Tag Archives: verification

Publish unverified documents? Consider these ethical questions

By David Craig

BuzzFeed’s decision last week to publish a 35-page dossier containing allegations about President-elect Donald Trump’s relationships with Russia has prompted a great deal of discussion among journalists and journalism organizations about the ethics of the decision.

A number of those weighing in – such Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan and Poynter Institute for Media Studies ethicist Kelly McBride – have argued that BuzzFeed was out of line for publishing unverified information. But some – including Watergate reporter and now CNN analyst Carl Bernstein and Columbia Journalism Review managing editor Vanessa M. Gezari – supported the decision.

donald_trump_august_19_2015
BuzzFeed has defended its publication of a dossier including unverified allegations against Donald Trump. Photo by Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I think the fact that thoughtful people have landed on different sides is evidence of the fact that there are multiple ethical considerations involved, some of them potentially conflicting. Although verification is at the core of ethical journalism, exceptional situations like this one may arise where the decision on publishing is not so easy, particularly if the documents have surfaced in some official setting.

I have been thinking beyond this situation to similar ones that may arise in the future and the ethical questions involved.

Below is a list of questions I’m suggesting to help in thinking through the ethical issues in these situations. I have grouped the questions under the headings of the principles of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code, as well as other considerations – public relevance and journalistic purpose – that relate to the mission of journalism.

In writing these questions, I’m inspired by some lists that Poynter has done to help journalists in other areas of ethical decision-making such as going off the record and, recently, using Facebook Live. Two co-authors and I also raised some of these issues in a question list in an academic study on data journalism.

I welcome any comments from readers on how these questions might be used or revised.

Questions to consider in deciding on whether and how to publish unverified documents involving public officials:

Public relevance and journalistic purpose

Have the documents been discussed or used in any official settings (e.g. intelligence briefings, committee hearings)? Have they otherwise been discussed on the record by any public officials?

Is there a compelling reason for the public to know about the information in the documents?

Seeking truth and reporting it

Have you or others tried to verify the information? Where verification has been possible for specific pieces of information, has the information proved to be true?

Are the sources of the documents reliable? Why or why not?

Acting independently

Is your decision to publish based on your own independent judgment of the ethics of publishing or on competitive pressures or other considerations?

Minimizing harm

If the documents contain sensitive allegations, what potential harms could result if you release the documents in their entirety or publish those details and they prove to be false or impossible to verify?

If potential harm is a valid concern if you release the documents in their entirety or report details such as these, how could you minimize harm (e.g. redacting some details, summarizing)?

Being accountable and transparent

Are you explaining the process you used in your decision-making including any conflicting ethical considerations and the ethical reasons for making the decision you did?

Are you explaining any efforts you made to verify the content of the documents and the outcome of those efforts?

By thinking through these questions, journalists can uphold the importance of verification while also considering when and how to report on unverified documents there may be a compelling reason for the public to see.

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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.