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Social media ethics for journalists: Part 1, the dilemma

The rise of social media raises a host of questions for business journalists, both in our personal actions and how we do our jobs.

Should you “like” the Facebook page of a company you cover so you’re alerted to announcements and can connect with customers as possible sources? Or is that somehow an endorsement that compromises your objectivity? What about being Facebook friends with your sources or retweeting their posts on Twitter?

Social Media friendingClearly, we’ve come a long way from the old days when the rules of journalism ethics were unambiguous. You were friendly but not friends with your sources. You could have a drink together but not accept a pricey gift.

In the new age of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Foursquare, there are fewer clear-cut do’s and don’ts when it comes to social media ethics for journalists. News organizations such as AP and the Wall Street Journal have written policies to guide their employees in handling social media interactions, but even those documents are just a starting point. “This is a fast-changing world and you will need to exercise judgment in many areas,” Reuters acknowledges in its handbook.

A few years ago, journalists might have been tempted to simply hold back from social media engagement, keeping any posts bland and inoffensive — or perhaps not joining Facebook or Twitter at all. But now, social media cannot be ignored as a crucial tool for reporting, connecting with readers and advancing your own career. A George Washington University survey of journalists’ research tools found that 89 percent use blogs, 65 percent use social networks and 52 percent use microblog sites like Twitter. Examples of social media’s power abound, from the author whose Facebook post led to a book and movie deal to the role of social media during the Arab Spring.

“I would never want a journalist to think that he can’t fully participate in social media because he’s a journalist. In fact, social media is the biggest thing in journalism right now,” said Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute. “You absolutely have to use social media as part of your reporting toolkit. It’s a great way to be in conversation with your audiences about the marketplace of ideas.”

Just look at some of the 250-plus comments posted on Nicholas Kristof’s Facebook page after the New York Times columnist wrote that he won permission to drive across Iran and talk to people along the way, McBride said. Some commenters wished him good luck and safety. Others suggested he visit the hometown of their grandparent, asked him to say a prayer at their parent’s grave or recommended sights to see. Not to mention the news and trending stories you could miss by cutting yourself off from social media.

But how do you engage in this powerful digital community while not becoming one of the headline-making journalists who are fired because of a careless tweet or social media post? And beyond the offensive or compromising posts, there are opportunities to be hoaxed by a joker with a fake Twitter account or simply to waste time with a bread-crumb trail of interesting links and searches. Based on interviews with McBride and others — as well as from reading existing social media policies and commentary about them — a few key steps emerge.

Getting news on Twitter, FacebookKnow your newsroom. Begin with understanding your employer’s social media policies. Some organizations aim to keep conflicts of interest completely out of their coverage area, while others work from an acknowledged point of view, political or other, said McBride. Some turn a blind eye to salty language, while others consider cuss words off limits. Even those publications that haven’t written specific social media guidelines most likely have stated their expectations about personal behavior and expressing your opinion in your private life. Color within those lines. Jeff Sonderman explores the labor relations implications of social media policies in this post for Poynter: Why your news organization’s social media policy may be illegal.

Think before you tweet. You’re always a journalist. Any comment you write has the potential to come back to haunt you, regardless of whether you intend it for a private audience. Even closed networks are subject to cut-and-paste dissemination. For that reason, whenever you start to write or share something, think about how whether it might cast doubt on your ability to do your job professionally and impartially. And forget about staying anonymous on the Internet. Any attempt to cloak your identity as a journalist will just appear deceptive once it’s uncovered, which is easier than you might think.

Don’t be a jerk. In the fifth estate, as McBride calls it, wit wins you points. But you can be smart and clever without being obnoxious. “There is a push to be edgy and a push to be funny and a push to be fast, and that’s all good, and we can do all that,” says Jon Talton, economics columnist at The Seattle Times who blogs as RogueColumnist. “We have to remember that a megaphone is attached to our face in a way it’s not for just a person using Twitter, an average citizen.”

In the second part of this post, I’ll address how to adapt our tried-and-true journalism ethics guidelines to this digital age, with recommendations for specific challenges raised in using the major social media platforms. My aim is to lay a foundation for answering ethics questions that will arise with yet-to-be-launched networks.

Until then, I’ll leave you with the advice of the American Society of News Editors in “10 Best Practices for Social Media.”

  1. Traditional ethics rules still apply online.
  2. Assume everything you write online will become public.
  3. Use social media to engage with readers, but professionally.
  4. Break news on your website, not on Twitter.
  5. Beware of perceptions.
  6. Independently authenticate anything found on a social networking site.
  7. Always identify yourself as a journalist.
  8. Social networks are tools not toys.
  9. Be transparent and admit when you’re wrong online.
  10. Keep internal deliberations confidential.


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