Category Archives: Crowdsourcing

Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

News helicopter
Police hitched a ride on a news helicopter in pursuit of a shooting suspect. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Casey Bukro

People sometimes think police and reporters are alike. Both chase criminals and other kinds of crooks to protect the public.

But they’re not the same, and a case involving a news helicopter in Boulder, Colorado, made that clear.

Boulder police were chasing a shooting suspect when they asked reporters aboard a helicopter shared by Denver TV stations for an airborne lift at the scene to search for the suspect.

A police officer boarded the copter. From his aerial vantage point, the officer was able to nab a suspect in cooperation with a SWAT team on the ground.

A police spokeswoman called the assist instrumental in the arrest, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, and noted that the news team got direct access to the police action.

Boulder police requested the ride from reporters after failing to get assistance from Denver Police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A win-win, or an ethics foul?
Continue reading Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

A Code of Ethics All Your Own

By Casey Bukro

Everyone is in favor of ethics, until you get into the details. That’s when the fights break out.

This is something the Online News Association is likely to learn as it makes its way through a project called the Build Your Own Ethics Code. Journalists are invited to crowdsource and document their ethical practices.

Code of Ethics
Can Stock Photo

I have some personal experience in this realm. Back in 1972, I was national professional development committee chairman for Sigma Delta Chi, later named the Society of Professional Journalists.

The public, then as now, tended to have a low opinion of journalists. A public opinion poll in 1972 showed only 19 percent of the public had confidence in the press. Garbage collectors ranked higher.

Hoping to counteract that, delegates at the 1972 convention in Dallas adopted a resolution asking the group to do something about that low image of American journalists. That resolution was sent to my committee.

We decided to write a code of ethics reflecting SDX values and standards, acting on a constitutional mandate to inform the public as part of journalism’s role in a democracy. We wanted to show that journalists do have standards, and can act in an ethical manner.

Continue reading A Code of Ethics All Your Own

3 Ethical Pressure Points for Journalists on Twitter

Twitter shades of gray

Shades of gray: Rumor, intent and context in reporting on social media

By David Craig

This post is a condensed version of an article I wrote on the website Mediamorals.org.

For many journalists and news organizations, Twitter has shifted in a few years from being an oddity and add-on to a key tool for gathering and reporting news.

The thinking about ethics and best practices in journalistic use of Twitter has sharpened and evolved since the platform’s early days. But the ethical challenges persist, and the boundaries of best practices are difficult to nail down. Here, I will look at three continuing ethical pressure points for journalists using Twitter.

Handling unverified information

The continuous flow and immediate spread of information on social networks make this part of journalists’ work, which has always been challenging, more difficult. The consequences of incorrect information – whether about individuals, companies or governments – can be devastating and global. And with journalists occupying only a small space in the larger network of information flow, the pressure to pass on and amplify information prematurely becomes much greater.

My interactions with journalists, tracking of Twitter discussion, and reading suggest that journalists’ understanding of best practices with unverified information sits on a continuum from not tweeting until verified to acknowledging on Twitter while simultaneously checking. (For contrasting perspectives, see this AdviceLine post.)

The notion of reporting information in the process of being verified is in line with what City University of New York journalism professor and blogger Jeff Jarvis calls “process journalism,” which emphasizes being transparent about what one does and does not know, rather than waiting for a final finished product – which he argues is never perfect itself. I think the key challenge with this approach – and the lingering question for journalists – is how to be transparent in the midst of the larger network flow while maintaining truthfulness and minimizing harm.

What is the proper balance among these principles? Transparency alone doesn’t guarantee truthful information. Focus on minimizing harm alone can keep reports out of the public eye, even though members of the public might be able to help corroborate or dismiss them in an open network. Paying attention to the importance of the truth that is being reported alongside the extent of the harm that may result – a common balance in journalism ethics – helps in sorting out whether to transparently acknowledge unverified information on Twitter.

Beyond this, it’s important to use all available resources to verify content. As BBC News social media editor Chris Hamilton has told me, that means making the most of both technical tools such as Google Earth and reverse-image searches to check content shared through tweets and other means. But it also means using critical thinking to look for evidence of falsity and ask questions of human sources.

Navigating boundaries between personal and professional identities

The dual and overlapping uses of social media for personal and professional purposes create ambiguity about the identity of journalists using Twitter and other social platforms. One can signal intentions to some extent with a Twitter profile listing professional affiliations alongside some personal information, but not everyone will see the profile or the larger context of the kinds of things being tweeted.

I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to agonize over whether journalists should offer routine tidbits about their personal lives in the same feeds they use for their journalism. As some journalists argue, doing that just shows they are human like their audiences. This may serve to increase rather than diminish their credibility. The bigger issue becomes how to handle opinion, especially opinion associated with what one is writing about.

Kelly Fincham, a professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, studied a number of major news organizations’ social media policies for a chapter in Ethics for Digital Journalists, a book I co-edited. She found that although there were “some small signs” that “opposition to transparency about viewpoints is weakening,” overall the guidelines still warn against stating opinions on social media.

In the guidelines she studied, Fincham found that there has been a substantial shift since early days, from the expectation of separate Twitter profiles for personal and professional activity to a consensus that journalists should have single accounts. But single accounts do leave open the possibility that different people coming from one’s personal or professional worlds will assume different things about the intent of the account holder.

There is no foolproof way to navigate the challenges that come from the ambiguity of professional versus personal on Twitter. In ethical terms it’s important to be transparent by signaling the scope of the social world represented by including both professional and personal elements in the profile, or only professional elements if the focus will really be limited to those.

Providing context and narrative structure

From my own use of Twitter, I have seen how difficult it is to include structure and context. The character length limit makes it challenging to provide context for the meaning and significance of individual words. Other challenges involve connecting multiple tweets in a coherent way, especially given that many people get thousands of tweets a day and move in and out of the platform. It’s almost guaranteed that some followers will miss some tweets. From an ethical standpoint, this means that the truth users take away from these messages is fragmented and often missing some of the intended pieces.

Journalists have had several years of Twitter use to gain experience looking for ways to provide context and a coherent narrative. Jonathan Hewett, in another chapter in Ethics for Digital Journalists, notes the simple approach of numbering each segment of a series of related comments, in ways such as “1/3,” “2/3,” etc. (if the number is known). Parallel wording can also help, as he noted in an example of multiple tweets introduced by “Survivor of boat sinking:” or, in subsequent tweets, simply “Survivor.” He said BBC journalist Dominic Casciani has been trying “signposting” of tweets – “alerting users at the start of the day to what he’ll be covering later, for example, or providing a reminder of key points to add context and/or to help those who have not been following the story.”

Twitter hashtags also can help to provide context by keeping related tweets connected with one another.

On a larger scale, Storify has enabled journalists and others to combine tweets and other social posts in a single document and, if desired, add explanatory sentences of introduction and connection. But the tweets can end up in different contexts than the originals did by being selected for inclusion when related tweets were not.

All of these approaches using Twitter and related tools provide means to meet the ethical goal of truth telling to the greatest extent possible within the format.

 

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.

 

 

 

Ethics Codes

 

By Casey Bukro

Codes of ethics sound like such noble things.

They can be inspirational and aspirational, statements of our highest moral and professional conduct.

Like any description of what is good, the devil is in the details.  And where journalists are involved, the effort can bring out the devil in them. Some seem to handle it better than others.

For instance, three journalism groups are considering revising or creating codes of ethics: The Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Online News Association.

The SPJ effort stands out because of the degree of conflict that erupted over charges by one of SPJ’s regional directors, Michael Koretzky, that the organization’s national ethics committee has conducted the code revision process largely in secrecy. Koretzky is a member of SPJ’s national board.

“It’s been difficult to get answers,” Koretzky said in an e-mail to SPJ leaders. Koretzky  launched his attack against the national ethics committee by e-mailing his “journoterrorist” blog illustrated with 11 panels that graphically compares SPJ’s code revision efforts with ONA’s.

Kevin Smith, SPJ’s national ethics committee chair,  denied “this conspiracy theory of secrecy in revising the code,” adding “we have nothing to hide.”

Koretzky replied that he never said anything about a conspiracy, but “the fact remains that no one has explained to the SPJ board (or anyone else) how the first draft of the code revision was compiled” and who was involved.

David Cuillier, SPJ’s president, added this to the chain of e-mails: “You’re absolutely right, Michael, that we have not communicated the process, or engaged members and non-members, as effectively as ONA.” No conspiracy or secrecy, he added, “but the ultimate outcome is a much more low-key effort on our part. All true.”

SPJ adopted its present code in 1996.

The American Journalism Review described the struggles over SPJ’s proposed code revision.

The Online News Association is working on a novel approach, which it calls “Build Your Own Ethics Code,” a crowdsourced ethics code.

ONA describes it as a toolkit “to help news outlets, bloggers and journalists decide on ethical guidelines that match their own ideas about reporting and journalism.”

The ethics guide would be a constantly updated online document. Reporters will be encouraged to publish the ethics codes they create, and to hold themselves and their news outlets accountable to them, said ONA. In other words, it would be largely voluntary.

RTDNA’s ethics code was last updated in 2000, “and I don’t need to tell you how greatly our technology and our newsrooms have changed in 14 years!” said Mike Cavender, RTDNA”s executive director.

One of the central questions in revising or creating codes of ethics is whether they should reflect changing technology, or state undying principles that apply regardless of technological changes.

RTDNA asked its members to complete a survey. “The goal is to insure that a new code fits our business as it stands today, without straying from the principles that define outstanding journalism.”

All three code-writing efforts are in the round one stage, with more rounds to follow. SPJ’s national ethics committee is expected to report its findings at the organization’s annual convention in September.

All three are worth watching to see if they end in a win, or in a knockout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pitfalls of Identifying Bystanders as Bombers

By Casey Bukro

Stupidity is not a crime, and ethical lapses usually will not land you in jail.

But they have consequences, as the New York Post learned when two men sued the tabloid newspaper for showing them in a front-page photo at the height of the search for Boston Marathon Bombing suspects, with a “Bag Men” headline.

CNN reported that the men, 16 and 24-years old, accused the Post of libel, negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy for showing them standing next to each other in the April 18 edition. Also displayed in large letters on the photo were the words: “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The photo appeared three days after the Boston bombing, making it appear that the FBI were searching for them. One of them wore a backpack.

Post editor Col Allan said the Post did not identify the men as “suspects.”

Huffington Post reported outrage at the use of the photo, with some calling it “a new low” and “appalling.”

Later that day, authorities released photos of Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

NBCNEWS.com reported that the two innocent men were stunned to see themselves pictured on the front page of the tabloid and one of them suffered a panic attack.

Minimize harm, advises the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. And be judicious, it says, about naming criminal suspects before they are charged. Though the two men were not  named by the Post, it’s an apt comparison when showing their faces.

The New York Post photo is considered an example in a series of errors and false reports that were rampant during the frenzy of trying to learn motives for the bombing, and who did it.

Crowd sourcing, it turned out, was not as valuable as its supporters might have supposed. Authorities essentially told the public they were not interested in the flood of iPhone photos that were offered of people and things considered suspicious. Instead, authorities zeroed in on the Tsarnaev brothers by using highly sophisticated identification technology.

There’s one more questionable thing about that New York Post photo, and that’s the use of the words “Bag Men.” You don’t have to be from Chicago or New York to know “bag man” is slang for a person who collects money for racketeers, or a mob errand boy.

It was bad enough that two innocent men were linked falsely with the Boston bombing. It got worse when they were tainted with language that implied criminal activity. Words hurt. They also can get you sued.