Social media and blogs are important elements of journalism. They narrow the distance between journalists and the public. They encourage lively, immediate and spirited discussion. They can be vital news-gathering and news-delivery tools. As a journalist you should uphold the same professional and ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, truthfulness, transparency and independence when using social media as you do on-air and on all digital news platforms.
Truth and Fairness
Social media comments and postings should meet the same standards of fairness, accuracy and attribution that you apply to your on-air or digital platforms.
Information gleaned online should be confirmed just as you must confirm scanner traffic or phone tips before reporting them. If you cannot independently confirm critical information, reveal your sources; tell the public how you know what you know and what you cannot confirm. Don't stop there. Keep seeking confirmation. This guideline is the same for covering breaking news on station websites as on the air. You should not leave the public "hanging." Lead the public to completeness and understanding.
Twitter's character limits and immediacy are not excuses for inaccuracy and unfairness.
Remember that social media postings live on as online archives. Correct and clarify mistakes, whether they are factual mistakes or mistakes of omission.
When using content from blogs or social media, ask critical questions such as:
What is the source of the video or photograph?
Who wrote the comment and what was the motivation for posting it?
Does the source have the legal right to the material posted?
Did that person take the photograph or capture the video?
Has the photograph or video been manipulated?
Have we checked to see if the metadata attached to the image reveals that it has been altered?
Social networks typically offer a "privacy" setting, so users can choose not to have their photographs or thoughts in front of the uninvited public. Capturing material from a public Facebook site is different from prying behind a password-protected wall posing as a friend. When considering whether to access "private" content, journalists should apply the same RTDNA guidelines recommended for undercover journalism. Ask:
Does the poster have a "reasonable expectation" of privacy?
Is this a story of great significance? Is there any other way to get the information?
Are you willing to disclose your methods and reasoning?
What are your journalistic motivations?
For Discussion in your Newsroom:
When an Army psychiatrist killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Twitter messages, supposedly from "inside the post" reported gun?re continued for a half hour and that there were multiple shooters. Journalists passed along the information naming Twitter writers as the sources. The information proved to be false and needed to be corrected. If one or multiple shooters had been at large, withholding that information could have caused some people to be in harm's way. The nature of live, breaking news frequently leads to reports of rumor, hearsay and other inaccurate information. Journalists must source information, correct mistakes quickly and prominently and remind the public that the information is fluid and could be unreliable.
Questions for the Newsroom:
What protocols does your newsroom have to correct mistakes on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook?
Does your newsroom have a process for copyediting and oversight of the content posted on social media sites? What decision-making process do you go through before you post?
What protocols do you have for checking the truthfulness of photographs or video that you find on Facebook, YouTube or photo-sharing sites? Have you contacted the photographer? Can you see the unedited video or raw photograph file? Does the image or video make sense when compared to the facts of the story?
Who in the newsroom is charged with confirming information gleaned from social media sites?
Accountability and Transparency
You should not write anonymously or use an avatar or username that cloaks your real identity on newsroom or personal websites. You are responsible for everything you say. Commenting or blogging anonymously compromises this core principle.
Be especially careful when you are writing, Tweeting or blogging about a topic that you or your newsroom covers. Editorializing about a topic or person can reveal your personal feelings. Biased comments could be used in a court of law to demonstrate a predisposition, or even malicious intent, in a libel action against the news organization, even for an unrelated story.
Just as you keep distance between your station's advertising and journalism divisions, you should not use social media to promote business or personal interests without disclosing that relationship to the public. Sponsored links should be clearly labeled, not cloaked as journalistic content.
For Discussion in your Newsroom:
1. Your consumer reporter at a major electronics show wants to give a glowing blog review of a new digital camera. When the company makes the splashy announcement, the reporter Tweets the news. The message virals fast and wide. Your station will be running ads for the camera as part of the company's national advertising campaign. How will you tell the public that you have a business relationship with the camera company?
2. Your political reporter has been covering the challenger in the mayor's race. On his personal Facebook page, your reporter says, "I am covering another candidate who is dumber than dirt." The candidate's press secretary calls to demand that the political reporter be "taken off the campaign." Your reporter's defense: "What I say on my own time on my own website is my business. Plus I didn't name names."
How will you respond? What should you tell the public about the complaint and your decision?
Image and Reputation
Remember that what's posted online is open to the public (even if you consider it to be private). Personal and professional lives merge online. Newsroom employees should recognize that even though their comments may seem to be in their "private space," their words become direct extensions of their news organizations. Search engines and social mapping sites can locate their posts and link the writers' names to their employers. There are journalistic reasons to connect with people online, even if you cover them, but consider whom you "friend" on sites like Facebook or "follow" on Twitter. You may believe that online "friends" are different from other friends in your life, but the public may not always see it that way. For example, be prepared to publicly explain why you show up as a "friend" on a politician's website. Inspect your "friends" list regularly to look for conflicts with those who become newsmakers.
Be especially careful when registering for social network sites. Pay attention to how the public may interpret Facebook information that describes your relationship status, age, sexual preference and political or religious views. These descriptors can hold loaded meanings and affect viewer perception.
Keep in mind that when you join an online group, the public may perceive that you support that group. Be prepared to justify your membership.
Avoid posting photos or any other content on any website, blog, social network or video/photo sharing website that might embarrass you or undermine your journalistic credibility. Keep this in mind, even if you are posting on what you believe to be a "private" or password-protected site. Consider this when allowing others to take pictures of you at social gatherings. When you work for a journalism organization, you represent that organization on and off the clock. The same standards apply for journalists who work on-air or off-air.
Bloggers and journalists who use social media often engage readers in a lively give-and-take of ideas. Never insult or disparage readers. Try to create a respectful, informed dialogue while avoiding personal attacks.
For Discussion in your Newsroom:
1. Edgy Facebook and Twitter postings create more traffic, so you urge your newsroom to get online and be provocative to get more attention. How will you respond when your anchor poses holding a half-empty martini glass on her Facebook site? How will you respond if your reporter's Facebook profile picture shows a bong in the background? What would your response be if a producer, who identifies herself as "conservative" on her Facebook page, Tweets her opinions during a political rally?
2. A news manager "friends" a neighbor he meets at a block party. A year later the neighbor decides to run for mayor. The news manager gets an indignant call from the incumbent mayor's press secretary suggesting the station coverage will be biased, since your news manager supports the challenger. Does the news manager have to "unfriend" his neighbor to preserve the appearance of fairness? Could the manager make things right if he "friended" the mayor, too?
These guidelines were developed by the Radio Television Digital News Association Ethics Committee and Al Tompkins, group leader for broadcasting and online of The Poynter Institute. They were released to RTNDA members on Feb. 6, 2010, approved April 12, 2010, and published in MEDIA ETHICS thanks to Stacey Woelfel, Chairman of RTDNA.
They were created though the Radio Television Digital News Foundation's Journalism Ethics Project sponsored by a generous grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Further information about the RTNDA/RTDNA Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct may be obtained from www.rtdna.org. RTNDA Guidelines for Avoiding Conflict of Interest were published in the Spring, 2009 issue of MEDIA ETHICS.