Next week is Ethics Week here at SPJ, a time to celebrate the Code of Ethics, and to examine and consider its four principle values in journalism — to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, be accountable and transparent, and act independent.
The subject for this year’s Ethics Week is best practices in new technology, including social media. Social media, most notably Twitter, has had significant influence in not just how people consume journalism, but how it can enhance the journalism that we practice. We use Twitter to curate conversations, reach out to sources, but most importantly, report, engaging audiences through 140 character messages, challenging and complementing the traditional means of storytelling.
It is therefore important to consider the four principles of the SPJ Code of Ethics and how they apply to journalism by Twitter.
Seek truth and report it: Twitter is another platform for your journalism, and the rules for fair, impartial reporting apply. Report what you know. If you are reporting while trying to confirm a specific piece of information, tell your audience about the report, credit the report, and say you are working to confirm it. Additionally, for curating conversations, ensure all sides of the conversation are being shared. As my SPJ colleague Lynn Walsh wrote here earlier this year, look for all sides of the conversation as you would for any other story.
Most importantly, accuracy is key. It is more important to be right rather than be the first one with the story. Your audience will thank you for it.
Minimize harm: When it comes to breaking news, including disasters, you should be respectful of your sources as if you were interviewing them face to face. If you are asking for an interview over Twitter, be considerate in the language you use to ask for an interview. If the source declines, move on.
When interviewing, show compassion for those who have been impacted by events, and consider if the information you are being told is important to the story you’re telling. In this case, not everything you’re told is essential, so consider what is necessary to inform while balancing the privacy of a source.
Be accountable and transparent: Honesty is a quintessential part of the relationship between you and your audience. As I wrote here last month, an honest reporter is a forthright reporter, and audiences appreciate forthright reporters, for they’ll trust you and come back to you for information in the future. Do not be afraid to cite — do it early and often. Identify all of the angles. If there is a mistake, own up to it and correct it. Don’t let it wait.
Honesty is the best policy — and it will serve you well. You know what you know, and that is all that you know.
Act independent: Disclose any conflict of interests with your audience, and if you encounter a source on Twitter that pays you for information, refuse it. As mentioned earlier, cite and identify your reports clearly and correctly, and distinguish between what is news and what is advertising.
Most importantly, tell the story the way it is meant to be told, without bias or pressure to influence coverage, irrespective of beat, and reject pressure raised by advertisers, donors, organizations, or others that would impact your story.
Twitter has shaped how we practice journalism today in many ways. We must be able to practice it the way it should be practiced — fairly, impartially, accurately, and ethically, no matter the platform, not just for us, but ultimately the people we work for, our audiences.
Ethics Week is April 24-30. SPJ’s Ethics Committee will have blog posts on the subject over the course of the week on Code Words, the Committee’s blog.
Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributing blogger to Net Worked on social media’s role in the future of journalism.
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.