Journalism ethics in a social media world

Earlier this month I spoke at a Media140 event about the ethical dilemmas faced by journalism in an age of social media. I thought I’d write up some of my thoughts here:

In my previous life I was an academic at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. One of my roles was as ‘Deputy Ethics Officer’ (yes my Mum was proud;)) and was involved in the development of ethical guidelines for the School in 2005. In the past decade Universities have been forced to institutionalise ethics for two reasons: to protect students who want to undertake research in dangerous situations (for example an MA student wanting to understand the life of sex workers in Thai brothels), or more importantly to protect vulnerable subjects (for example people with learning difficulties, children etc).

The ethical principles are clear and shared across academic disciplines. Researchers know to ask for consent from participants before asking questions, keep data confidential etc, but these shared principles weren’t so easy to get passed in our School of Journalism. As one of my colleagues stated: “I’m a journalist. My job is to expose the corrupt and if the only way I can do that is by going through their rubbish bin to find credit card receipts, that’s what I’m going to do. You can’t get me to sign up to these universal guidelines”.

That exchange exposed in a second, the ethical complexities inherent in journalism. And it is for that reason that the arrival of social media has not created fundamentally new ethical quandaries. Yes, at the boundaries, social media is forcing newsroom editors to make snap decisions about whether or not to publish a photo, whether or not to upload content, but fundamentally nothing is new. For the most part, the five main issues that are causing the most problems, are issues that have always been problematic – they have just been transplanted into digital scenarios instead. These five issues are: copyright; verification; protecting sources, gathering information using false pretenses; contempt of court. I will talk about these in separate blogs at a later point, but ultimately my argument is that these issues have always existed. What is more challenging now are the issues that exist at the boundary. Here are a few scenarios. What would you do in each?

1. Someone posts to a public facebook page that is campaigning to keep a local hospital open. You work at a local radio station and read the post out on air. The person complains saying they didn’t agree to their words being shared on a broadcast medium. Should you have not read out the statement, or perhaps read it out but not read out the name?

2. Someone calls up a radio station and gets angry in an over the top way about a topic everyone can relate to. Your producer puts the audio on a social network and it goes viral and he becomes a laughing stock around the world.Is it appropriate to put out audio on social networks when the person doesn’t know first?

3. There’s a large fire and a student journalist contacts the newsroom saying they are happy to cross police lines to get you some footage. You can’t get a camera crew down there for 40 minutes, what do you do?

4. Someone has been murdered. You can access information about them as they had their profile open to friends of friends and you happen to have gone to the same University. Do you publish their last status update or do you contact the family first?

(See my suggested ethical ‘answers’ below)

These first two scenarios have at their heart the way the audience perceives social networks. Journalists might argue that a facebook wall is a broadcast medium in the same way as a radio station, but users with locked down profile settings who are confused that posts on a facebook page are not private, might not. Similarly people who call up radio stations, understand what that means, but don’t understand how that same material could make its way around the world. Similarly, people post to facebook, believing they are writing for a particular audience, and not thinking about how information would be perceived by others. In my training, I often ask people to check to see what a journalist would find out about them if tomorrow, they either won the lottery or disappeared without a trace. What would the headline be?

As Deputy Ethics Officer I undertook some research into how online communities perceived ‘lurkers’ as increasingly researchers in the department were using online message boards as a form of audience research. Again and again, they would say that while they technically understood that their online community (a message board) was public, they couldn’t understand why academic researchers or journalists could just listen to their conversations without introducing themselves and explaining what they were interested in.

In a 2008 survey carried out by the Press Complaints Commission, 78% of respondents would change information they publish about themselves online if they thought the material would later be reproduced in the mainstream media. I would be interested to see if that number has changed now that people are more savvy. But the crucial element here is that savviness is often directly correlated with education and income. For much more completely brilliant writing on this area, you must read danah boyd’s work.

We are in a transitional period where people are working out what these new spaces mean to them. While spaces might be technically public, they don’t feel public to the tight knit communities using them. Ethical considerations are never black and white and ultimately come down to individual decisions about what is right and wrong. When working in an incredibly pressured environment with competitors using information you deep down know isn’t appropriate, it’s harder to do what’s ‘right’, but slowly we’re seeing newsrooms and the ‘audience’ becoming more sophisticated about these issues. Photographers are watermarking their pictures, people are checking their facebook settings and producers are contacting contributors before uploading potentially viral content to audioboo.

Ethical considerations are evolving  and while their are hitches, confusion, and some dubious incidents, for the most part I’d say that we’re moving in the right direction, without the need for any guidelines or directives. And that has to be a good thing.

Suggested ‘Answers’

  1. Read out but don’t read out the name
  2. Explain to contributors beforehand that content might be shared on the web.
  3. Say no, however tempting.
  4. No again, however tempting.

2 thoughts on “Journalism ethics in a social media world

  1. Great post. Had a new/old ethical dilemma this week when the inboxes of several members of President Assad of Syria’s staff (including many who deal with requests from fellow journalists) were hacked and disseminated online. In this case, it was necessary to balance the ethical need to make sure that all material is obtained by honest means (in his case it was not) against the possibility of what the NUJ code describes as “overwhelming public interest” being present. You can ask me how I got on at Storyful HQ!

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