A friend, Glenn Coin, has asked me to guest lecture about the ethics of social media for his Utica College journalism class, so I figured I’d blog my lesson plan to save time — and spread the message.
I thought the ethics of social media is a timely topic, given the debate over social media rules that has been waging now for months. It began in the spring when first the Dow Jones Co. and then The New York Times issued social media rules. Then it resurfaced recently when The Washington Post released its rules, and a WaPo editor admitted he quit Twitter, rather than violate the rules.
In the meantime, several ethical moments in social media have taken place, and I’ll got through them each later in this post.
First, what are ethics?
Merriam-Webster defines ethics as:
A set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values.
What about for journalists?
For journalists, the definition of ethics gets a lot longer. The Society of Professional Journalists offers a long list of what constitutes journalistic ethics, including: making every effort to be accurate, avoid stereotyping and offering a diversity of viewpoints. It also calls for journalists not to plagiarize and to distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.
So are things any different online?
Online Journalism Review argues no. Journalistic ethics are pretty much the same online as in print or broadcast: Don’t plagiarize; tell readers how you got your information; don’t accept gifts or money for coverage; tell the truth; be honest.
I agree with OJR. Journalists online must be accurate and honest and strive to tell the truth, and they can’t copy others’ work. (I’d argue that linking isn’t copying, although not everybody agrees with that.)
So are ethics any different on the Web or in social media than in the rest of journalism?
I say no. I think ethics are ethics. You can’t have one set of rules for online and another for print. But I do think the medium impacts how we live out these philosophies, and I’ll get to that more later. When it comes to social media, one of the key questions becomes: If a journalist offers an opinion on Twitter, is that unethical? Does that violate some type of rule? Think about that — and we’ll discuss more later.
Personally, I follow a basic code of ethics that works for me in the face-to-face world, the professional world and online. It’s quite simple:
- First do no harm. I try in every part of my life to avoid doing anything that would hurt another person. (To me, this doesn’t mean writing only good or happy news. But it does mean getting as many sides of the story as possible before writing about something that could put anybody in a bad light. It also means giving a source an adequate chance to repond, not just calling once.)
- Don’t put anything on the Internet (Twitter, Facebook, what have you) that you’d be embarrassed to see on the front page of The New York Times. That means no drunk pictures, nothing “inappropriate,” nothing that accuses another person of something without verified support.
3. Be transparent. That means be honest about what’s going on. If you make a mistake, admit it. If you misunderstood something, acknowledge it. If you inadvertently wrong someone, say you’re sorry and try to fix it. To me, this doesn’t mean you pretend you don’t have opinions. You’re just honest with yourself about how what you’re thinking shapes your worldview.
The bottom line with ethics is it comes from inside you. I can’t tell you how to live any more than you can tell me how to live. Ethics aren’t black and white; they are gray, very gray. If a clerk gave you more change then you should have received, and you noticed in the store, would you return it? (I would.) What if you’d driven home already before you noticed? For me, it would depend on how much more. If it was change or a few dollars, I’d chalk it up to good karma on my part. If it was significant money ($20), I’d mail a check to the store with a note. But you might not, and that’s OK. My code doesn’t have to be yours.
What every journalist, what every person must do is really think about what ethics means and come up with a personal code that reflects that. And then stick by it. Certainly, if you work for a news organization, you’ll be bound by whatever code that organization adopts. But you still need to have your own personal code, and you may need to argue your point — in a nice way.
Don’t fall into the trap of … My boss told me to do it. My editor said it was OK. You know in your gut what’s right. Follow that. Would you be embarrassed if someone knew you did something? Then don’t do it. That queasy feeling we get in our stomach is there for a reason — to stop us from doing something stupid. Feeling guilty in many cases is often a normal response to doing something wrong.
Next, I’m going to go through some recent ethical dilemmas in the sphere of journalistic social media. I’ll tell you whether I think each case was ethical or not, but you need to figure out what you think for yourself. Argue your case. Stand for something. The goal of this exercise isn’t to teach you rules, as I might if I were teaching algebra (solve within the parentheses first, then the exponents, then multiplication and division from left to right, then addition and subtraction from left to right). Ethics is messy or mungy.
Ethics is often case by case because you may encounter a situation you never expected or thought of or that doesn’t mirror anything else that has happened before. Being ethical in practice is easy; living it is harder. (Think of it this way: You find $1,000 in an un-marked envelope in the mall. My ethics say I must return it, even if I have no way of knowing if it will reach its true owner. But it’s a lot harder to do that if your rent is due, and you have no idea how you’ll pay. Believing something is easy. Acting on it can be difficult.)
- The “jackass tweet.” President Barack Obama called hip-hop artist Kanye West a jackass for grabbing the microphone from teen country singer Taylor Swift during the MTV music video. Obama made the comment off the record during an interview with CNBC. “Nightline” co-anchor Terry Moran tweeted to his more than 1 million followers that the president had called West a jackass.
Right or wrong? I say wrong. The comment was off the record, and that means the journalist should not disseminate it. Period. OK, let’s mix it up a bit ethically. What if a guy from a local deli was in the room at the time, delivering sandwiches. He overheard the president and tweeted it. Right or wrong? To me, that’s more fair game. He made no promise of being off the record. Word to the president: Don’t call people jackasses even off the record.
- The erroneous tweet: About a year ago, Mathew Ingram, communities editors for the Toronto Globe and Mail, tweeted after seeing a report on CNN’s iReport “citizen journalism” portal about Steve Jobs having a heart attack. He noted there were reports of a heart attack, but they were unverified. A minute or two later, he noted where the tip came from, that someone on Digg saw the report on the news, and that the report could be from a troll. He caught fire from some who argued as a journalist Ingram should have made sure the report was true before he passed it on. In the end, it turned out that Jobs had not had a heart attack.
Right or wrong? Well, first, in the interest of transparency, let me disclose that Ingram and I both blog for Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab. While I’ve never meet him personally, we’ve corresponded a bit through Twitter. He also wrote a blog post a while back defending a controversial post I wrote about journalistic rules you can break on your blog. I tell you this because I believe in transparency. I don’t think all this clouds my judgment of Ingram, but you might. So here is: all on the table.
With that said, I don’t think he was wrong to tweet what would clearly be a very newsworthy tweet. I’m not saying that newsworthiness outweighs accuracy. Not at all. But Ingram, I believe, wouldn’t have tweeted something he knew to be false. He was just passing on news that many people would interest many and pointing out that it might not be true. If I had read his tweet, it would have spurred me to find out more, not lulled me into believing something based only on a tweet.
Some argued he should have verified the tweet before passing it on. Perhaps. Verification is always good. But one of the beauties of social media is its fluidity. It would be impossible for all of the millions of people on Twitter to verify every tweet before passing it on. Twitter isn’t a news medium. I think there’s an expectation that Twitter is the start of a conversation to prompt people to find out more, not the be all and end all.
With all that said, Ingram acknowledged on his blog that he’s likely do things differently. Perhaps. But Twitter only works an an information conduit if people aren’t afraid of tweeting. We’ll all make mistakes. Just last week, I tweeted something that look legit and turned out to be spam. Mea Culpa. That’s not unethical. That’s human.
- This is your brain on Facebook: A doctor in training posted a picture of a patient’s brain on Facebook, prompting a probe by Upstate Medical University, which wasn’t happy with the posting. The brain wasn’t labeled, so no one could really tell whose brain it was, except, of course the doc in training. But some of the doc in training’s friends posted comments beside the picture that, perhaps, the owner of the brain might find, eh, unseemly: “Do you feel like Hannibal Lector sometimes?” “Love a good BRAIN in the early morning!!” “Should that be served with a white or red wine????”
Right or wrong? My take is this was wrong, very wrong. Why? Doctors get to see us in our most vulnerable states (few things are more vulnerable than having your brain exposed), so they have even a greater obligation to protect that vulnerability. If it were me, I wouldn’t like my brain being discussed this way. And I wouldn’t want my doctor discussing any part of my body on his or her Facebook page.
But, you couldn’t tell whose brain it was, so why does it matter? To me it does. Some might say, “Lighten up; it’s funny.” I acknowledge that doctors probably need to use some gallows humor to get through the day, similarly to how cops and police reporters handle the job with humor. That’s fine. But don’t go public. Joking with a colleague is one thing. Doing it on a Facebook, very public space, the town square of our era so to speak, is different. (Yes, I know that only the doc’s Facebook friends could see the picture. But the thing is with the Web is you can’t trust that. If people can hack my credit card number off the Web, I’m guessing someone (not me) has the know-how to hack into Facebook.)
- The pulled blog post: The Globe and Mail’s book editor attended a search-engine optimization seminar at the newspaper and then blogged critically on the newspaper’s Web site about the worshop. According to Ingram’s explanation, the books editor felt the workshop stressed too much that online headlines should be understandable to search engines, rather than people. Some senior editors at the Globe took umbrage at the post, and it was pulled. Ingram urged that he explain to readers why the post was taken down, especially considering some people had already seen the post, and at least one blog had linked to it.
Right or wrong? Well, to me, I think it was vital that the newspaper explain why it took down the post, even if no one had seen the post. The days of the detached news staff that knows better than the readers are over. So I’m glad, the newspaper explained it’s reasoning, which was the rant wasn’t particularly suitable for a books blog. I think journalists have an ethical obligation in today’s world to be transparent. To explain what they do and why they do it. Actually, I think this has always been the case, but the Web forces more transparency. (In the old days, if the books editors ranted in a print column, editors would spike it before anyone outside the newsroom would know.)
Transparency becomes an ethical issue because being transparent engenders trust in the same way that concealing things engenders suspicion. Ingram writes that he “argued that the trust of our readers was also a key part of our brand, and that we had to do everything we could to maintain it. That, I think, is the fundamental purpose of being open and honest in the first place. Trust, as Craig Newmark has said, is ‘the new black.’ ” I agree.
What do you think? Where do you draw the ethical line.