Social media complicates ethics guidelines for journalists
Five years ago, I had to beg my parents to get the paper delivered or I had to wake up at the crack of dawn to watch the news with my mother. Neither of those things worked well for me.
Now, I have unlimited access to some of the top newspapers in the country through their social media networks All I have to do is log into Twitter or Facebook. Everything I need to know about the day or week’s events is right there on my phone’s screen in 140 characters or less.
Many people in media believe social media has changed the journalism industry for good, and virtually every journalism student has been beaten over the head with this information. We know that printed newspapers are becoming less relevant. By the time the daily paper is delivered in printed form, the news is old. We know that tweeting can be the easiest way to gain sources and information. But what about another key part of journalism? How have the ethical codes of journalism changed?
What happens when someone tweets something personal to his or her handful of followers that could make a good news story? Are we still required, as ethical journalists, to ask permission to retweet or do we just do it because the tweet was public?
Earlier this year, that same question provoked controversy. Christine Fox, inspired by another Twitter user saying women who dress provocatively invite rape, started a Twitter conversation with other sexual assault victims asking what they were wearing when they got attacked. The conversation was quickly picked up by Buzzfeed. The Buzzfeed writer asked the permission of the tweeters responding to Fox, but did not ask Fox for permission to publish her Twitter handle and picture – even after Fox identified herself as a sexual assault victim.
News outlets exploded with opinions about whether the writer was violating a common journalistic ethical code of not releasing sexual assault victims’ names without consent. Some said the story was exploitive and others argued that Buzzfeed was in the right. Slate.com writer Amanda Hess told her readers “our rights [as journalists] are expanding radically, while our responsibilities to our sources are becoming more and more optional.”
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states that journalists should “recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention.” One could argue that Twitter users are seeking “attention” by posting publicly, but then where does the line dividing public and private lie now that 271 million Twitter users are sharing everything from what they ate for breakfast to what time they go to bed?
Because social media has become a legitimate news source, shouldn’t the code of ethics carry over? NPR’s rules for social media agree and urge reporters to be respectful of cultures, whether online or offline, and to remember that “our ethics don’t change in different circumstances, but our decisions might.”
The Online News Association posted five key ethical challenges of social media. The Center for Journalism Ethics has a section on digital media ethics. NPR has its set of rules for social media. The Society of Professional Journalists updated its ethics code in September. Many other news sources have put out suggestions or thoughts provoking industry-wide discussion, but is there a solid answer?
One thing that I think all journalists can agree on is the stepping stone toward a perfect answer: Use your best judgment and respect others.
_By Erika Kime