Social Media EthicsConsider everything public. Even though social-networking sites generally allow you somecontrol over who sees your contributions, you should regard everything you post online aspublic. Some of your “friends” could pass along what you have posted. Once you post anythingeven to a closed network, you lose control of it.Consider everything signed. Much of the social-networking world operates with some levelof anonymity. Journalists should consider the ethics of operating anonymously. The bestadvice is to operate transparently, either using your real name or, if you use a screen name(your real name may not be available as a screen name if you have a common name), identifyyourself by name in your user profile. If there’s any chance you might use a social-networkingplatform professionally, it’s best to identify yourself, your publication and your positioncandidly. Even if you use a screen name on your own site or in commenting on someone else’ssite, presume that someone sometime might connect that comment with your actual name.And keep that in mind when you do comment. If you do use a screen name, especially if youdon’t identify yourself fully in a user profile, check with your editor and discuss whether yourapproach is appropriate.Consider everything to be bogus. Some people use fake names on social networks. Somepeople use fictional profiles. Some people will make exaggerated or false claims oraccusations. Some people will pass along unsubstantiated rumors. You will find valuableinformation on social networks, but it won’t always be easily distinguished from the lies,mischief and misinformation. Use the social network as a starting point in your reporting, butbe sure to verify and attribute.Consider whether opinions are appropriate. Discuss with your editors (or with your staff ifyou are an editor) what kind of statements of opinion, if any, are appropriate for you to makeon social-networking sites. If you cover government, you might be free to express yoursupport (or disdain) for a sports team and to praise or rip entertainers. But opinions aboutgovernment officials or issues might be inappropriate. Or your editors may prefer staffmembers to refrain from expressing online opinions at all. On the other hand, a columnistmight be welcome to express opinions as freely in social networks as in print. Opinions are nota one-size-fits-all situation. But make sure that editors and staff are agreed about what’sappropriate for each situation, or whether a single policy covers everyone on your staff.Consider whether internal matters are appropriate for discussion. On Facebook,Twitter and personal blogs, many people discuss the everyday matters of their work life. Someof the routine of your work might venture into ethical areas, though. If you are blogging orTwittering through your reporting process, be careful not to write about matters you mightlater need to discuss with editors, such as whether to identify a juvenile offender or a crimevictim. Be careful not to disclose something that might violate a confidentiality agreement witha source (which you can do without naming names). Don’t treat even a closed online group assomething for a confidential exchange that should be handled by email, telephone or personaldiscussion.Consider separate personal and professional pages. If you want to conduct trulypersonal social networking, consider maintaining a personal profile separate from yourprofessional profile. Then you can do your reporting from one platform and pursue your
hobbies or entertainment or sports interests separately from your professional work. Be sureto confer with your editor (or give some guidance to your staff) about this. For some issuesand some situations, personal comments may reflect on your work, even if you do maintainseparate pages. On the other hand, many people in the social networking world, mix personaland professional, so you should discuss whether it’s appropriate to do that so you can betterunderstand how social networking works. Whichever approach you decide is correct for you orwhichever approach your organization takes, understand that what you say in a personalsocial networking profile or feed will still reflect on you professionally. The best advice is to actprofessionally in social networks, even when you are using them personally.Issues with specific social networksLinking or bookmarking networks. Sites such as Digg, Delicious and Reddit are valuablefor showcasing your own stories and blogs or for linking to valuable resources related to yourbeat or for other stories or resources that can add depth to your own stories. However,consider whether you have responsibility for material that you highlight through these sites. Ifyou highlight partisan sites or commentary expressing strong opinions, could your Diggs oryour bookmarks compromise your neutrality on your beat? Do balance and fairness come intoplay here? If you link to competing partisan sites, does the balance make it acceptable wherelinking to one side’s site would be unfair? What about linking to a site making some allegationsabout a person, agency or company? Is that OK? If not, would it be acceptable if you also linkto sites where the person or company presents its position? What responsibility, if any, do youbear for the accuracy of sites that you link to? Do you need to verify the information if youmight be sending people to that site, just as you would verify the information in a story? Ifyou don’t have to verify, do you need to point out any inaccuracies that you know of? Whatguidelines should you follow in comments you make about your links?Photo or video networks. Social-networking platforms such as Flickr, Twitpic and YouTubeare popular and fun. And they can provide timely content for your news site. But you need toconsider lots of issues: You can link to content anywhere on the Internet, but if you want toembed photos or videos on your site, be sure to request and receive permission first. Keep inmind also that you don’t know the context of the photos or videos you find on sharing sites.Consider whether something might have been staged or re-created in a way that would not beacceptable for your staff. Might someone have altered digital content in a way that would beunethical for a photojournalist? How can you know whether the people sharing the photos orvideos follow your standards for identifying people pictured or for verification of facts? Howcan you know whether the people sharing the photos or videos have any conflicts of intereststhat raise questions about the legitimacy of the images they present? How do you know (anddoes it matter?) that the people sharing photos or videos are identifying themselvesaccurately?Facebook or MySpace. Facebook and MySpace can be valuable reporting tools. They alsocan present ethical dilemmas for journalists. Many users proclaim their opinions andaffiliations on these social-networking sites, but journalists should be sure to check with theireditors before doing so. Reporters might want to join some groups that deal with topics orissues on your beat, but be sure to check with your editor first because joining someparticularly partisan groups could present a conflict of interests. And be careful when you use
Facebook for reporting. You want to verify identity any information independently where youcan. And be sure to attribute appropriately when you use something from Facebook, especiallyif you haven’t been able to verify. Because Facebook and MySpace offer blogging, linking andphoto-sharing opportunities, they present all the same issues described above and in aseparate Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards handout on blogging.Twitter. If you mix professional and personal communication on Twitter, check with youreditor to make sure that is OK at your organization. If your editor is not comfortable, discusswhether separate personal or professional Twitter accounts would be acceptable. Also discusswhether expressions of opinion about events you cover are acceptable (if you might beinclined to state opinions). Consider what your choice of people you follow might tell readersor sources about your interests and opinions. (Editors should discuss these issues with theirstaffs and know how staff members are using Twitter.)Professional networking sites. You can find helpful professional connections and support atprofessional networking sites such as Wired Journalists or networks of beat organizations.Here you generally don’t need to worry about conflicts of interests. But don’t let thecamaraderie and candor of the discussions lure you into inappropriate statements of opinion orbias that might be visible to your readers or sources.Local social networks. Your web site or other local sites might provide some local socialnetworking opportunities. While these networks might connect you to sources and providetips, be sure to verify the sources and information you collect on the social networks. Andkeep in mind that some of the people reading your own contributions may be your sourcesand readers.