not just journalists who look to Facebook every day as a way to disseminate the news (be it through posts on pages or via Facebook Live), but also audiences who consume news, a reason why Facebook continues to have a significant amount of users.

The business of social media has become a core part of the future of journalism. In order for it to be at its best, it must be open about what it does. While today’s discussions are a step forward, more questions need to be answered and more conversations must be conducted, led by either journalists or Facebook, in order to help journalism thrive as we try to assess its future in the digital age.

We must also do this for journalists’ most important task of all – that irrespective of platform, journalists continue to do what the Code of Ethics encourages from the start – seek truth and report it.

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

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 SPJ Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Let’s talk about ethics

We should talk about ethics, not just on the days of Ethics Week, but every day. (Photo: SPJ)

Next Monday (April 24th) begins Ethics Week, an annual event here at SPJ that looks at the role of ethics in journalism, why the Society’s own Code of Ethics is important – and to explore its four key principles – seek truth and report it, minimize harm, and be accountable and transparent.

This year’s observance of Ethics Week comes at an interesting time for journalism – a time where the digital age is challenging the industry and trust between journalists and the public continues to decline. In the conversation we’re having about our future, a vast plethora of subjects have been up for debate, from the future of the business models to how social media platforms are impacting how we curate and disseminate the news.

While ethics too has been a part of this conversation, it plays a particularly distinctive role.

When Lynn Walsh, SPJ’s national president, went to south Florida a few years ago for a panel with video game journalists and bloggers, there was some controversy in the organization’s participation, in light of the events known as Gamergate, consisting of ethical issues in reporting as well as harassment online.

Yet, there was a core reason as to why Walsh said yes to taking part in this – it was all about talking about ethics with the public.

“SPJ needs to share its Code of Ethics with more than traditionally trained journalists,” Walsh wrote in her column in Quill, SPJ’s bimonthly magazine. “This event was a start. It also solidified my belief that SPJ needs to share its Code of Ethics outside of journalism: with the public, bloggers and all people sharing information.”

For Walsh, however, it was more than just about the Ethics Code, as she discussed the usage of anonymous sources. It allowed for a more insightful conversation into the workings of journalism, as change remains at its crux.

“The exchange made me realize how important it is for SPJ to reach out to the public about how and why journalists do their jobs,” Walsh wrote. “We need to explain why we share certain information but choose not to publish other information, how we report on sensitive topics and how we chose stories.”

Reading about Walsh’s reasons reminded me of a theory that was advocated by Laura Davis of the Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication at the University of Southern California. Writing late last year for Nieman Lab, Davis wrote about the need for journalists to show their work – that transparency is a necessity in this evolving digital age.

“Show your work by explaining more of the reporting process to your audience,” Davis wrote. “Be authentic by being more honest about what you know and what you don’t. It’s a small part of all things we can do, but it’s something we can do now — and frankly should have been doing all along.”

This all links back to one of the Ethics Code’s steadfast principles – be accountable and transparent. Journalists should be accountable for their reporting, irrespective of platform. If there is an error, it should be corrected, along with an explanation about why it was corrected, either on Facebook or on your web site. If there is uncertainty surrounding information, speak up, and tell the audience that you’re working to confirm the facts, whether its in a tweet or on the air. If someone asks a question about reporting, it should receive a response.

The platforms may change, but the rules remain the same. No matter your venue, a forthright journalist is a credible journalist. Along the way, it helps the public to better understand how journalists do their jobs. This conversation is a cornerstone of journalism ethics, and though it may appear to be simple, the simplest things are often the most important.

Ethics is at the core of the conversation as we continue to figure out how journalism will work in the digital age. From the conversations between colleagues in outlets, to conversations with my colleagues in SPJ as well as within the Ethics Committee (of which I’m a member), we’re talking about ethics. We’re not going to stop talking about ethics – and neither should you.

So, this Ethics Week (and every week), as we press for ethics, we should talk about ethics. We as journalists will be better for it, and so will the people that matter – our audience.

Editor’s note: Ethics Week is being held from April 24th through the 28th. You can get involved with the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #pressforethics. If you have a question for the SPJ Ethics Committee, you can call the SPJ Ethics Hotline at 317-927-8000, extension 208, or email your question to ethics@spj.org. 

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

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 SPJ Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Ethics and authenticity

At NPR’s headquarters in Washington, two sets of keyboards, both connected to microphones, appear before a musician. He sits down and performs three tracks from his album – a performance that is as intimate as it gets, a performance that is powerful and can showcase talent.

His name is Sampha – a singer, songwriter and producer from south London who has come to DC for a Tiny Desk concert, part of the All Songs Considered series, and as it provided some very good background music as I made research calls today, it also made me think.

Although this is a performance, there is a lesson that can be taken from it for journalists – the ability to be authentic, amid the competition of being the first at everything.

In this age where social media has helped organizations disseminate news, information and other content, it has also been a more competitive environment. Who can get to Twitter the quickest with that exclusive or that first bit of new information? Who can I tell first about that story or that performance?

Its a tricky situation, because sometimes in the rush of getting it out there, some errors are made when it comes to information, or you feel because you wanted to be first you couldn’t do justice to the story you wanted to tell, or because that FOI officer with the government in San Diego didn’t respond to your request that an element of the story was missing. When all is said and done, you feel uneasy and concerned, wondering if you did your best work that day.

Allow me to say this: Breathe – it’s okay.

In this social media age, some emphasis has been made on likes for quantity, not quality. (Photo: Pixabay)

The Society’s Code of Ethics calls on journalists to seek truth and report it, that one should be responsible for the accuracy of the work, and that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

I think however in this social age it has become more than that. It is a reason to be authentic, to go in-depth, to do some uniquely awesome stuff for your audience.

Take these Tiny Desk concerts, for example – these concerts take time and precision. A performance cannot be rushed. A performance is a story, after all – you don’t want it to abruptly finish when clearly the storyteller has more to write or the performer has more to perform of the song.

You could also make the same argument for that interview on Fresh Air or that report you hear on All Things Considered or Morning Edition – stories and interviews that probe and provide context cannot be rushed, and shouldn’t end when there’s more to be seen.

There is room for these in-depth stories, and an appetite for them, whether its a long narrative in the New York Times, on NPR’s web site or in podcast form. Indeed, some of this in-depth stories recently helped NPR to achieve record audience figures.

Yet, in the world of in-depth stories, also exists is the world of deadlines – deadlines which must be met. Even if its a quick story you’re going to do, there still is an opportunity to be authentic. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are some unanswered questions that come from it?
  • Is there an under-reported part of this story that can be incorporated? If it can’t be done immediately, can it be for a future story?
  • Is this angle just to help with space or time – or can it really help my audience understand the story better?

In this age of journalism, I favor stories that take time to tell – something that can go beyond what is reported daily. If that approach is taken, I know my audience will get something that is not just helping them understand the world around them, but I’m also offering something authentic.

So when you’re thinking about your story, take a step back. Think about the subject and the type of story you want to tell. Give yourself an excuse to go beyond the norm, and to experiment.

Then take the time to do it, channeling not just your role to seek truth and report it per the Ethics Code, but this – it is not only better to be right than be first, but to do something well instead of doing it at all.

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

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 SPJ Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Ethics: Twitter style

Twitter has become essential for journalists, but the ethics rules haven’t changed. (Photo: Pixabay)

In spite of financial concerns outlined last week where its stock prices fell 11 percent, Twitter continues to play a dominant role in the world of journalism. Whether its consuming news, disseminating information or gathering material for a story, Twitter has become ubiquitous with journalism, while journalism has become an essential component of the business of social media.

Yet, while Twitter is still one of those new platforms, it isn’t exempt from the rules and ever-evolving practices of ethical journalism. Journalists need to remember to practice these ethics on the social networking platform, in an age where accusations of fake news and post-truth have had connotations for journalists working on the web.

The Society’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists to practice journalism through these four key principles – Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.

That said, here are five things to consider when disseminating information on Twitter – with a twist, done in 140 characters each (or less).

Be accurate: Neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy, so take the time to make sure all of your facts are right before you post.

Be forthright: Don’t know something? Trying to confirm the accuracy of information? Tell your audience. An honest tweeter is a credible tweeter.

Be cautious: Ask yourself: Is the information you post helpful to your story? Will it inform? Or are you tweeting for the sake of tweeting?

Be accountable: We make mistakes – we’re human. If something is wrong, fix it. Issue a correction and explain what you did. Be upfront.

Be accurate: It’s so nice its worth saying twice! Remember the old maxim – it is better to be right than to be first.

Twitter can be helpful for journalists, but also hinder them. Keeping these key points in mind, you can make Twitter work for you and do the most important thing possible – seek truth and report it.

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

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 SPJ Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

An ethical resolution

Ethical journalism remains a quintessential part of society, and the SPJ Code of Ethics helps to reinforce it. (Image: Pixabay)

Journalism is in a quandary. As we prepare to say goodbye to 2016 and head into 2017, we do so with a challenge to the identity and culture of our profession. In light of the geopolitical headlines, notably with the recent US presidential election, we’re attempting to trace our next steps.

Writing in her column for the Society’s Quill magazine, SPJ national president Lynn Walsh says we have been challenged. Yet, in spite of it, there is opportunity abound.

“We, as journalists, have been challenged,” Walsh said. “And that means it’s our time to shine. We are not scum. We are not liars. We are not disgusting. We are not corrupt. We are professionals. We are protectors of the First Amendment. We are honest. We are compassionate.”

In this time of transition, it is a good time to stop, pause and reflect, and the SPJ Code of Ethics helps us to do just that. As I wrote over on the Generation J blog a couple of weeks earlier, it is a reminder of the principles of education, the quintessential component of journalism, the real reason why we seek to make careers for ourselves in this industry.

Yet, alongside its reminder for the need to educate, the Ethics Code reminds us of the simple principles that allows us to practice quality journalism — seek truth and report it, minimize harm, be accountable and transparent, and act independently.

With that in mind, here are some resolutions to keep in mind as we begin 2017.

Seek truth and report it: People still care about the facts. It isn’t about doing better than your competitor, but about informing and engaging the people that trust and come to you for information. Trust is sacrosanct, and to ensure it stays that way you must be meticulous with information. If you’re uncertain about something, check it. If you’re trying to confirm something, tell your audience that. Then pick up the phone and see what’s going on. It is better to be right about something and take the time to do it, than to say something and end up being wrong later.

Minimize harm: Every story as a pro and a con, and you have to consider what will best benefit the public’s interests, not your own. Consider the circumstances of an interview with an individual, and if it really helps your story. Avoid lurid curiosity, and be compassionate with others in their circumstances. Remember this line however most of all: “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Be accountable and transparent: We are humans, and like all humans, we make mistakes. We aren’t proud of them, but we make them. Remember always that if someone catches a mistake, acknowledge it, respond, and correct it. Keep the audience in the know about editorial conversations as it pertains to your story, and explain any decision making behind any story.

Act independently: Don’t be intimidated by a source. If you have a conflict of interest with a story, disclose it. Don’t pay for access to content to inform the public. Also, if you’re given something for free, refuse it, and consider the work you do outside of journalism, and ensure it doesn’t damage your credibility, integrity or impartiality.

The challenge that we have before us appears daunting. Though we don’t have the answers to all of the questions that are being asked in journalism, we have the opportunity to answer them. With the help of the Ethics Code, we can show the world why journalism continues to remain important, as it continues to evolve in the digital age.

We also can remind ourselves that it isn’t really about us, but instead the people who matter most of all — the audience.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

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.

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 Generation J Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Querying fact checking

At NPR's headquarters in Washington, its fact-checking transcript generated significant interest from audiences online. (Photo: Stephen Voss/NPR)

At NPR’s headquarters in Washington, its fact-checking transcript generated significant interest from audiences online. (Photo: Stephen Voss/NPR)

Geopolitics has been at the epicenter of the news the past few months, from the news of Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union with a new Prime Minister, and the diplomatic conversations surrounding the conflict in Syria, to the closely watched campaigns for elections for president of the United States.

As the 8th of November nears, a subject that has been debated is that of fact-checking, and what role it should have in the context of modern political journalism. In the recent debate between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, NPR had a running transcript with annotations going, the checks being communicated on Twitter, Facebook, and the web site.

When all was said and done, NPR achieved its highest traffic day ever, and the transcript got 7.4 million page views.

Beth Donovan, the supervising senior editor for its Washington Desk, who has worked on previous election output, said the public broadcaster had been trying to perfect engaging audiences when it came to fact-checking.

“Fact checking has long been a priority for NPR,” Donovan said in an interview by email. “Even before this particular race shaped up, we had been trying new things in the fact check lane in hopes of connecting with our audience and helping them engage with political rhetoric through this prism.”

Donovan said audiences had valued a second screen accompaniment to live events, and this fact-checking feature was a way to hone NPR’s engagement strategy. She says similar plans will be in the works for the forthcoming debate this weekend and the final debate later this month.

“There was a transparency to our fact check, people could see us highlighting facts we were about to check (as well as a lot of typos in the first and even second draft of the transcription),” Donovan said. “The audience could see the statement in context, our journalism, and source links. And the page kept moving and changing right on your phone.”

While there was success for NPR in its engagement strategy, it came amid some concerns, before and after the debate was over. The fact-checking annotations commenced amid concerns of trust in the media, according to a study from the Pew Research Center.

In addition, after the debate, concerns had been raised by the ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, who, in addition to some listeners, said some questions were missed, despite the best efforts of reporters and editors in Washington. Donovan said her team did the best they could under the circumstances, even as concerns of bias were prevalent.

“We just do our best every day to cover the news and to report fairly and accurately,” Donovan said. “Fact checking is no different.”

Yet, Donovan notes, there is difficulty in accomplishing such a task.

“Even in a news room with as much policy depth as NPR’s, live fact checking is hard,” Donovan said. “The biggest challenges are often the littlest things.”

However, Donovan says, there is something that makes it all worthwhile — the drive and collaboration between its journalists.

“It can look easy or obvious the next day, but watching our annotated transcript come to life was inspiring,” Donovan said. “This is a remarkable newsroom. I always feel especially proud to be part of it on debate nights and in breaking news situations.”

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. 

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 SPJ Digital community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Accuracy in an algorithmic age

In order for it to be effective with users, Facebook must present accurate and fair information. (Photo: Pixabay)

In order for it to be effective with users, Facebook must present accurate and fair information. (Photo: Pixabay)

This week, it emerged that the editors behind the Trending Topics section at Facebook had been fired, and that the algorithm would be at the core of finding stories that users would want to hear about.

It hasn’t gone quite as planned. The notable instance came last Saturday about a story surrounding the Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly. It had been reported that she had been removed from her position after she said she was supporting the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

That story was not true, emerging from the EndingFed news web site, a web site that had not been listed on the trusted media sources list utilized by editors, according to a report from The Guardian newspaper in Britain.

There were also concerns of content that would be offensive also being a part of the trending topics, including a man filmed doing a questionable act with a McChicken sandwich from McDonald’s.

Many users around the world look to Facebook for news on the go, and to engage in conversation about that information with their friends. Because the social network is a significant platform in the dissemination, it is bound by the principles of journalistic ethics, even though it is not a media company itself. The principle extends to the information that is made available in the trending topics section.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says this about the release of information:

“Neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.”

The public are entitled to accurate information to help them over the course of their day, no matter the subject.

Yet, The Guardian report adds, the dismissal of the editors was said to be a long-term plan, with a source saying that the trending module would have learned from curators’ decisions and be fully automated.

The relationship that Facebook and the public has when it comes to the algorithm has proven to be controversial. While it is mutually beneficial for news organizations and the social network to have content appear for the purposes of engagement, the public are still entitled to accurate and fair journalism, no matter how they are consuming it.

It is therefore imperative that Facebook exercises these ethics and emphasizes the need for accurate and fair information. In spite of the toxic workplace concerns raised, the editors who helped curate those trending topics helped the social network do a service in ensuring the information that was made available was accurate.

If Facebook wants to have a better relationship with its users, and indeed the wider journalism community, not only must it be transparent, but it also must be an advocate for accurate information, and showcase it in its trending topics. Otherwise, Facebook will become simply something commonplace in digital media today — just another social network.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. 

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 SPJ Digital community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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