Cedar Rapids Gazette, Journalism ethics in social networks

By Steve Buttry

This is a handout I use in Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards, an American Press Institute seminar underwritten by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. It doesn't attempt to provide all the answers, but to ask a lot of questions for journalists and news organizations to consider as they use social networks for valid journalistic pursuits. I offer these questions for my staff and other journalists to consider. We will be discussing these issues in greater depth among our staff.

Social networks are a rapidly growing part of society and communication and journalists and news organizations need to connect with them as we gather content and build audience for our products. We also need to keep ethics in mind as we operate in this swiftly changing world. If you are an editor, you need to discuss with your staff members how they are using social networks and what standards and issues you think are important in dealing with networks. If you are a staff member, you need to tell your editors how you are using social networks and discuss any questions you might have about policies and boundaries. Some questions and guidelines to consider:

  • Consider everything public. Even though social-networking sites generally allow you some control over who sees your contributions, you should regard everything you post online as public. Some of your "friends" could pass along what you have posted. Once you post anything even to a closed network, you lose control of it.
  • Consider everything signed. Much of the social-networking world operates with some level of anonymity. Journalists should consider the ethics of operating anonymously. The best advice is to operate transparently, either using your real name or, if you use a screen name (your real name may not be available as a screen name if you have a common name), identify yourself by name in your user profile. If there's any chance you might use a social-networking platform professionally, it's best to identify yourself, your publication and your position candidly. Even if you use a screen name on your own site or in commenting on someone else's site, presume that someone sometime might connect that comment with your actual name. And keep that in mind when you do comment. If you do use a screen name, especially if you don't identify yourself fully in a user profile, check with your editor and discuss whether your approach is appropriate.
  • Consider everything to be bogus. Some people use fake names on social networks. Some people use fictional profiles. Some people will make exaggerated or false claims or accusations. Some people will pass along unsubstantiated rumors. You will find valuable information on social networks, but it won't always be easily distinguished from the lies, mischief and misinformation. Use the social network as a starting point in your reporting, but be sure to verify and attribute.
  • Consider whether opinions are appropriate. Discuss with your editors (or with your staff if you are an editor) what kind of statements of opinion, if any, are appropriate for you to make on social-networking sites. If you cover government, you might be free to express your support (or disdain) for a sports team and to praise or rip entertainers. But opinions about government officials or issues might be inappropriate. Or your editors may prefer staff members to refrain from expressing online opinions at all. On the other hand, a columnist might be welcome to express opinions as freely in social networks as in print. Opinions are not a one-size-fits-all situation. But make sure that editors and staff are agreed about what's appropriate for each situation, or whether a single policy covers everyone on your staff.
  • Consider whether internal matters are appropriate for discussion. On Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs, many people discuss the everyday matters of their work life. Some of the routine of your work might venture into ethical areas, though. If you are blogging or Twittering through your reporting process, be careful not to write about matters you might later need to discuss with editors, such as whether to identify a juvenile offender or a crime victim. Be careful not to disclose something that might violate a confidentiality agreement with a source (which you can do without naming names). Don't treat even a closed online group as something for a confidential exchange that should be handled by email, telephone or personal discussion.
  • Consider separate personal and professional pages. If you want to conduct truly personal social networking, consider maintaining a personal profile separate from your professional profile. Then you can do your reporting from one platform and pursue your hobbies or entertainment or sports interests separately from your professional work. Be sure to confer with your editor (or give some guidance to your staff) about this. For some issues and some situations, personal comments may reflect on your work, even if you do maintain separate pages. On the other hand, many people in the social networking world, mix personal and professional, so you should discuss whether it's appropriate to do that so you can better understand how social networking works. Whichever approach you decide is correct for you or whichever approach your organization takes, understand that what you say in a personal social networking profile or feed will still reflect on you professionally. The best advice is to act professionally in social networks, even when you are using them personally.

Issues with specific social networks

  • Linking or bookmarking networks. Sites such as Digg, Delicious and Reddit are valuable for showcasing your own stories and blogs or for linking to valuable resources related to your beat or for other stories or resources that can add depth to your own stories. However, consider whether you have responsibility for material that you highlight through these sites. If you highlight partisan sites or commentary expressing strong opinions, could your Diggs or your bookmarks compromise your neutrality on your beat? Do balance and fairness come into play here? If you link to competing partisan sites, does the balance make it acceptable where linking to one side's site would be unfair? What about linking to a site making some allegations about a person, agency or company? Is that OK? If not, would it be acceptable if you also link to sites where the person or company presents its position? What responsibility, if any, do you bear for the accuracy of sites that you link to? Do you need to verify the information if you might be sending people to that site, just as you would verify the information in a story? If you don't have to verify, do you need to point out any inaccuracies that you know of? What guidelines should you follow in comments you make about your links?
  • Photo or video networks. Social-networking platforms such as Flickr, Twitpic and YouTube are popular and fun. And they can provide timely content for your news site. But you need to consider lots of issues: You can link to content anywhere on the Internet, but if you want to embed photos or videos on your site, be sure to request and receive permission first. Keep in mind also that you don't know the context of the photos or videos you find on sharing sites. Consider whether something might have been staged or re-created in a way that would not be acceptable for your staff. Might someone have altered digital content in a way that would be unethical for a photojournalist? How can you know whether the people sharing the photos or videos follow your standards for identifying people pictured or for verification of facts? How can you know whether the people sharing the photos or videos have any conflicts of interests that raise questions about the legitimacy of the images they present? How do you know (and does it matter?) that the people sharing photos or videos are identifying themselves accurately?
  • Facebook or MySpace. Facebook and MySpace can be valuable reporting tools. They also can present ethical dilemmas for journalists. Many users proclaim their opinions and affiliations on these social-networking sites, but journalists should be sure to check with their editors before doing so. Reporters might want to join some groups that deal with topics or issues on your beat, but be sure to check with your editor first because joining some particularly partisan groups could present a conflict of interests. And be careful when you use Facebook for reporting. You want to verify identity any information independently where you can. And be sure to attribute appropriately when you use something from Facebook, especially if you haven't been able to verify. Because Facebook and MySpace offer blogging, linking and photo-sharing opportunities, they present all the same issues described above and in a separate Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards handout on blogging.
  • Twitter. If you mix professional and personal communication on Twitter, check with your editor to make sure that is OK at your organization. If your editor is not comfortable, discuss whether separate personal or professional Twitter accounts would be acceptable. Also discuss whether expressions of opinion about events you cover are acceptable (if you might be inclined to state opinions). Consider what your choice of people you follow might tell readers or sources about your interests and opinions. (Editors should discuss these issues with their staffs and know how staff members are using Twitter.)
  • Professional networking sites. You can find helpful professional connections and support at professional networking sites such as Wired Journalists or networks of beat organizations. Here you generally don't need to worry about conflicts of interests. But don't let the camaraderie and candor of the discussions lure you into inappropriate statements of opinion or bias that might be visible to your readers or sources.
  • Local social networks. Your web site or other local sites might provide some local social networking opportunities. While these networks might connect you to sources and provide tips, be sure to verify the sources and information you collect on the social networks. And keep in mind that some of the people reading your own contributions may be your sources and readers.

For more information, see Steve Buttry's blog