Letting our principles lead the way in the time of social media

The alerts pop up in the right-hand corner of my screen in quick succession, each one more heartbreaking than the last.

“Possible attack in Barcelona.”

“In La Rambla and I think a car or van has driven through the pedestrian part.”

I begin tracking the accumulating tweets, reaching out in Spanish and English to scared and confused tourists and locals alike.

“Are you safe? Can you tell me what you saw?” I ask them.

Graphic videos come in without warning, showing motionless, bloodied bodies strewn across the famous boulevard. It’s difficult to imagine something so awful happening in the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but soon, it becomes clear: this is terrorism.

As a member of my network’s social newsgathering team, safely ensconced in a New York City newsroom, I can only glean the horror from my computer screen, in shaky cell phone videos, or over the phone with witnesses struggling to grasp what has just taken place. I, on the other hand, have seen this many times before.

As smartphones and apps have become so ingrained in our lives, news now breaks almost exclusively on social media. It is a blunt, yet indispensable tool in a network’s newsgathering efforts.

NBC’s Becky Bratu says we must not forget values of humanity when reporting on events through social media.

I am part of a 24/7 team that monitors the fire hose that is global social media for any inkling of an unfolding event – and there have been lots of late. These platforms have given us an ability to cover stories in areas not immediately accessible to a US based news operation.

We no longer need to fire up a satellite truck and camera crew to get to the news. We can watch it almost as it happens. On Facebook or Twitter, the distance between a reporter and her source disappears, but our journalistic ethics, standards, and professionalism shouldn’t.

Our team is trained to move fast, finding witnesses and verifying content from the scene in an event’s immediate aftermath, knowing that we are competing against reporters in newsrooms all across the world.

With shrinking attention spans (and news cycles), I wonder sometimes if these faraway fellow journalists also stop and think about our guiding principles: seeking the truth, being accountable and, perhaps most importantly, minimizing harm.

In the wake of a mass shooting in rural Texas this month, Dallas Morning News reporter Lauren McGaughy wrote that the media that descended upon the small community of Sutherland Springs in such large numbers and with so many satellite trucks in tow, owed the grieving town an apology.

“You’re more than a hashtag,” she said.

“As journalists, our role as observers and investigators in times of tragedy is important. But so is our empathy and our humanity. As a profession, we must have a conversation about how best to chronicle horrors like this. We can do better.”

We should do better. As social platforms have given us access to an infinite amount of sources and stories, regardless of our organizational resources, we must not forget our humanity. We should bring compassion for those struck by tragedy or involved in traumatic events, even as we work from behind a Twitter avatar.

In an effort to establish a set of common principles and in accordance with our company’s practices, a colleague and I developed a social newsgathering ‘boot camp’ with an emphasis on the standards that should be met in our reporting.

Teaching it to dozens of people throughout the company, we highlighted the importance of making sure people are safe before we ask them to tweet at us, as well as the need to protect a source’s personal information. I am hopeful that this small initiative, as well as broader ones led by nonprofit groups such as First Draft, will better equip us to, in their words, “address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age.”

As the attack in Barcelona unfolded, I managed to connect on the phone with a life-long resident who had witnessed the carnage up close. I hoped to honor his generosity (and courage) in sharing his first-hand account with our audience, as our mission remains, first and foremost, to inform the public.

Social media gives us a new toolkit in serving this mission, but our principles should lead the way.

Becky Bratu is a reporter based in New York. She has been working with NBC News for more than six years in various roles, most recently as a reporter on the social newsgathering team. She has also written for NBCNews.com on topics ranging from Catholicism to wine investment. She can conduct interviews in five languages, one of them her native Romanian. Bratu holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In her spare time,
she has been learning to code. You can interact with her on Twitter here

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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