Thursday, February 17, 2011

Newer media raise old questions on ethics

Social media is having a broad impact in so many ways, not the least of which is journalism, my specialty for many years.

What started with such Web innovations as Myspace and grew to include Facebook, Twitter and many more, essentially allow people to interact, often in real team, using Internet-based and frequently mobile technology.

There are many great things about social media. People can post messages to each other or for common consumption. The can promote their blogs or the stories they have written or the photos they have taken. They can market products and ideas. But social media also can be a goldmine of real-time reactions to breaking news.

I can think of two stories during my last year with Sun-Times Media in which social media played a role in gathering news.

The first was a story that I broke after an earthquake rattled the region at 3:59 a.m. on Feb. 10, 2010. I was at home and awake when it struck, called 9-1-1 to report it – and, while I was on the phone, I asked if they knew what had happened. They did not.

My wife, who was awakened by the temblor, suggested it was a quake, and so I turned on my computer started gathering information. I had to react as if I was the only one on the Web team who was aware of the breaking news. Apparently, I was.

My first stop was the U.S. Geological Survey's website, which features real-time maps that update constantly to show locations from which people were calling in to report the quake. The Illinois map was lighting up like a Christmas tree, but reports were being made in many states.

After verifying from the USGS site that a quake indeed had occurred, posted a short story to our websites and sent out an e-nail blast to our readers about the quake.

Next I turned to Twitter to gather people's observations about what they had felt or had heard (most said it sounded like a snow plow, but much closer to their homes than ever before). So I began the first of many updates to the initial story.

I made more phone calls to nonemergency numbers for reaction from some area police departments, returned to the USGS site to gather more information about the quake's approximate epicenter, its magnitude and from how far away the temblor had been felt.

Then I started receiving e-mails from reporters who had been awakened by the event and, being reporters, began reporting. I continued posting updates to my original story for a little more than two hours until I was relived by my supervisor.

In my opinion, the observations from Twitter helped breathe life into a story that, from the start, was brief despite having a wide impact.

The second instance was during a house explosion in Elgin, where I live. Our first tip-off to the explosion was a phone call to our Aurora office. The wife of one of my co-workers there called to let him know what was going on, and she kept calling as more information came in, so we were able to get something up on our website immediately. But then I turned to Twitter again, first checking my list of Elgin connections where I soon learned the hash tags being used to discuss the explosion. Again, more “color” or observations about what was happening, in real time, at the site of the blast.

I was discerning in what I used in those two instances, in part because there had not been a lot of discussion in our newsrooms about the use of social media in reporting. For example, I was inclined not to trust observations that seemed to interpret or assume knowledge of what was going on as opposed to straight descriptions of observations. That's because people often read more into what they see than is actually occurring, and in the interest of accuracy, I'd rather trust the observation of someone saying “They're bringing out a stretcher with someone on it” than “They're bringing out a body.”

Simply put, the “body” may just be alive, but in that context, most people would be inclined to assume the worst: emergency personnel plus body equals death.

It's all about learning what to trust as honest observation versus assumption or misinterpretation. Police know this when they interview witnesses to a crime – they have to weed out fact from fancy, and witnesses generally like to think they have a better grasp of whay they've seen than perhaps they really do. And any journalist who has watched news unfold learns at some point that what you think you saw happen may not actually reflect reality.

So journalists for some time have been grappling with the role social media may have in gathering news. But there are other issues that are still being fleshed out, as was illustrated to me earlier this week by the question of one aspiring journalist.

Essentially, he has a Facebook account and had received a “friend” request from an elected official. He was concerned that accepting the “friend” request might create an ethical dilemma because some might infer that being a Facebook friend meant he could not be fair and impartial in reporting about the public figure.

First, I applaud him for asking the question – it shows this reporter not only has a conscience, but also that he's not ignoring it. Kudos to that: Integrity is not just about having high moral standards, it's about actually trying to live by those standards.

But it is an interesting question. Can “friending” someone or “following” them on social media be construed as something that would interfere with a journalist's responsibility to report, fairly and accurately, the truth?

At first blush, I'd say no – albeit with some reservations.

Social media and its related connections are so ubiquitous today as to render the terms "friend" or “follower” all but meaningless in that regard. In my view, an exception would be those who keep a tight, tight lid on their social media privacy settings so that their postings, rants, or “tweets” are seen only by a select few.

But in many instances with social media, it seems to be a goal to have as many people as possible "follow" you or “friend” you, particularly if you are promoting a service, a product or, as I do, a blog.

And on LinkedIn, a social media site for professionals, the more connections you develop, the better able you are to network with other pros in your field, improving your chances of both enhancing your professional opportunities and helping others advance theirs.

Since social media is, in fact, networking, I do not believe simply "friending" a public figure or a source on Facebook is any more a breach of journalistic ethics than introducing yourself to and then keeping in contact with that public official using another platform (think phone calls or e-mail or even good, old-fashioned face-to-face meetings).

I find it interesting that as journalists, many of us still frequently think of contacting sources by phone, shooting over an e-mail or even meeting them in person to get information that we might also get from them via a social network.

Using social media in this way, in fact, can enhance the flow of information and provide you with leads to new stories.

Simply because you've elected to "friend" or "follow" someone in no way means you have given them an open-ended endorsement or have become beholden to them.

In my opinion, the only difference in this situation would be if you are the type of person who is very selective about who you "friend" or follow on any social media. If you intend for your Facebook account to be exclusively for friends and family, then exclude public figures and sources. To do otherwise implies there is a level of intimacy that may cause some to infer the potential of an ethical breech.

But if you are using social media with few limits on who you "friend" or "follow," then go ahead. If you include acquaintances among your Facebook friends or Twitter followers, then in my opinion, a source really is no different than anybody else.