Bad judgment is bad judgment.
Journalists have said stupid things in print and on television and that didn’t mean those media presented ethical problems for journalist. Journalists have said stupid things to sources in person, in emails and on the telephone and that doesn’t mean journalists should avoid using email, telephones or face-to-face conversations. Journalists will also say stupid things on Twitter or other social networks. When they do, the problem is the stupid thing you said, not the platform you used to say it.
(Before I go further, I should say that the “stupid things” someone said in the examples that follow involve foul language that I don’t use in this blog. Click the links below if foul language doesn’t bother you.)
A Twitter exchange that appears to be between National Post technology reporter David George-Cosh and marketing consultant April Dunford has drawn a stir on the Internet. (The Twitter feed identified as George-Cosh’s in accounts of the dustup indicates that someone might have hacked his feed.)
The incident prompted blogger and freelance writer David House, formerly of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, to wonder if Twitter was a “career death trap” and blogger Simon Cohen to ask, “Could the wrong tweet end your career?”
The whole dustup came to my attention when Judi Whetstine, community advocate for Gazette Communications, asked me about it, forwarding a message from House that was passed along to media ombudsmen.
House will be on a “Future of Journalism” panel later this month (there’s a log of that going around). He said he would be addressing “ethics- and credibility-related challenges that journalists face in the use of social media.” Among the questions House is considering:
“What sort of ethics- and credibility-related challenges do journalists face regarding use of Twitter and other social media?
“What challenges do editors face? I’m thinking of, for instance, all those unverifiable tweets from Mumbai when terrorists were running amok there that became part of the international news report. What concerns did editors have, if any?
“As reporters incorporate tweets etc. into their daily work, what ethics/credibility concerns do they have? Are those issues included in, say, Twitter training?
“To what degree is their credibility at stake?”
House’s message to ombudsmen mentioned the Dunford-George-Cosh fuss, calling it an “incredible Twitter exchange between a journalist and a pr practitioner that’s just one excellent example of the pitfalls to be found in using social media that, on the bright side, hold such awesome potential as a tool for good journalism.”
Knowing I was a Twitter user and advocate (some have called me a Twitter evangelist), Judi asked my thoughts. Here is my response to her (edited slightly for the blog):
I lead some seminars for the American Press Institute on digital media ethics, Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards. One of the sessions I offer in those seminars (and a popular one) deals with using social networks. I posted the handout for that session as a separate blog entry. A key point I make at the ethics seminars is that the fundamental principles of journalism ethics outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and Bob Steele’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist (Seek the truth and report it accurately; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable) have not changed at all. What changes with social networks (and other digital challenges) is the context in which we make ethical choices.
As for Mumbai, journalists should seek to verify information they get from all sources and Twitter is no exception. And Twitter had some misinformation about the Mumbai attacks. But the Twitter stream also had more, better and more accurate information faster than the professional media. So the media need to learn to use Twitter as a source. Twitter had the best, fastest eyewitness account of the Continental non-fatal crash in Denver in December, as I already blogged, and it provided the first (and maybe the best) photo of the US Airways landing in the Hudson. It provided vivid, eyewitness accounts of the California earthquake last summer and scooped the AP on that quake by nine minutes. Twitter is a valuable news source and journalists need to learn to use it effectively.
I think David is missing the point if he thinks that Twitter had anything to do with the bad behavior by the reporter from the National Post. The ethical problem wasn’t that he said those things over Twitter. Saying those things by email, telephone, in a blog, in a handwritten note, in a voice mail or in any public or recorded format would have been as big a problem. Saying them in the privacy of someone’s office would be wrong, unless you had a pretty good give-and-take relationship with the source. But it wouldn’t be as stupid because other people wouldn’t know exactly what you said. So the problem wasn’t that he used Twitter. The problem was that he lost his temper and said stupid things. Twitter shares those stupid, intemperate statements with a lot of people quickly. But if he had emailed the same things to someone who then forwarded them to lots of people or posted the email on a blog, he would be no less embarrassed. The difference would be that no one would be questioning whether email presents ethical problems. House is mistaken to present this as a “pitfall of to be found in using social media.” That’s an example of the pitfalls to be found in losing your temper and using foul language and making vindictive statements publicly. (I should add here, though I didn’t mention this in my response to Judi: Dunston’s tweet that started the Twitter exchange refers to a journalist, presumably George-Cosh, who also was rude and intemperate on the phone.)
So my advice to House and other journalists is to use the same sort of good judgment in using Twitter that you would use with email, telephone, blogs or personal note cards. Stupid words can come back to bite you however and wherever you use them.