Guidelines for Social Media and BloggingSocial media and blogs are important elements of journalism. They narrow the distance between journalists and the public. They encourage lively, immediate and spirited discussion. They are vital news-gathering and news-delivery tools. As a journalist you should uphold the same professional and ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, truthfulness, transparency and independence when using social media as you do on the air and on all digital news platforms. It is important as a journalist to vet information you gather from social media due to the surge of disinformation and misinformation across platforms.
Truth and Fairness
- Be transparent. Your end users are trusting you to provide the most accurate information.
- Social media posts, comments and content shares should meet the same journalistic standards that you apply across platforms including on-air.
- Information gathered online should be vetted and confirmed before posting and/or sharing. Review the information and the source the information is coming from. Once the information is confirmed, it is important to add attribution, so the viewer understands due diligence has been done. If you cannot independently confirm critical information, reveal your sources; tell the public how you know what you know and what you cannot confirm. Don’t stop there. Keep seeking confirmation. This guideline is the same for covering breaking news on station websites as on the air. You should not leave the public “hanging.” Lead the public to completeness and understanding.
- Twitter’s character limits and immediacy are not an excuse for inaccuracy and unfairness.
- It is critical to add as many perspectives on a topic as possible. Be sure to share statements, links, video etc. to supplement the online story across platforms.
- Remember that social media postings live on as online archives. Correct and clarify mistakes, whether they are factual mistakes or mistakes of omission.
- If you make a mistake, correct your information and be transparent about your correction.
- Remember that liking, sharing, retweeting etc. inaccurate or biased information is a reflection on your journalistic ethics.
When using content from blogs or social media, ask critical questions such as:
- Who is the source of the information? Is this person a trusted representative of the organization, business etc.
- What is the motivation the post, comment or photo?
- What is the source of the video or photograph? Do you have permission to use it?
- Ask the person who posted the photo or video if they own the rights to the posted material. Did that person take the photograph or capture the video?
- If music is attached, do you have the rights to use that audio?
- Should any person(s) shown in the video be blurred out? What about profanity?
- Always consider the stakeholders, so ask or decide what you will show when you obtain graphic video. Be particularly sensitive when showing vulnerable members of society.
- Has the photograph or video been manipulated? Have you checked to see if the metadata attached to the image reveals that it has been altered?
Social networks typically offer a “privacy” setting, so users can choose not to have their photographs or thoughts in front of the uninvited public. Capturing material from a public Facebook site is different from prying behind a password-protected wall posing as a friend. When considering whether to access “private” content, journalists should apply the same RTDNA guidelines recommended for undercover journalism. Ask:
- Does the poster have a ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy?
- Is this a story of great significance?
- Is there any other way to get the information?
- Are you willing to disclose your methods and reasoning?
- What are your journalistic motivations?
For Discussion in your Newsroom:
When an Army psychiatrist killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, Twitter messages, supposedly from “inside the post” reported gunfire continued for a half hour and that there were multiple shooters. Journalists passed along the information naming Twitter writers as the sources. The information proved to be false and needed to be corrected. If one or multiple shooters had been at large, withholding that information could have caused some people to be in harm’s way. The nature of live, breaking news frequently leads to reports of rumor, hearsay and other inaccurate information. Journalists must source information, correct mistakes quickly and prominently and remind the public that the information is fluid and could be unreliable.
Questions for the Newsroom:
- What decision making process is in place during breaking news and social media in your newsroom ?
- What protocols does your newsroom have to make corrections on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook? What system to you have in place to make sure the entire newsroom including newcomers are aware of the protocols?
- Does your newsroom have a process for copyediting and oversight of the content posted on social media sites? What decision-making process do you go through before you post?
- What protocols do you have for checking the truthfulness of photographs or video that you find on Facebook, YouTube or photo-sharing sites? Have you contacted the photographer? Can you see the unedited video or raw photograph file? Does the image or video make sense when compared to the facts of the story?
- Who in the newsroom is charged with confirming information gleaned from social media sites?
- Who is in charge of keeping record of all the written permissions and for how long?
Accountability and Transparency
- You can be held accountable for everything you post on your person and talent pages. What you post represents you and the station’s image in some cases, so think before you post, like, tweet, share or retweet.
- You should not write anonymously or use an avatar or username that cloaks your real identity on newsroom or personal websites. You are responsible for everything you say. Commenting or blogging anonymously compromises this core principle.
- Be especially careful when you are writing, Tweeting or blogging about a topic that you or your newsroom covers. Editorializing about a topic or person can reveal your personal feelings. Biased comments that affect your station’s ability to be perceived as an objective source of news could be used in a court of law to demonstrate a predisposition, or even malicious intent, in a libel action against the news organization, even for an unrelated story.
- Just as you keep distance between your station’s advertising and journalism divisions, you should not use social media to promote business or personal interests without disclosing that relationship to the public. Sponsored links should be clearly labeled, not cloaked as journalistic content.
- There are journalistic reasons to connect with people online, even if you cover them, but consider whom you “friend” on sites like Facebook or “follow” on Twitter. You may believe that online “friends” are different from other friends in your life, but the public may not always see it that way. For example, be prepared to publicly explain why you show up as a “friend” on a politician’s website. Inspect your “friends” list regularly to look for conflicts with those who become newsmakers. Your entire body of work, likes, friends etc. will be considered when the public looks at your impartiality as a source of news.
- Be especially careful when registering for social network sites. Pay attention to how the public may interpret Facebook information that describes your relationship status, age, sexual orientation, gender identity and political or religious views. These descriptors can hold loaded meanings and affect viewer perception.
- Keep in mind that when you join an online group, the public may perceive that you support that group. Be prepared to justify your membership.
- Avoid posting photos or any other content on any website, blog, social network or video/photo sharing website that might embarrass you or undermine your journalistic credibility. Keep this in mind, even if you are posting on what you believe to be a “private” or password-protected site. Consider this when allowing others to take pictures of you at social gatherings. When you work for a journalism organization, you represent that organization on and off the clock. The same standards apply for journalists who work on-air or off-air.
- Bloggers and journalists who use social media often engage readers in a lively give-and-take of ideas. Never insult or disparage readers. Try to create a respectful, informed dialogue while avoiding personal attacks.
These guidelines were developed by the RTDNA Ethics Committee and Al Tompkins, group leader for broadcasting and online, The Poynter Institute, and updated by the RTDNA Ethics Committee.