Cited Out of Context: Reporting Data With Integrity

Chicago School of Data conference
Samia Malik (left) compares notes with technologists at the Chicago School of Data conference.

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Journalists look for reassurance in data, as a way to validate what their sources tell them. Scientists aren’t so sure – they joke about “data” being the plural of “anecdote.” Two sources are better than one, except when they’re both wrong.

“You can really jump to the wrong conclusions if you don’t have an understanding of the background of the data,” says Matthew Roberts, informatics manager for Chicago’s health department.

Researchers make a familiar complaint about their data: Getting quoted out of context. The issue’s playing out in a Medicare database of payments doctors took from medical suppliers. Both groups found errors in the data, and payments on research in progress were withheld.

Before the site launched, Roberts told the Chicago School of Data conference that news media inspecting the raw data were among the first to jump to conclusions.

“They just made some wrong guesses about what the data meant,” he said. The final Medicare database gives companies a chance to comment — to give details that could suggest a productive partnership rather than a conflict of interest.

With MacArthur Foundation funding, the conference connected data analysts with nonprofit workers to sort out public-access problems.

Some issues will be familiar to investigative reporters, such as “dirty data.” Nonprofits have limited resources to scrub their spreadsheets for inconsistencies or coding mistakes.

“Now I’m in wet-blanket mode,” Roberts said. “A lot of our data is not very clean to begin with.”

Online databases can reveal a number quickly, but not necessarily the definitions and methods behind it. “It can be immediately, incorrectly interpreted by anybody, right?”

Health care analysts are also wary of crossing the line on patient privacy. He notes that Illinois inadvertently named West Nile virus victims simply by reporting the gender and age of a county’s victims.

“If you take a look at the obituaries in a small county,” he said, “for any of those given days where the date of death was mentioned, you could pretty quickly figure out who was the 84-year-old male who had died from disease x.”

The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code calls on journalists to take responsibility for their work’s accuracy. That includes stats no less than anecdotes.

Pulitzer Prize-winner John Ullmann tells reporters to “interview their data,” to get familiar with the numbers and what’s behind them. Here are some questions to ask:

Is it accurate? Secondhand statistics should be handled with care. Often they’re stripped from their original context.

Lately I tried to verify a marketing manager’s figures on how many customers companies lose every year. He attributed them to “a recent case study conducted by Bain Consulting.” His numbers were the same ones cited in Fred Reichheld’s 1990s book “The Loyalty Effect.” The Bain & Co. director was merely speculating about the payback from controlling turnover. Somehow his hypothetical figures had morphed into hard numbers.

Is it timely? Even the latest data may not reflect fast-moving events. The Census Bureau updates its 10-year count, but warns users about changes in questions and sample size.

Is it relevant? Watch for “survey bias,” signs that the methods might be dictating the outcome. Customer responses or social media polls may not say much about the general population.

The BBC reports that 16 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds “may be suffering from internet addiction disorder.” But it didn’t question whether the signs of net addiction, such as being “irritable when interrupted,” were addictive or even web-related behaviors.

Not till the last sentence was it noted that online addiction isn’t a recognized psychiatric disorder. But one caution flag fluttered high in the story: The survey was attributed to a marketing agency.

Is it complete? Directory listings often reflect who’s paying for them, or who’s placed source material online.

“The datasets we do get, we know that they’re not accurate,” Samia Makik of the Chatham Business Association told the Chicago conference. Her program and others put businesses online to keep shoppers in the community.

“The reason they’re going elsewhere is that’s what they find when they’re searching,” she said. “‘Well, this person has a deal, I’m going to go out there.'”

Is it trustworthy? Novel conclusions attract all kinds of editors, including those at medical journals. Peer review standards vary widely.

Seemingly conclusive findings can prove on further review to be random noise. That doesn’t stop scientists. They just figure the odds that they’re right, and try to improve them. That’s how they’re comfortable with their conclusions on, say, global warming.

Journalists can feel secure too, as long as they’re just as critical with stats as with sources.

An Ombudsman’s Dilemma

By Casey Bukro

See how the Toledo Blade’s ombudsman handles a reader’s complaint that the newspaper’s president and general manager also serves as chairman of the University of Toledo’s board of trustees.

The reader calls that a conflict of interest. The ombudsman says it’s not because the paper’s president operates on the business side of the newspaper, not the news side.

The reader correctly wondered how the newspaper can independently cover university activities when its president is head of the university’s board, especially when the university is in the process of selecting a new president.

AdviceLine periodically gets complaints about cases like this where top news officials serve on local civic organizations. The defense often is that the media official is performing a civic duty.

The Blade’s ombudsman cites the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics in his president’s defense, but does not mention that the code warns against conflicts of interest, “real or perceived.”

Notice that in the Toledo case the reader is not convinced that the president’s involvement with the university is innocent and free of potential duplicity. That’s probably a typical reaction.

Civic organizations usually invite media officials to serve on their boards in hopes of publicity. The public knows that.

Given the threat to media credibility, this long-time practice should be abandoned. It’s from another era, before the changes now transforming journalism.

Especially lately, AdviceLine is getting more complaints from reporters about publishers and editors dictating news coverage favoring advertisers, in the pursuit of revenue.

In the real world, the argument that publishers or other top media managers operate strictly on the business side and do not influence the news side is a bit misleading. The boss, after all, is the boss, and he or she knows it. That can lead to a few “suggestions” from the top.

But it’s always interesting to see how an ombudsman defends the actions of his boss. You can decide how convincing he was.

Three Ethics Takeaways From ONA Conference

Alberto Cairo
Alberto Cairo of the University of Miami says ethics have not kept pace with data visualization techniques. (Stephen Rynkiewicz photo)

By David Craig

The Online News Association annual conference, which I attended September 24-27 in Chicago, always provides great updates on trends and issues in digital journalism. But it’s also a great place to hear about ethical challenges, both new and continuing.

Ethical issues were the focus of three sessions, including a challenge session in which audience members had to react quickly to ethical scenarios on topics such as use of user-generated content. But ethics also came up in sessions that were primarily about other topics.

Here are three ethics takeaways from the conference:

1. Content that disappears will create new ethical challenges. Amy Webb, founder of Webbmedia Group, delivered her annual talk on “10 Tech Trends for Journalists.” One of them was “ephemeral content,” an increasingly popular kind of social media communication.

Webb said Snapchat, an app developed to share photos that’s popular with young people, provided a way to send private content that users might not want to stay around, but “it’s also a way to clear up our cluttered social streams.” She said other companies are providing messaging services with content that disappears, appears anonymously or is even encrypted. She predicted that most messaging apps will have some kind of means of making content ephemeral in the next 24 months.

Ephemeral content is relevant to journalism because some news organizations including The Washington Post are experimenting with it. But Webb pointed to an ethical difficulty: “Ephemeral content can be used for publishing news. But it can’t be corrected, because no record is left.”

This kind of communication raises questions of accountability for the accuracy of content because once it’s gone, there’s no way to amend a false message or even verify what the message said.

“Talk internally about the implications,” Webb suggested to news organizations.

Even for journalists who don’t use this kind of content, the discussion points to ongoing questions about what it means to ethically handle incorrect content in social media messages.

2. Algorithms shape the truth that people learn about the world and point to new ethical obligations for journalists. Kelly McBride, vice president for academic programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and Nick Diakopoulos, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and an expert in computational journalism, presented a session titled “Algorithms are the New Gatekeepers.”

McBride said algorithms, because they shape how news is distributed and to whom, have a powerful influence on what gets attention in the marketplace of ideas. As one of the presentation slides showed, they also affect a huge number of other areas of life including search rankings, online recommendations, advertising and relationships.

Diakopoulos talked about the power of algorithms in influencing the information we receive because of their ability to prioritize, classify, associate and filter it. He argued that the power they carry suggests new responsibilities – and opportunities – for journalists in reporting because they can help hold algorithms accountable. Stories might address issues including discrimination, mistakes that deny service, censorship, illegal activity or false predictions.

This kind of reporting isn’t easy. He pointed to several possible approaches to “auditing” algorithms – reviews of computer code, surveys of users about their experience, analysis of input and output, having users report data and (with ethical problems he acknowledged) impersonating users with programs.

Despite the difficulties, the social and economic impact of algorithms make it important for journalists to try new ways of reporting.

3. The power and availability of data visualization tools call for increasing attention to the ethics of visualization messages. Alberto Cairo, a professor at the University of Miami who teaches on informational graphics and data visualization, gave a session called “The Journalist, the Artist and the Engineer: The Ethics of Data Visualization.”

Cairo argued that the core goal of journalism ethics is to improve the public’s understanding of issues “relevant for their conducting good lives” while minimizing any potential harm. He said tools to create interactive charts, maps and other informational graphics are becoming more popular and widely available but that ethics is not keeping pace. He said that helping the public understand what good, ethical visualizations look like can help to better society and avoid the impact of misleading messages.

Even though great data visualizations are beautiful as well as functional, Cairo said, they must hold to a high standard of truthfulness that doesn’t oversimplify or distort the information being represented. Using the example of a graphic from the National Cable Television Association, he talked about going from showing things that are true but may leave out important information to showing a picture that’s more complicated but also truer and more accurate.

Cairo urged the audience not to hide complexity from the public or point to patterns that really aren’t there. In doing so, he is rightly pointing to a standard of care in visualization that is as high as the standards used in good investigative writing.

New SPJ Code

 

By Casey Bukro

Some might argue that it takes a certain amount of hutzpah to adopt a set of principles intended to curb the worst  behavior of journalists, sometimes seen by the public as an unruly bunch of ruffians.

But that’s what the Society of Professional Journalists did at its annual convention in Nashville. Actually, it was an updated, boiled down, tweaked, massaged version of a code SPJ adopted in 1996.

The framers of the new version started the revision process by arguing that the 1996 version failed to take into account all the technological innovation that has transformed journalism. Others argued that the ethical foundations of journalism don’t change, regardless of technological changes.

A reading of the updated code suggests that the foundationalists won, since the new code does not mention technology.  It’s a smoother read in places, but most of the original principles are still there, with some added emphasis on transparency and accuracy.

The code does not “sing,” as some journalists had wished, hoping that journalists who pride themselves as wordsmiths might have produced a more inspiring document. It tends to plod from one “do” and “don’t” to another.

But it is the nature of journalists to quibble about how things are worded.

The Society of Professional Journalists introduced its first original code of ethics in 1973,  causing a wave of consternation and congratulation among journalists.  Some thought a code of conduct was contrary to First Amendment protection of Freedom of the Press.

The reaction to the 2014 version was more subdued.

Kevin Smith, outgoing SPJ ethics chair, said one of the goals of the revision was to address “the growing problems with transparency, including news outlets failing to disclose clear conflicts of interest.”

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute pointed out that, at the same joint convention, the Radio Television Digital News Association disclosed its own proposed code of ethics.

“The SPJ and RTDNA codes are similar,” said Tompkins, “both focusing on accuracy, accountability and independence.” He also pointed out that the SPJ code took aim at using anonymous sources in stories.

Public Relations practitioners also would benefit from taking note of the SPJ code because it addresses two key issues: Anonymous sources and a prohibition against paying for access to news.

“So if you’re ever talking to a journalist to give information,” writes Ellis Friedman, “think twice about requesting anonymity….”

Most people might think that adopting a code of ethics is not especially controversial, but they should think again. Such efforts always trigger powerful emotions for one reason or another. Journalists can be fractious.

Among those is Michael Koretzky, an SPJ regional director, who complained that the society was unethical in the manner in which the code was rewritten, charging that it was done in secrecy. SPJ leaders were not pleased with his remarks.

And he complained that the new code was adopted by an antiquated method through representatives attending a national convention.

“The code may have needed a tech update,” Koretzky wrote, but “SPJ leaders clung to a century-old system that featured less than 125 insiders making the decision for all its 7,500 members.” Voting should have been done electronically, he argued, giving all members of the society a chance to vote on the updated code.

Koretzky promises that’s not the last word on SPJ’s code of ethics.

“But from bad things, sometimes good things come,” he wrote. “Already, work is underway on an alternate SPJ code of ethics.”

 

 

 

 

 

Images of War

 

By Casey Bukro

James Foley was an American photojournalist who captured the gruesome images of savage warfare, until he became one of those images himself.

Foley, 40, dressed in prisoner orange with a shaved head, is seen kneeling next to a masked, black-clad man holding a knife. Kidnapped in Syria almost two years ago, Foley seems to grimace as the masked man clutches his shirt from behind.

A video posted on YouTube, then taken down, reportedly shows Foley decapitated, his bloody head detached from his body and resting on his back. Two U.S. officials said they believe the video is authentic.

Journalistically, one of the issues in reporting on Foley is whether the grim photo, which seems to show the journalist in the last moments of his life, should have been published.

The New York Post and the New York Daily News gave the photo front-page exposure, causing Washington Post reporter Abby Phillip to ask if the tabloids had gone “too far by printing gruesome images of James Foley’s execution.”

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages sensitivity in the use of photographs involving those caught up by tragedy or grief, and “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

For tabloids, that can be a challenge. The rule seems to be the more shocking, the better, and big images are best

This is not the first time the New York Post is seen as going “too far.” On Dec. 4, 2012, it published a cover photo of a man desperately trying to climb up on the platform of the New York City subway after a panhandler allegedly pushed him onto the tracks.

The man in the photo is moments from death as he looks at the train bearing down on him.

The photo appeared with the words, “this man is about to die,” and “doomed.” It caused outrage among those who thought it was heartless to publish such a photo. Some thought the photographer should have helped the doomed man, instead of taking his picture.

Shock value has always been a tool of the trade for tabloid journalism, and, to some extent its younger media relative, online journalism.

What does it mean these days to “go too far”? Is that idea passé?

There was a time when the personal lives of American presidents were off limits. Clearly, rules change.

What do you think?  Is shock value just a hangover from tabloid journalism and outmoded, or justified at a time when movies and television trade in sex and sensationalism? Are we just old-fashioned when we cringe from photos of men about to die?

Journalists from three organizations, including SPJ, are pondering writing or rewriting codes of ethics. What should they say about shock value in the news?

Plagiarism: A Renaissance for Attribution

he Young St. John the Baptist
Piero di Cosimo, “Young St. John the Baptist” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Renaissance artists might have struggled with the idea of plagiarism. Florentine salons respected tradition and uniformity, and apprentices in Piero di Cosimo’s studio learned by imitating the master. National Gallery of Art curator Gretchen Hirschauer told New York Times critic Carol Vogel that Piero’s work entered American collections partly by accident. It was attributed to other artists.

But the concept of plagiarism has evolved. When Vogel previewed Hirschauer’s retrospective of Piero’s work, a few readers were quick to question her report. It started with a list of Piero’s peculiarities, citing contemporary Giorgio Vasari, who’s still studied in paperback. But the wording was close to an even more common source, Wikipedia. The print passage is shortened online, and ombudsman Margaret Sullivan suggests Times editors might take further steps if a pattern emerges.

The word plagiarism first appears during the Reformation. The Random House Dictionary defines it as “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.” Universities have moved beyond the Renaissance academy, with rules against copying and paraphrasing. The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code simply says, “Never plagiarize.

Yet the practice continues. Evidence of plagiarism in Sen. John Walsh’s Army War College research puts him under pressure to withdraw from the November election. Repeated instances on the website BuzzFeed got a producer fired last month. And delegates to SPJ’s 2014 convention will consider adding another ethics directive: “Always attribute.

Why this plague of plagiarism? In the modern age, it’s just so much easier to copy. It doesn’t take years of apprenticeship, just a few cut-and-paste keystrokes. Technology raises the risk of not only becoming a plagiarist, but also being uncovered as one: Sources found on the web can be compared in a web search too.

Dropping source material into a draft is dangerous, even if the intention is to recast. A disciplined writer might use control-p for accuracy, with proper names or direct quotes. But even that’s risky. A good place to start is with primary sources — recordings, transcripts, statements — then to refer to them sparingly.

Attribution’s more of a gray area in news media, if only because they use wire services so widely. Associated Press subscribers agree to pool their reports, generally without attribution once the original report’s in print.

The blogosphere has clouded the standards further. Websites flirt with plagiarism when they relay the essence of an exclusive elsewhere, in a way that robs the source of any chance to profit from its beat. The Chicago Tribune frequently gives reminders to its online news editors (I was one) on how to cite other publications: Name and link to the source, don’t quote directly, keep the report to a sentence or two, and confirm it as soon as possible.

Competition encourages journalists not only to confirm a story but to move it forward. Once their own report is in place, it also makes them stingy about giving credit to the newsroom that put it out first. But standards are evolving here too. Web timestamps make it more apparent who scored the beat, and that may be making everyone more generous at giving due credit.

If rules on fairplay are shifting, the Renaissance atelier may be where to look for direction. When they knew enough to transform their material, apprentices became journeymen and started their own studios. When journalists bring craft and intelligence to their work, they too became artists.

Chicago content strategy consultant Stephen Rynkiewicz is business editor for Rivet News Radio. He blogs at escapednotice.blogspot.com.

Submit your question to the Ethics Adviceline for Journalists.

Anon Again

 

By Casey Bukro

Anonymous sources — used by media and by government officials — came up again in a New York Daily News piece by James Warren.

Warren used a press briefing by Josh Earnest, the new White House press secretary, to illustrate how Earnest and a reporter dueled, trading accusations of withholding sources. Back and forth they went, parry and thrust.

Warren also comments on the value of White House news briefings, and whether they actually produce news.

“It has been a fairly informative ritual at times evolved (perhaps partly as a result of the cameras) into an hour or so of premeditated evasions by the spokesman; a bit too much prosecutorial posturing by some of the reporters; and, ultimately, rhetorical stand-offs in which there’s little advancement in public understanding of important matters.

Actually, Warren noted, if a White House reporter’s annual salary depended on legitimate stories produced by the briefings, he’d “be eligible for unemployment compensation.”

But the bulk of Warren’s story deals with the give-and-take between Earnest and a reporter, who was asking for more on-the-record sources from the White House. That would depend, said Earnest, on a case-by-case evaluation and ground rules “that will serve your interests and the White House interest the best.”

Warren called the “spitball fight” hypocritical.

“The Washington media, like media at other levels of journalism, is often involved in a mutual self-protection racket with the people we cover,” he wrote. “It can be at the White House, City Hall in Chicago or a county board in Texas. The dynamic is roughly similar. Too many reporters are manipulated with scarcely a qualm.”

About.Com Media describes the dangers of using anonymous news sources and offers five questions to ask yourself before trusting anonymous sources.

The site points out that inexperienced reporters might believe that using anonymous sources “make news stories sound more important,” but the practice presents “many ethical and legal dangers.”

Taking a Devil’s Advocate approach, New York News & Politics explored whether the Watergate investigation leading to President Nixon’s resignation could have been possible without  W. Mark Felt, later identified as the “Deep Throat” confidential informant.

The story touches on the working habits of Seymour Hersh and Jayson Blair, with comments from Bob Woodward.

“Journalism exists to get us closer to all sorts of truth, and anonymous sources are essential to the endeavor,” concludes the author, Kurt Andersen. “Even now, they provide more social benefit than they (exact) in moral costs.”

 

 

Vanishing Facts, Finding Truth

 

By Casey Bukro

Looks like this new generation of online and social media writers don’t care much about fact-checking, favoring speed over accuracy.

Though that might be obvious from reading  the internet, a survey by the Dutch company ING seems to prove the point.

It found that only 20 percent of international journalists questioned bothered to check their facts before publishing.

Forty-five percent of them “publish as soon as possible and correct later,” according to the report.

This is further proof of online journalism’s faith in the self-correcting nature of the internet. Report it fast and report it first, they say. Corrections can come later.

This is a far cry from that old-school Chicago journalism motto: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. It was the ultimate in fact-checking, applied to anything and everything. The rule was to get it right the first time.

More in keeping with a different sort of saying: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Another ING survey finding: Sixty percent of the international journalists said they felt less constrained by journalism standards when reporting in social media. Though they expressed low regard for the accuracy of social media, 50 percent said much of their news tips and information come from social media.

They agree social media is an informational trash bin, but dipping into that bin is addictive.

Angela Wascheck in “10,000 words” described the ING survey.

The ING report comes on the heels of a Columbia Journalism Review story on the values of modern-day newsrooms, entitled “Who Cares If It’s True?”

“In the newsrooms of this moment, with growing agreement that audiences want information that is true, journalists are coming together around the same basic questions: When is information sufficiently baked to be served up as accurate? Who decides? Should there be rules, or just ideals? Is it enough merely to try to be right eventually?”

The author, Marc Fisher, traces the shoot-from-the-hip history of some digital newsrooms, their differences with old-school journalism, and the growing recognition of the value of accuracy and credibility — even in social media.

It began with the digital journalists’ belief that truth would emerge through open trial and error. Transparency was the answer. If you don’t know, just say so.

But that could be changing.

Fisher cites one high-flying digital operation that is “embracing the ultimate symbol of the overstuffed print newsrooms of the pre-digital past.” It is hiring copy editors.

In another, Fisher finds a plan “to marry print traditions of completeness, verification and authority with the digital imperatives for speed and connection with the audience’s interest.”

Battles between the two camps still exist, but Fisher quotes a source who says conflicts diminish “as digital people have moved into leadership roles, and as everyone learned that aggregation can only take you so far, and as people from both backgrounds learn that it’s better to be second than wrong.”

 

 

 

Anon

 

By Casey Bukro

 

Pssst! Hey buddy, over here. Got some really important news for you. Can’t tell you where I got it. But trust me.

That, in effect, is the con played often on the public by some of the nation’s leading newspapers, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. It’s called anonymity.

This con was neatly spelled out in a Reuters piece by Jack Shafer, who counted the number of times the Times offered corrections recently on stories based on anonymous sources, citing anonymous sources again to make the corrections.

That’s carrying the con a bit far.

Shafer traces the history of citing anonymous sources from a time when it was rare, to a time when it was rampant. It’s probably  fair to say that this journalistic disease is especially prevalent in Washington, involving government and political reporting.

Most reporters know that stories are only as good as the reliability of identified sources who are quoted.

“Anonymous sources reduce the pressure on official sources to take responsibility for their utterances,” writes Shafer. “And it promotes the gaming of news outlets, with anonymous sources gravitating to the most pliant reporters and editors.”

Weak or lazy scribes sometimes think they’re acting like “the big boys” by writing stories veiled in mystery, as though they know really important people who want to stay in the shadows. Sometimes these journalists know they are being used, but think that’s how the game is played. With more digging, they might find sources willing to be identified.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says “the public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” There are times when anonymity is warranted, such as protecting someone’s life or welfare.

Scholars believe the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage was the “watershed moment for anonymous reporting,” touching off a wave of imitators who lusted for the fame of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Getting cozy with news sources is another way to play the game, as Bob Garfield, host of NPR’s “On the Media” program pointed out in his scathing commentary on the White House Correspondents Dinner in a piece entitled “When the Watchdogs Wear Tuxedos, Politicians Rest Easy.”

All of this leads to a point made by Thomas Baekdal, who investigated the meaning of quality journalism. He found that although some of the leading newspaper managers say they are doing a great job, they are losing readers.

It’s just possible that readers are disenchanted with journalism that depends on anonymous sources and making nice with news sources, like the White House correspondents dinner.  It’s journalism with a wink and a nod.

Readers know what’s going on there, and they’re turned off. They know they’re entitled to a better journalism, and better journalists.

 

Handling Rumors on Social Media

By David Craig

How should journalists deal with rumors on social media?

Answering this question in practice isn’t as simple as it might seem. A good discussion of the topic broke out Friday during the latest #EdShift Twitter chat on PBS MediaShift.

The biweekly chats draw in both journalists and journalism professors to talk about topics important to the future of journalism education. This one focused on ethical issues on social media. Excellent comments, including resources for good ethical practice, emerged on several topics. But the most intense debate centered on rumors.

Steve Fox, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts, took this view:

Fox said the approach used by Andy Carvin, formerly of NPR and well-known for his engagement with Twitter sources during Arab Spring, can’t be generalized to other reporting. But Carvin, who joined in the discussion, said that if journalists are just passing along unverified rumors, that’s the wrong way to work. He posted links to several tweets he wrote after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, to show the approach he takes to verifying information:

With this approach, Carvin challenges assumptions and highlights the likelihood that early reports are wrong – whether they come from individuals or news media.

The research he’s been doing as a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University also provides a caution for journalists using law enforcement sources.

Where does all of this leave us on the question of how journalists should handle rumors on social media?

I share Fox’s caution on any communication by journalists about rumors. In ethical terms, minimizing harm – a mainstay of ethics including the Society of Professional Journalists code – calls for great care because of the potential of false information to do damage.

But in the social media sphere, where the public is immediately awash in good and bad information, journalists often best meet another duty – seeking truth – by aggressively questioning rumors openly in real time. (For another case study on this, see a 2011 blog post by Daniel Victor, now a social media editor at The New York Times, about two journalists on Twitter in the middle of a shooting scare in Philadelphia.)

In another tweet,  Carvin said that if a rumor spreads on social media, journalists’ duty is  “to acknowledge it, pick it apart, prove/debunk it.”

Well-said. That means being ethical on social media involves not just asking hard questions but asking them in the open.