Posts Tagged ‘principles’


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.

The SPJ Ethics Code applies to Twitter too

SPJ's Ethics Week, held next week, is an important time to remember the Code of Ethics, and how they apply to reporting on Twitter. (Photo: SPJ)

Ethics Week is an important time to remember the Code of Ethics, and how they apply to Twitter. (Photo: SPJ)

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. 

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is Long Form Editor and a 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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