Live From SXSW: Accurate, Fair & Safe – The Ethics of Social News

March 10, 2014       Joleen Ong      

Citizen journalists, public citizens who independently support the newsgathering process, play an increasingly important role in providing breaking news content to journalists via Twitter and Facebook. But what are some of the ethical issues with this new frontier for journalism where anybody can participate?

The issue was raised during a SxSW discussion on the newsgathering process and ethical challenges for social newsgathering called “Accurate, Fair & Safe: The Ethics of Social News.” Eric Carvin, social media editor at The Associated Press, and Mandy Jenkins, managing editor at Digital First Media, discussed the key issues behind verifying the accuracy of citizen media, ethical challenges, and tools that they use for newsgathering and source building.

The growth of citizen media underscores the opportunity for nonprofit field staff to provide breaking news content, such as during disaster relief efforts or onsite at refugee camps, but the application of journalistic principles is critical. “This is something that we’re dealing with all the time with breaking news and disasters,” said Jenkins. “Often citizens are there first, and we can never replicate that by coming to the scene after the fact.”

The discussion was framed by five ethical challenges for the social newsgathering process, identified by members of the Online News Association’s (ONA) new working group, the News Ethics Committee, which is chaired by Carvin. “The committee brings together people from the industry about the ethical issues and standards for newsgathering to see if there’s universal ways to solve problems as a group,” explained Carvin.

The five ethical challenges for social newsgathering are as follows:

#1 – Verification and Accuracy

“Make sure that you have the process in place to ensure that mistakes are rare,” said Carvin. Altered images, such as the shark swimming in the street in Puerto Rico after the hurricane in 2011can be deceptive. “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Jenkins said. “It’s all about asking the right questions, and figuring out the source and their background. If you can’t verify it, then we have to ask the question: is it worth it if it’s wrong?” Jenkins recommended online photo verification tools such as TinEye, a reverse image search engine to track where else that image might appear on the web, and www.errorlevelanalysis.com to determine whether the image has been altered in Photoshop. One of the most important questions to ask a source, Jenkins asserted, is simply, “did you take this photo?”

#2 Contributors’ Safety

Journalists in the field, especially in conflict zones, are putting their lives at risk everyday in pursuit of the story. Jenkins and Carvin recommend using location based search engines, such as the paid tool www.geofeedia.com and the free tool, www.coeverywhere.com to search for information and photos based on location across social media platforms.

#3 – Rights and legal issues

The policies in place vary for whether it can use social content, and newsrooms have to be cautious when it comes down to ownership issues. Key questions that Jenkins said to look out for:

  • Who owns it?
  • How do we get in touch with them?
  • If we don’t get in touch with them, do we still use it?

“So many people give us photos that they don’t have the rights to,” Jenkins added. “It’s usually not intentional. The ownership question is more difficult on Facebook.” Being prepared and knowing what sources to use in advance can be critical. “Do things ahead of time so you can get in before the story breaks,” advised Carvin. “Know your credible social accounts.”

#4 – Well Being of Social Journalists

Social journalists in the field put themselves on the line everyday to capture the most coveted action shots. But on the other side of the screen are the journalists at home in front of the computer reviewing the imagery and video. “It is relatively safe to sit in front of YouTube videos,” explained Carvin. “But you could be exposing yourself to really graphic imagery, especially if you’re focused on a particular part of the world.” Many newsrooms do not have the policies or training in place to handle this.

#5 – Workflow and Resources

This is more of a practical issue that looks at the kind of workflow that should be in place to allow the news to maintain ethics and standards. “When it comes down to it, know the trusted people in your community,” advised Carvin. In terms of time management with the social newsgathering process, “sometimes you can spin wheels on social,” said Carvin. “But it’s just a tool…understand when it’s the best tool for the job, and use it them. Sometimes when you find them [your sources] on social, get in touch ASAP by getting them on the phone, get the emotional response to their story, and also assess content by meeting eye to eye on the phone or in person.”