In Depth

Tweeting News With Traditional Ethics

By Dinah Eng

Social media has changed the way news is delivered, and journalists are moving to ensure that ethical practices tailored for bloggers, and Facebook and Twitter media users reflect the same ethical principles at the core of traditional journalism.

The latest organization to address the issue is the Radio Television Digital News Association, which has supplemented its widely used Code of Ethics with guidelines to address reaching audiences through social media and blogs.

Stacey Woelfel, chairman of RTDNA, said the organization began talking about the social media guidelines early last year.

“Everything’s so new and complex, so we brought in several people to work on it, including Al Tompkins (broadcast/online group leader at The Poynter Institute), who helped us bring it all together,” Woelfel said. “The guidelines talk about truth and fairness, and how it’s reflected in social media; how we Tweet or text, and use it in newsgathering. It looks at how we can better our transparency with the audience, so that they can see how we cover the news.”

Just as RTDNA changed its name from the Radio Television News Directors Association to serve all those in electronic media, the guidelines were designed to encompass all electronic media as well.

“If there’s any challenge to this, it’s that things are going to keep changing,” Woelfel said. “We may reach the point in a year or two where people won’t use Twitter anymore, and something new will come along. We wanted to write guidelines with real-world applications today, but which are open to change.”

Alicia Shepard, ombudsman for NPR, teaches a media ethics class at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and said very few news organizations have dealt with the issue of ethical guidelines for digital media.

“Many news organizations are in trouble because they don’t have ethical guidelines for dealing with a digital world,” Shepard said. “Most organizations have codes written in the mid-1990s. Journalists are starting new frontiers every day with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.”

Shepard said NPR’s News Social Media Guidelines were posted last October to address NPR employees’ usage of social networking sites and blogging.

“Whatever the ethics codes are in the legacy media, they should be used in the digital frontier,” Shepard said. “The biggest problem I see is that the difference between personal and professional gets confused. If you’re going to be a journalist and use Facebook, you have to decide if it’s going to be a personal or professional venue. Are you doing anything that’s going to imperil your credibility, or your company’s credibility?”

She said another ethical question journalists must face is, just because technology allows you to do something, should you do it? For example, it’s now possible to go online and get the names of jurors on a trial, or people who have licenses to own firearms.

“Should newspapers put up a database link to the names?” she asks. “There’s a cesspool of information out there, and it becomes critical to decide what’s good, solid information. There should be guidelines for using Facebook, since it’s so widely used. Don’t put your political views on it. If you’re covering a campaign, friend both sides of the campaign.”

Andy Schotz, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, said the SPJ would be looking at its Code of Ethics this year to see whether changes are needed to address social media usage.

“RTDNA seems very specific in treating social media as a phenomenon on its own with special guidelines,” Schotz said. “I think the SPJ principles still apply, whether it’s for print, broadcast or online, and however technology evolves. There’s a wealth of different ways to interpret the principles, depending on the circumstances.”

Schotz said individual news organizations have to establish their own codes of conduct, and perhaps a similar approach can be taken with social media. “One newsroom may not want their news reporters to have a blog, and others may encourage it,” he said.

Lou Ferrara, vice president and managing editor for sports, entertainment, lifestyles and interactive for The Associated Press, oversees the social network arm of the editorial department. He said the AP has ongoing conversations with employees about social media guidelines as issues come up.

“A lot of companies get caught up in creating new policies and reinventing the wheel with disruptive technology,” Ferrara said. “The challenge is social media is far more of a two-way conversation with our audience, so we are having to look at it differently. We want our staff engaged in the way people are consuming content, but still stick to journalistic principles.”

For example, AP staffers have been told that re-Tweeting Tweets may be permissible if accounts are verified and messages are not offensive, but Tweets should not be repeated if the originating account-holder doesn’t own the copyright to the material. When staffers blog, the content must go through an editor before being posted.

For, as Shepard notes, “Journalists need to remember that other people see what you do in the digital world. The only real thing journalists have is their credibility.”