NAB 2015

Navigating Ethics Of News And Social Media

An NAB session outlines how to apply traditional journalistic ethics to the use of social media in both collecting and distributing information. The discussion focused on best practices for using social media as part of the profession, even if there is no way of formally encoding them. "We are not giving you all the answers," says SPJ’s Andrew Seaman, who recently participated in updating SPJ's Code of Ethic to extend to social media. "The only absolute we have in the code is do not plagiarize."

Despite the hubbub of new-found access to information — and audiences — on platforms like social media, it’s crucial that journalists employ the same governing rules they’ve used all along to avoid ethical breaches.

“Journalism is journalism regardless of the technology or storytelling method,” says Andrew Seaman, the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics chair. “Abide by the same high standards you expect of others.”

Seaman’s comments were part of a discussion Wednesday at the NAB Show in Las Vegas exploring journalistic ethics, and how they apply to the use of social media in both collecting and distributing information.

Part of the day-long news directors seminar, the discussion focused on best practices for using social media as part of the profession, even if there is no way of formally encoding them.
“We are not giving you all the answers,” says Seaman, who recently participated in updating SPJ’s Code of Ethic to extend to social media. “The only absolute we have in the code is do not plagiarize.”

The organization’s new Code of Ethic doesn’t mention particular social media platforms — Twitter or, say, Facebook — by name, primarily because, given the fast-paced changes in digital media, doing so could quickly render them obsolete.

But the organization did add far-reaching statements to existing codes to make them applicable to new media. For instance, calling on journalists to be transparent as well as accountable is “a nod to social media,” Seaman says.

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The code encourages journalists to remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy, which has been a growing problem since reporters starting using social media to source stories. It also reminds journalists to recognize that having legal access to information is different from having an ethical justification to publish or broadcst it.

Seaman says that SPJ’s goal in covering social media in its Code of Ethics is to provide guidance for journalists in using non-traditonal media in newsgathering, since doing things like, say, sourcing stories from Twitter is not necessarily reliable — or useful.

“These are people who didn’t intend for their voices to go that far and their voices don’t add much to the conversation,” he says.

Nor is it sufficient to rely on social media to get a pulse on what’s going on in your community, since not everybody has adopted using the platform.

“If you want to do a good job reporting on your community, you have to reach beyond,” Seaman says. “Make sure you are going out into the community because the pizza shop owner may not be on Twitter.”

Giving voice to the voiceless is included in the code as well.

But when it comes down to it, the ethical judgements journalists need to make when using social media are not that different from those that have long guided the profession.

Measuring a story’s value against the harm it may cause, for instance, is a guiding principle regardless of what newsgathering techniques are at play, Seaman says. So is avoiding pandering to “lurid curiosity” even if others do it.

“You need to consider a holistic view of harm, not just the immediate impact,” Seaman says.

None of which are new concepts, as reporting news today is rooted in the same purpose and principles as it has been “ever since journalism began,” he says.

“Something happens and you tell people about it.”

Read TVNewscheck’s other NAB Show journalism coverage here. Find our full convention coverage here.


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