Ethics 2.0 – dos and don’ts of social media

twitterDo you fact-check all your retweets? Do you publish rumours, or gossip? Is it OK to have an opinion in your personal blog?

twitterDo you fact-check all your retweets? Do you publish rumours, or gossip? Is it OK to have an opinion in your personal blog? These were just a few of the ethical questions raised during a recent CAJ conference workshop titled “Ethics 2.0: The do’s and don’ts of social media." The discussion, led by journalism professor and J-Source Ethics editor Ivor Shapiro and Vancouver Sun managing editor Kirk LaPointe, looked at the problems – and potential opportunities – that arise when journalists use social media to communicate. Dana Lacey reports.

There’s an old journalism mantra: “We don’t publish the truth, we pursue it.” That distinction is important in an age of instant reporting, says Vancouver Sun managing editor Kirk LaPointe, a panellist at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference workshop "Ethics 2.0: the dos and don'ts of social media". With the onslaught of so much freely available information, journalists are no longer the gatekeepers of info they once were, he said. “We’re only a part of the conversation.” So, in interest of keeping the conversation going, is it okay to publish facts you cannot verify?

(Coincidentally, workshop moderator Ivor Shapiro faced this question head-on when he blogged that the Globe and Mail would relaunch as a daily magazine during another workshop at the CAJ conference. When he found out he’d gotten the facts wrong – which he only found out when he e-mailed Stackhouse directly, he posted a correction and then wrote a Twitter-style mea culpa that lays the process – and the problem – bare.)

The pressure to be first can result in what would traditionally be considered sloppy journalism: unverified facts, stories based solely on rumour or gossip, or the absence of complexity or context. But speed has its benefits too. Consider the story of Tiger Woods. News of the accident came out in pieces, and you literally could watch the story unfold on Twitter. Much like a wire service, the news trickled in as facts were verified and dismissed: Tiger was hurt, then he wasn’t. It was his wife’s fault, then it wasn’t. Later in the day, CNN broadcast a thin story without substantial facts – anyone following the news on Twitter was already several steps ahead. Of course, some of the information that was viciously retweeted was false.

The question was raised by a panel of the CAJ Ethics Advisory Committee:   should tweets or blog posts or quick online hits be verified before posting (and even before reposting)?

The question, posed both to the people in the room as well as on Twitter, CAJ’s liveblog and in J-Source’s Town Hall, had no definitive answer. On one hand, no news service benefits from posting false information, and reputations can be damaged. But then there’s logistics: shrinking newsroom budgets combined with the urgency of breaking news doesn’t leave a lot of time for investigation. Besides, not all tweets can be verified – sometimes it's the only source of information, as is evident in tweets from Haiti about the devastation of certain buildings in the aftermath of January’s earthquake. (Although another rumour that presumably would be easy to dispel also spread on Twitter: that airlines were flying nurses and doctors to Haiti for free, which wasn't true.) But is that a good enough reason to post something without verifying? If a journalist’s job is to “minimize harm”, should they post items that could potentially affect the financial markets? The retweeted rumours of Steve Jobs’s health decline, later proved false, caused Apple stock to take a plunge. That’s a lot of power, considering anyone can use social media.

In an increasingly demanding news environment, journalists are wary of taking on new tasks, and Twitter or blog posts are no exception. The temptation to cut corners is always there. In an attempt to establish some working guidelines for journalists using social media, the CAJ ethics panel's discussion document  tackles some of these issues and offers best practices, including identifying sources, linking to reports, verifying info and labelling posts you can't verify.

The discussion document – which invites the public to weigh in – acknowledges that while there are numerous benefits to this emerging form of communication, journalists should know the potential implications of their posts. They should know they are potentially liable for any false or misleading info they post. They should also be aware of the different duties of verification: if you post a fact you cannot verify, label it as  an “unverified report”. Be transparent, tell readers you’re “looking into it” or are “waiting to confirm”. Let the reader see the steps between discovering a fact and telling the story, allow people to watch the story unfold. News organizations should distinguish between material they’re passing on and information they’ve reported themselves. In one attendee's words, newsrooms should ditch the urge to pretend they know everything and instead embrace the words, “We don’t know yet, but we’re looking into it.” That way, a reader will know you’re trustworthy while still getting the latest info, and will come back for updates.

The CAJ workshop discussion often turned to the definition of a journalist. It’s hard to pin down, what, exactly, distinguishes journalism from any other form of communication, but it is generally agreed that journalism carries a certain responsibility to pursue truth. But what about an off-duty journalist? Should they be allowed to tweet, retweet or blog at their leisure? Do the same journalistic standards apply to a journalist’s personal life?

“It’s a very 1.0 idea that reporters must keep their views and bias hidden,” Shapiro said. “Now, journalists are expected to engage with the community in free exchange of information.” Consider that the most popular tweets are those laced with opinion. “It’s less to do with facts then bright, witty opinions,” LaPointe said. “We’ve become one big living room.” Should reporters publish their opinions on matters that they do or might cover? Again, nobody could agree.

“There are a lot of things that aren’t new about social media,” Shapiro said. Tight deadlines, crowd sourcing, receiving rumours that are disguised as facts… these are all a part of traditional newsgathering. Social media has simply sped up the process significantly. Twitter won't replace journalism, but it has become part of the process. Journalism just has to figure out how to keep up without sacrificing the truth.