Social media use forces the question: Where do you draw the ethics line in the cloud?

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The Journalists Code of Ethics has long been a bible for reporters, but following its rules in the world of social media is complicated. In a breaking story, do you re-Tweet important information without confirmation? What about the sticky matter of personal online identities?  These are the kinds of questions leading college media outlets to address ethics guidelines specifically for social media.

The Journalists Code of Ethics has long been a bible for reporters, but following its rules in the world of social media is complicated. In a breaking story, do you re-Tweet important information without confirmation? Do you need to confirm Facebook?  And what about the sticky matter of personal online identities?  Can you discuss your stories or your Facebook wall? These are the kinds of questions leading college media outlets to begin to address ethics guidelines specifically for social media.

Many a reputation was saved back in the day by an alert editor with the time to vet and discuss a story before it went to press.  But today, as news is Tweeted and posted to Facebook in real time and the lines between the personal and the professional blur, journalists make important decisions that can destroy a reputation in the time it takes to enter 140 characters on a cell phone.

Students typically are ahead of the curve when it comes to using new tools, but they often don’t fully comprehend the power and the consequences of the tools at their disposal.  In fact, even experienced journalists and media outlets have been tripped up by today’s rapidly changing media landscape. CNN, for instance, fired its longtime Middle Eastern Affairs editor, Octavia Nasr, after she tweeted her sympathy on the death of Shiite sheik Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, calling him one of “Hezbollah’s giants.” A TV station in Arkansas fired its TV news crew after it uploaded videos on YouTube spoofing TV news segments, reported. And The Washington Post suspended a sports columnist after he deliberately Tweeted misinformation as a hoax to prove how quickly the media picks up on sports rumors without independent verification. Ironically, the Tweet was picked up, which proved his point. As Boston Globe editor Marty Baron told Jim Romanesko at Poynter:  “My advice: This is the world journalists live in. Like it or not, you can’t ignore it. And if you can’t ignore it, participate fully. Just be careful you don’t Tweet something that could cut short your career.”

The social media issues getting everyone into trouble fall into two areas: how to handle official news gathering/ reporting and the use by journalists of personal social media accounts. While getting in the paper without prior editorial review was unheard of before the advent of Web 2.0,  today it’s become commonplace depending on the news organization, said Jill Van Wyke,  assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Drake University in Des Moines. “It makes me nervous, but I think it’s just where we are in media and journalism … with that urgency and that immediacy,” she said.  Van Wyke said Terry Heaton said it all in a response to a blog post by Steve Buttry: “The code of the SPJ was written for the age of ‘finished product’ news, whereas today’s news is all about real time.”

Van Wyke said she is impressed with the detailed and transparent approach taken by the Sioux City Journal under editor Mitch Pugh. The paper developed a breaking news policy and posts a link to that document with each breaking news story.  The policy includes details such as when the police scanner can be used as a source and how it uses information sent from the public. The paper requires that police scanner information be confirmed elsewhere or gets approval from an editor, and while it considers information from the public, it “strives to independently verify,” especially if it is sensitive in nature.

Interestingly, newsrooms are more conservative than the community about breaking news online and generally see little difference between breaking news online and in print, according to research conducted by Pugh and the Sioux City Journal for the Associated Press Manager Editors Online Journalism Credibility Project.  “Journalists are more skeptical of Facebook and social media in general as a news source than the public-at-large,” according to the report, which found that the public is adapting to new technologies faster than newsrooms and expects to get “information” as it happens.  The public, the study also found, generally recognizes the difference between developing news on, say, Twitter, versus finished copy, and depending on its level of  sophistication, understand that standards of breaking news are often based on the medium . [T2] Wrote one editor: “Anything that is a fact helps our readers understand what’s happening. Just because we do not know EVERYTHING does not mean that we don’t know SOME THINGS  (sic). The web allows us to publish things in installments, updating the story as we know more.” However, the research also showed that the public has higher expectations of newspapers online or in print than of other media outlets.

Many large new organizations do have policies specifically for social media, including The Washington Post, the Associated Press and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. At the time the research was conducted in 2010, however, it showed that most news organizations did not have policies for breaking news online or for reporting with social media. Van Wyke said that in her journalism class, she does an exercise where students go through the process of considering guidelines for social media, taking into account venerable codes such as the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. The class is revealing, she said.

“I live the SPJ code,” said Van Wyke. “It’s the first thing I teach – the basics are beautiful.  But I think we either need a separate policy for digital breaking news or the whole code has to be updated.”

In his blog, The Buttry Diary, Steve Buttry, director of community engagement and social media at the Journal Register Co., has written extensively on social media codes. One criticism he has had is that codes too often serve to instill fear in journalists rather than a free flow of information.  In a July post, he praised the Associated Press’ updated social media code for stating that it relies on its journalists’ good judgment, but he was disappointed in some rules such as AP’s policy not to break news that it hasn’t published, no matter the format. That means the rule is not to break news first on Twitter, for instance, a rule that Buttry deemed short-sighted, and he linked to New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s discussion of how Twitter helped him to cover the Joplin, Mo. disaster. At Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. , Mathew L. Cantore, adjunct professor and co-adviser for the Hudsonian, said student editors decide whether Tweets and Facebook posts require advance approval of an editor. The decision changes year to year, based on the student editors. Cantore said some editors want to approve every post, while others opt not to “micromanage.”

As a rule of thumb, Cantore said, it’s generally the editor in chief, the web editor and perhaps the managing editor who have passwords to the accounts for posting.  The passwords are changed from year to year as the editors change, and he too knows the passwords never touches the accounts.  The paper does not have an official social media policy, but he said he planned to suggest the students consider one.

Perhaps the stickiest issue colleges now face is what students may or may not say on their own personal accounts as it relates to their work as journalists.  At the College of Charleston, students report on the official Facebook and Twitter media accounts and are guided to respond to comment or Tweets “when appropriate,” says Mandi Bryson, assistant director of Student Media Organizations at the College of Charleston. The students are encouraged to stay away from “using their personal accounts for work related information,” she said.

“We always remind them that even though it is a personal account, you are always a journalist, Bryson said. “That’s just the way the public views it.” The biggest issue is (to) ‘be smart.’ One of the things we are trying to accomplish is holding the students accountable for their actions, both while in an official capacity and personally.”

Cantore said the Hudsonian also encourages students to keep their opinions to themselves to avoid any appearance of bias in coverage. “It’s really not a new challenge,” Cantore said. “It’s just taken on a different form.”

Clearly, today’s technology makes it easier to express an opinion, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Before, you really had to do something conscious to affiliate yourself with a cause,” he explained. “You had to put a bumper sticker on a car or show up at a rally. Now you just have to click a ‘like’ button. It adds a degree of a casualness and ambiguity to the face you are displaying.”

LoMonte advises student journalists not to cross the line between following or observing a group and making opinionated comments that could cast doubt on your professionalism. “You couldn’t possibly enforce a policy that says, ‘Don’t follow Twitter or Facebook accounts of causes or people you cover,’ but you could say, ‘Don’t voice public opinions indicating a bias or a lack of objectivity,” he noted.

The student press has a right to adopt a code telling students not to express opinions about news they cover and to take action if they do, LoMonte said. However, the policy should be student-driven, especially at a public university where the college, including its adviser, would be running afoul of the First Amendment if it attempted to lay down the rules, he said.

Even then, he warns, it is not a good idea for the policy to be too specific about what can and can’t be said in personal accounts. “You want to hesitate a little bit before asserting total control in their off hours, because you don’t want to assume liability for that,” LoMonte said. “The last thing you want to do is take ownership for what all your employees are doing on Saturday afternoon on Facebook. “

Just as news is now reported in installments that eventually complete the story,  so are news organizations – be they the student press or the professionals – having to adapt their social media policies with each changing technology.

“Eventually the industry will come up with some best practices,” LoMonte said. “But right now, we’re very much in the shake-out phase.”


Pat Winters Lauro

Pat Winters Lauro is an assistant professor of journalism at Kean University, where she advises The Tower newspaper. She is a former staff writer with the New York Daily News and has been a regular contributor to the business section of The New York Times.