Treat social media content ethically on air

April 21, 2015 01:30

By Lynn Walsh, RTDNA Contributor

This week is Journalism Ethics Week and in today's journalism world of instant information and social media, being ethical seem more important than ever.

Whether you are looking at tweets, photos or posts online to use in your story, it's important to carefully think about what you are publishing and producing.

Below are some points to consider if you're going to use information or content from these sites.

Asking yourself, what type of access you have to the information posted, is very important. If you can only see the photo of John Doe because you are friends with him, is it OK to show that photo on TV in your story? I would argue it is not. But, if the same photo can be seen by anyone, so it was posted on his profile publicly, I would argue it is OK.

This is all about a persons privacy and expectation of privacy. If the person posted it and made it so that only his friends can view it, is it ethical to share with the world because you have access as an insider or friend? I don't think it is and wouldn't do it unless I had permission from the individual or someone speaking on their behalf.

Just because someone claims to be Mary Sue online, doesn't mean they are. Just because someone claims to be associated with a particular organization or individual online doesn't make it true. We have a responsibility as journalists to do our due diligence to verify the identity of the online profile and what is said on it. Use public records to help with this. Pick up the phone and call people or the organization to verify the association.

This goes for photos, posts and videos. Just because someone posted a photo or has it as their profile photo doesn't mean it is them or even associated with them.

Always attribute
If you are pulling the information from someone's Twitter feed or a Facebook post, say so in your story. Don't just say an individual said this and leave out that it was said on social media. Each social media site had its own lingo and culture. This can be important when telling your users John Doe did or said something. It also provides more insight for your audience into where and how you gathered the information.

Impact of sharing
While at a social media seminar, the presenter showed a photo of car crash scene on the interstate. A reporter had just arrived on scene, snapped a photo and posted it to Twitter. Great instant reporting. Well, what the reporter probably didn't think about was this: in the photo you could see the very badly damaged car. But, what you also saw was the vehicles license plate number.

That license plate number can make it possible to identify the owner. If you are just arriving on the scene of situations like this, family probably hasn't been notified yet. How would you feel if the family found out about the crash from your tweet? Think about this as you share photos and videos. Try to remember to look at the whole photo before posting and consider things like license plates.

If you are pulling information from social media you really have to give it complete context. If a post you are sharing from Twitter was from two years ago, mention that. I would go further to say, I think you should consider whether or not to use it at all. Just because it was said at one point, doesn't make it fair game in my eyes. Also, was it posted as part of a series of tweets or posts? Was it part of a response to someone else's tweet? Was the photo taken at a theme party of some sort and that may be why the individual is dressed that way.

You really have to think about whether or not the information or photos make sense to use in the context of the story you are working on. You don't want to misrepresent what you are presenting to the public.

How does your newsroom verify and contextualize social media content used in stories? Let us know in the comments below.

Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning journalist currently leading the investigative team at KNSD in San Diego, California as the Investigative Executive Producer. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh, Tumblr, or contact her via email:


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