Social media newsgathering: An ethical conundrum

Human interaction is evolving fast and journalists are left facing a whole new set of ethical questions as the boundaries of private and public communication blur.

So it’s official: Twitter is public. One careless tweet could legitimately end up on the front page. But should we expect people to take responsibility for what they say on social networking sites or should personal conversations be just that – personal?

The Press Complaints Commission made the landmark ruling after Department for Transport employee, Sarah Baskerville, complained that the Daily Mail and Independent on Sunday had breached privacy guidelines. The newspapers had reported tweets by Baskerville in which she critised government policy and admitted to being hungover at work. Baskerville, who had around 700 Twitter followers, argued that she should have a “reasonable expectation” of privacy but the newspapers said the messages could be read by anyone and were in the public domain.

In this age of Google, Twitter, Facebook and Wikileaks, information is everywhere. One in ten people across the world now update their status on a social networking site every single day. Consumers are becoming more active and social. The way people interact is evolving. And journalists are people too – the way we gather information, the way we publish and the way we think – it’s all changing fast. This raises the question: Are journalism ethics stuck back in the pre-social-media dark ages?

The distinction between private and public spaces can be unclear at the best of times and journalists are often required to use their personal judgement. Should I quote my source even though we were speaking off the record? Should I agree to anonymity for my source? Can I use a photograph of someone having a picnic in the park? What about tapping my unsuspecting source’s phone…?

“[A journalist] does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest,” says the NUJ. But ‘private’ is difficult to define in the traditional sense, and even more so in the case of social media.

No one seems to know what to do about this new phenomenon. Ofcom, the BBC and the PCC all agree that expectations of privacy may vary depending on the location, what is being said and how. This means that on some occasions public places can be considered private. The PCC says: “Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.” The code demands a degree of subjectivity. Can you reasonably expect privacy on a social networking site?

The BBC, on the other hand, says that people who are in public or semi-public places shouldn’t expect the same degree of privacy as “in their own homes or other sensitive locations”. They define a semi-public place as private property where the public have general access. Perhaps this is the closest we will get to defining social networking sites. “There may be circumstances where people can reasonably expect privacy even in a public or semi-public space, particularly when the activity or information being revealed is inherently private,” says the BBC. This may include personal conversations – but can a conversation be considered personal when you have 700 followers? The PCC didn’t think so.

Of the three, only the BBC actually mentions social media: “Although material [on social media and other websites] may be considered to have been placed in the public domain, re-use by the BBC will usually bring it to a much wider audience. We should consider the impact of our re-use, particularly when in connection with tragic or distressing events. There are also copyright considerations.”

Last year, Reuters issued a handbook for reporting from the internet. They make their stance on social media quite clear: “Discovering information publicly available on the web is fair game. Defeating passwords or other security methods is going too far.”

Social media sites may be public places but what is said is often very personal. Not everyone thinks like a journalist so we can’t expect the general public to be aware of laws or regulations. Don’t we, as journalists, have a duty to protect the vulnerable?

As the BBC pointed out, the re-use of information taken from social media will usually bring it to a much larger audience. If you are not expecting your words to be broadcast to the world, doing so would surely constitute an intrusion into your private life.

But social networking is designed to be shared. Others can view what you post. Tweets are free to be retweeted. Isn’t that why we do it?

Users have the option to make their social media accounts private, and private messaging is possible. When someone chooses not to use these options then surely they are aware that what they say is in the public domain. In that case, can’t we expect people to take responsibility for their actions?

Journalist and lecturer at the University of Glamorgan and City University London, Joni Alexander, thinks it’s not quite as straightforward as asking ‘public or private’. Social media is not just one tool but many, with different levels of privacy – and expectation of privacy – on each. She describes the difficulty in trying to discern if a person online is a child. “Quite a lot of social media don’t ask age, if they do it’s, ‘are you over 13’. And even then people can lie. Dealing with this comes down to the basic skills of journalism. Verify your source. Call people. Don’t publish it unless you’re convinced it’s true.” In other words, ‘virtual’ is just the same as ‘real-life’ and existing journalistic ethics apply.

The importance of social media is inescapable. Blogging culture emerged during the Gulf War when antiwar protestors used social media to form alliances, share ideas and organise actions, and 9/11 saw a huge increase in citizen journalism. Bloggers used text, video, audio and images to give first-hand accounts. Mainstream media incorporated this into their work, giving new depth of insight to the news. The recent uprisings in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt have been called ‘Twitter revolutions’ and, in Tokyo, 1200 tweets were sent every minute in the hour after the earthquake hit.

In recent years there has been a worrying concentration of the ownership of mainstream commercial media by conglomerates, bloated with money and influence – but the internet is not controlled by any one person or company. It showcases the full range of opinion.

Paul Bradshaw, journalist and lecturer at City University London and Birmingham City University, is described by UK Press Gazette as one of the country’s “most influential journalism bloggers”. He publishes the Online Journalism Blog and is the founder of investigative journalism crowdsourcing site, Help Me Investigate. In a Twitter interview he described how he uses social media for around 75 per cent of the articles that he writes. He believes it offers new ways to solve some of the age old problems in journalism – “too few voices, too narrow focus”.

So the question of privacy is murky when it comes to social media. We live more visible lives now than ever before. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo and – whatever they dream up next – will continue to evolve and grow for the foreseeable future. The internet is the largest platform for free speech with the largest audience. Everyone has a voice, everyone can be heard. We are right to protect this gift and keep social media in the public domain. People make choices to broadcast their news but they may be choices they don’t fully understand. So a journalist should remember their ethics at all times: never assume, question everything. To ask ‘public or private’ may be more complicated than it seems, but an ethical journalist is always an ethical journalist. Whatever the medium.

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