Common sense works better than strict rules in guiding journalists’ use of social media.
I encourage people concerned about journalism ethics in social networks to read Leah Betancourt‘s Mashable post How Social Media is Radically Changing the Newsroom (the headline is overbroad; the post is well-focused on journalism ethics).
Betancourt passes along some helpful suggestions for making good ethical decisions in the use of social media, primarily from Kelly McBride of Poynter and Mark Briggs of Serra Media, two of the best sources you could consult on the topic.
You may recall how critical several bloggers, including me, were of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times in their guidance on using social media. Journalists will get better advice from Betancourt, McBride and Briggs. I hope top editors at the Journal and Times are among those reading Betancourt’s post. She makes these central points:
- “Journalists always represent their news organizations.”
- “Critics, sources and friending: Use good judgment.”
- “Verify & confirm.”
- “New tools, familiar rules.” (This is how I start my American Press Institute ethics seminars, Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards, by noting that the principles of journalism ethics haven’t changed, just the circumstances in which we apply them.)
The post closes with four sound pieces of advice from McBride (with whom I collaborated on an earlier series of API ethics seminars):
1. Use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook because familiarity with the tools is important.
2. Always be mindful that you represent more than just yourself. Even if you are an individual journalist, the stakes are higher than with other professions.
3. Presume your tweets, status updates or other content on these sites will go further in terms of reach than you intend for it to go.
4. Ask your boss to follow you on Twitter because it’s a good accountability measure.
I’ll add that her fourth point is good on a second level, because way too many newsroom bosses aren’t using Twitter, and this might prod a boss to start using it.
Betancourt’s post mentions and links to the section of the Roanoke Times News Standards and Policies dealing with social social networking tools. The Times has been a leader in digital journalism and for the most part, this policy provides better guidance than the Journal’s policy. Several of the key statements reflect an understanding of how social networks intersect with journalism:
- “Be transparent with the audience as well as sources.”
- “Making connections is good.”
- “Ensure informed consent.”
But some of the standards are more restrictive than I think is wise. For instance, one point says:
Do not publish material collected for a story but which was not published in the newspaper or on roanoke.com. This includes photographs, quotations, information about how a story was reported or any other form of outtake. The newspaper holds the copyright to this material and is under no obligation to defend you if questions or a claim of libel arise.
Though journalists should be careful in these areas, this standard is misguided on multiple counts. The sharp prohibition shows too much of our traditional need to control and our sense that a story is a single product fixed in time. It shows no recognition of the fact that social media help us collaborate, continue and improve our stories. For instance, let’s say a reporter tweets a link to a story she has just written (as the policy encourages). Then a follower on Twitter or a friend on Facebook asks a good question that the reporter can answer but didn’t in the story. (This happens all the time, because reporters always gather more information than we have space for in the newspaper, and most online stories differ little from the print version.) The reporter can and should answer the question. The prohibition against discussing how a story was reported is old-media oqaqueness and control, rather than new-media transparency.
The threat to leave a reporter hanging if sued is not only heavy-handed but naïve. I’m not certain about this, but I can find no stories indicating that courts have settled or even addressed whether a newspaper would be liable for a reporter’s comments on a social network if the reporter is identified as representing that newspaper (as the Times explicitly tells staff members to do). More important, I am quite sure that any lawsuit resulting from a tweet by a reporter would include a newspaper as the defendant, because, even in these difficult times, the newspaper has the deeper pockets. And if you seek to be removed from the suit and leave your employee dangling in the wind, you might win in court, but that will be a costly win for your organization’s standing in the profession.
Still, most of the advice in the Times’ standards is sound. (I have invited Times Editor Carole Tarrant to comment here about the standards.)
I’m glad to see this discussion continuing. I encourage more discussion of these issues in the Journalism ethics in social networks handout that I use in my API seminars.