How about some ethical guidelines, eh?

Tuesday’s discussion about the New Haven Independent’s reporting of the Annie Le case raised a number of complex issues about the use of social media in reporting.

Tomorrow, Jake Sherlock will push that conversation forward with some discussion of how social media have been/are being used to do journalism. Then we’ll talk about the ethical guidelines some newsrooms have developed to help their staffs navigate these tricky waters.

There are at least two distinct areas of concern, as far as I can tell: how journalists use social media to talk to/listen to/dialogue with their communities and “brand” themselves, their work, their point of view, etc.; and then there’s the area we delved deeply into on Tuesday, related to how journalists use social media to gather information.

Jake and I looked around for guidance and found that the Roanoke Times, my old employer in Virginia, has some of the most complete guidelines around (click on the link under heading “online policies,” and then “social networking tools in reporting”). Read this section before tomorrow morning at 9:30.

What would a Missourian/Vox social media ethics policy look like? Judging by our Tuesday discussion, can these decisions be left to individual judgment? Or do we need a detailed policy?

I’m eager to hear what you think.

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19 Responses to How about some ethical guidelines, eh?

  1. Dustin says:

    I attended the discussion with Schneller on the Missourian’s guidelines. The proposed policy approach is broad in scope, allowing leeway due to an environment that is constantly in flux.

    As much as I’d like to say that we can leave these things to individual judgement, the smarter side of me would opt for a policy, however broad. Something must be in place resembling firm ground which we can stand upon in the event of an incident. As with many endeavors in life, “professional” and “responsibility” might be the operative words.

  2. Katie Bevan says:

    I would hope that a Missourian/Vox social media policy would look very similar to the one in use by the Roanoke Times.

    It hits on both areas of concern, in enough detail to not make it a “situational” case for every instance a reporter could potentially bring up. I was a big advocate of the point of view that reporters should make themselves completely transparent from step one of the information gathering process during our Tuesday discussion, and this policy creates that environment as well.

    I absolutely DO NOT think that these decisions can be left to the individual. We (as reporters, and in this J-school) are all very aware of social media because it’s becoming part of our job description whether we like it or not. But not everyone’s background is the same.

    I am involved in an organization that is currently having to come up with social media rules because of the way people choose to represent themselves on the internet.
    No matter how much you say that the internet is public – even with privacy settings at every corner – people do not understand that anything they post on a social media site can be seen by someone they don’t want to see it. The last thing any reporter needs is an embarrassing photo ruining their reputation – or worse, their publication’s – when they thought it would only be seen by “friends”.

    Case in point – http://gawker.com/5661393/facebook-delete-can-take-16-embarrassing-months?skyline=true&s=i
    (I’m not sure how reliable this particular website/article is, but there are numerous articles out there that all say the same thing, with similarly silly stories)

  3. rynashley says:

    The Roanoke Times’ guidelines for online practices are nice, in that they allow for issues to still be handled on a case by case basis when it is needed, because they are, in fact, guides.
    The heading says “policies” but some of the instructions read like explicit suggestions — phrases such as “nor encouraged.” (Also, many sections — basically everything under “Online Standards” — are very common sense.)

    Overall the goal Roanoke Times wants to achieve is maintaining its integrity as a media outlet, which these policies will do a great deal to help do, by eliminating a good deal of gray area in reporting practices.
    However, I’m not sure such a strict policy, specifically the one regarding twitter, would work for Missourian/Vox staffers.
    I may feel this way because I do not use social media to contact sources, but do use it to funnel news. Regardless it is a viable blueprint for individual practices in the interim.

  4. asgrund says:

    So many areas of journalism are so vague. I appreciate firm policies whenever I can get them. However, I did notice that those listed in the Roanoke Times were called “guidelines”. I liked that.

    I thought some of the policies in the Roanoke Times were a bit strict. At least, I could see pros and cons. For example, it mentioned not putting political statements or groups on your pages. I think that could be viewed as transparency, rather than promotion.

  5. Although I personally stated in our discussion on Tuesday that I don’t think the reporter should have immediately established herself as a reporter upon friend-requesting Del Rocco…I still think that the Missourian as well as VOX should have a set guideline for using social media and it should NOT be left up to the individuals discretion. People view different things different ways (for example, I didn’t see a problem with the reporters friend request, others did). Just to be safe, it would be in the best interest of every party that is involved to have a strict guideline…and to FOLLOW those guidelines more importantly.

  6. baileywrites says:

    I think we need a policy, if for no other reason, for legal reasons. CYA, I say. We could get in real trouble if lawyers were ever to get involved in responding to something we lifted from social media that hurt or offended one of our readers or sources. This is one of those things you think will “never happen to me,” and such are famous last, jinxing words. We never know when things are going to come bite us in the butt, and if we can point to a policy and say, “we followed our guidelines” to protect ourselves, then we’re 100 times safer than if we have no such policy in place.

  7. I think it’s important to have clear expectations so we can have a uniform sense responsibility, rather than relying solely on our own individual accountability.

    Sometimes, we tend to cringe at the idea of a rule or a policy, but I think it’s important to understand the intent, as well as really look at what the expectations are that are being set. The Roanoke Times’ policy basically set a lot of the standards that we talked about on Tuesday, like transparency and informed consent. There was nothing outrageous about the expectations–they were responsible.

    Like Katie, I think a policy for the Missourian/VOX could look very similar. As much as we like to think every reporter would use good discretion, we all make mistakes, and as Whitney mentioned, people’s views differ. Like Dustin said, it would be better to have something in place in case of an incident.

    As far as the personal area of concern goes, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about that lately. I’ve been re-thinking my Facebook use, trying to find a personal/professional balance. Our personalities are reflected in our professions, and our professions are a part of who we are, so there is really no separating the two.

    Conveniently, the Roanoke Times addresses this: “To that end, journalists must recognize that everything on their social networking page has the potential to influence their reputation and, by extension, the credibility of this newsroom.” Well stated, Roanoke Times. I agree.

    Regardless of how publications decide to handle social media, I think it’s important to educate people on this shifting, growing, blurry topic.

  8. rosiedowney says:

    I like the Roanoke Times’ suggestions. I am in favor of having social networking guidelines at VOX/The Columbia Missourian and think that this type of policy would work.

    One only needs to look at some of the things that are posted on Facebook (i.e. risque photos, public rants about people) these days to realize that a broad policy would benefit us as reporters.

  9. Regina Wang says:

    The Roanoke Times’ online and social media policy is stringent, but at the same time, loose.

    On the one hand, the policy requires the reporters to disclose their profession when approaching a source. On the other hand, it says that when in doubt, “rely on our journalistic professionalism and common sense.” In a time when social media keep pushing boundaries between the private and the public, maybe it’s best to remain flexible in one area but firm in the other.

    We will need social media ethics guidelines at the Missourian and Vox, but they must remain flexible — so that we’ll not scramble when Facebook changes its privacy policy for the 100th time.

  10. Social media is still a fairly new idea and we’re still learning how to use it as people, and particularly as press. Keeping that fact in mind, I think it’s important to have some guidelines, no matter how broad, set up so that the reporter at least has some understanding of what is expected of him/her. I liked that the Roanoke Times mentioned verifying the information found online and also stating in publication where you found that information. Those are two very important points in my opinion. I thought that the guidelines at the Roanoke Times still weren’t extremely detailed, but they gave the necessary information needed by the reporter. That’s all that is necessary from a news organization at this point – the rest is up to the reporters and editors.

  11. DaMonica Boone says:

    I semi-agree with the Roanoke Times suggestions. I understand we was journalists aren’t suppose to publicly become affiliated with a certain political party because we aren’t suppose to be bias, but there is a point where we should be able to say things on social networks without fear of losing our jobs or ruining our reputations. Facebook and Twitter are usually used for personal reasons and not professional. So I should be able to post for example, my love for a movie or hate for a certain food without worry. I do however, agree that we shouldn’t mix personal and professional because that can create a conflict.

  12. I semi-agree with Roanoke Times suggestions. I understand we as journalist aren’t suppose to publicly affiliate ourselves with a particular political party because we aren’t suppose to be biased, but I don’t think we should limit ourselves to social networking in fear that we’ll lose our jobs are ruin our reputations. I understand some things are inappropriate for the world to see, but I should be able to tweet about a movie I love or a certain food I hate without being labeled as biased. I also agree that we should not mix our personal and professional uses of social networking because that can create a conflict.

  13. EmokeBebiak says:

    I think there’s one thing that Vox/The Missourian should definitely enforce: requiring reporters to identify themselves as such before they do anything on Facebook. I always get random friend requests from people I’ve never met, and the idea that some of them could be reporters freaks me out. If a Trib reporter seriously took the effort to trash Missourian reporters over eating pizza, why wouldn’t they creep on our Facebooks? Okay, that might be a bit too paranoid, but you get the point.

    Also, I’m learning that posting the articles I write on Facebook can also be a bit weird, because people comment on them. For the most part, it’s stuff like “good job, blah blah,” but sometimes people who know me personally comment on the content of the article saying stuff like “I’m glad you wrote about a topic like this or that.” Now, when it comes to politics, this can be potentially harmful. Those comments could easily give away where I stand politically…

    So, actually, I’d be all for having a professional online presence and also a personal one. That way I can keep my opinions and friends’ opinions private.

  14. Ben Frentzel says:

    I’m not so sure I agree with flexible guidelines. One of the easiest ways to get around a rule is to claim your case is special.

    When a specific social media ethics policy is written for our publications, they should be very deeply thought about, taking every conceivable case into consideration.

    Then, we’ll follow our rules. Freak situations will come, but there isn’t really any other way to deal with them except with “journalistic professionalism and common sense.”

  15. Jaclyn says:

    I think it’s important to have specific guidelines when it comes to social media. If there aren’t specific guidelines I think there’s way too much gray area and possibility of getting caught in a sticky situation. Take for example all the recent firings due to postings on Facebook or the Twitter comments posted by Tyler Clementi’s roommate.
    The internet is a dangerous place, especially for journalists. I think having set guidelines in place would make cut out that gray area and make journalists feel more comfortable about using social media.

  16. jaclyndipasquale says:

    I think it’s important to have specific guidelines when it comes to social media. If there aren’t specific guidelines I think there’s way too much gray area and possibility of getting caught in a sticky situation. Take for example all the recent firings due to postings on Facebook or the Twitter comments posted by Tyler Clementi’s roommate.
    The internet is a dangerous place, especially for journalists. I think having set guidelines in place would make cut out that gray area and make journalists feel more comfortable about using social media.

  17. Sydney Berry says:

    I absolutely think we need a detailed policy for this kind of stuff, but keeping in mind that things will change a lot as we all still get used to the social media aspect of journalism. I also would call this detailed policy a “guideline”. I think different stories may warrant different rules, so it would be dependent on the situation.

  18. I do absolutely believe there needs to be some kind of guideline for social media. But the key word being guideline. There are exceptional cases, and guidelines or not, they will have to be evaluated on an individual basis, and not by just one individual.

    This is not something that people should be doing on their own, and it’s much better to play it safe than risk repercussions.

  19. allisonmseibel says:

    I think that this is a pretty tough thing to address because I feel like every case having to do with social media is so different. There are so many different situations or issues. But I do think that we need some guidelines. If we just handle everything on an individual basis and by our own judgement, we are probably more likely make a mistake. Guidelines aren’t necessarily RULES, but they can probably help us make a more informed decision. I think the guidelines discussed in the Roanoke Times are good guidelines and I think that we should adapt guidelines similar to these. That way each time we come across a social media issue or case we won’t just ask “Ok…what should we do…?” and be clueless in the beginning. If we had guidelines, we could refer to those and have a way better idea of what to do instead of debating about it.

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