Let’s talk about ethics and social media, friends.
When I was a wee one who loved the internet, my mother taught me a very valuable lesson about the internet. I was maybe 8 when I started going online to sites like GaiaOnline and Neopets, then later onto sites like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter.
“Don’t post anything on the internet you wouldn’t want on the front page of the newspaper,” She’d tell me. I regularly ignored her, and it regularly got me into trouble. Nowadays, I only post silly things on Facebook, and bookish/personal things on Twitter and Facebook. I also regularly end up on the front page of the newspaper, though not for my own escapades.
In my job as a small town journalist, there are several steps between idea conception and publication, and at least three people see my article before it is published. My articles are published both online and in print, as is normal for newspapers in the modern era. As a result, I have friended a lot of people I talk to for articles on my personal Facebook account, so I can keep track of things they’re working on, and so they can see what I’m working on. I also have a Twitter account that is specifically for my work in journalism, and I often retweet myself onto my personal account, which I link to in my bio.
This means that I see a lot of posts about what they’re doing in their day-to-day lives – their kids’ successes, their pet’s problems, their complaints about work, et cetera. Sometimes those posts will tie into stories that I’m working on, or tip me off to an issue in our community. However, that does not mean that it’s okay for me to print those posts in part or in full in our newspaper as part of an article. In fact, our company policy is that unless it is an organization’s public post, we do not run any part of it in the article without permission from the organization or individual. We also reach out for further context and information, because not everything involved in an issue is going to be in a post on social media.
This has colored my approach to social media – We as journalists should use the same careful ethics in our social media presence as we do in our day-to-day work in person. I use the same approach on this blog whenever I quote other people, which is rare.
WHAT THE ETHICISTS SAY:
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics [LINK] has an entire tenet titled “Minimize Harm.”
“Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness,” is what the first line of this pillar of journalism states.
This is applicable in every part of our jobs as journalists, and it is vital. However, another bullet point in this tenet speaks more specifically to social media needs.
“Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention,” the third bullet point states. “Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”
The Online News Association (ONA) goes into more specifics when it comes to “user-generated content” via social newsgathering. [LINK] ONA specifically states that you should seek “informed consent for the use of UGC through direct communication with the individual who created it.”
The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) also weighs in, particularly in the case of those who are vulnerable.
“Responsible reporting means considering the consequences of both the newsgathering – even if the information is never made public – and of the material’s potential dissemination,” RTDNA’s Code of Ethics states [LINK]. Certain stakeholders deserve special consideration; these include children, victims, vulnerable adults and others inexperienced with American media.”
In my opinion as a working journalist, it is good practice to seek consent for public comment on social media, unless it is the verified account of a public official. Even then, I reach out to the office of that person, to see if there is any further comment regarding the post. There usually is, and the article turns out way better for it.
I consider that good practice for any individual who writes online – whether for a news site or a blog or on Medium. If the person you want to quote is underage, you absolutely have to have permission. Especially if you are posting links or quotes to make them look uninformed or rude – everyone deserves a chance to respond to your article.
Yes, Facebook and Twitter are public platforms – but they are also platforms where people have the option to block, unfollow and mute people that they don’t want to see their words. Private people deserve the chance to say, “No I don’t want to talk to you,” via the internet as much as they do in person.
We, as journalists, have to respect that boundary. Just because someone says something in a public place to their friends, does not mean that it’s available for someone to say “oh no you’re the absolute worst” without giving them a chance to say more.
I’d welcome your thoughts as well, given the public nature of articles like these, especially from other journalists and bloggers.