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.