Most people (hopefully!) understand the consequences of putting something online: once you upload a compromising photo or tweet something controversial, it’s available for everyone to see. But when news stories emerge and social networking is the only readily available source of data, how much should journalists publish from private Facebook or Twitter accounts? Are certain things off-limits, or is it truly anything goes? In a recent article, Poynter examines some general guidelines of reporters for publishing such content.
Poynter highlights the confusing nature of Facebook’s privacy settings as one of the main sources of journalistic dispute. Since there are numerous levels of privacy, from closed groups to more open fan pages, journalists disagree about which privacy levels are acceptable to draw from, the article said.
And, though Facebook posts between friends may be considered in the public domain, “informed consent” to publish the material might not necessarily be implied by the user, Poynter said.
“Journalists are stepping into gray territory with no widely agreed-upon standards,” Nisha Chittal of Poynter wrote.
Twitter, however, seems to be a decidedly public platform, the article said.
As Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa told Poynter, “If it is public, it is fair game. If it is private we would ask them to go on record.”
Journalists should, however, make every effort to reach out to sources in person that they cite via Facebook or Twitter, rather than just taking a one-sided quote, in order to fully investigate stories, the article said.
In the wake of the phone hacking scandal at News of the World and questions of journalistic ethics in the UK, the author of The phone hacking scandal: journalism on trial, Glenda Cooper, examines the issues that arise when journalists publish personal Facebook information of young individuals linked to high-profile crimes, according to an extract published by The Guardian.
Cooper offers several cases in which the public images of young people accused of crimes, such as Rebecca Leighton and Amanda Knox, were clearly negatively shaped in the media by journalists using data from their personal Facebook pages, publishing content related to partying and other youthful indiscretions, The Guardian said.
“Some media organisations are becoming increasingly aware that smash-and-grab raids on personal data on the internet raise difficult questions,” Cooper said in the extract. “Those media organisations who push open an ajar door could potentially find themselves on the wrong side of the law as a result.”
The American media has faced similar scrutiny about using social media to report on the Trayvon Martin killing, Poynter reported.
A Twitter photo of Martin, an African American boy who was shot to death by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, was recently published by several news outlets, in which Martin wears a gold “grill” and a white tank top, the article said. Some say the photo portrays Martin as connected to the stereotypical rapper culture, Poynter said.
As social media platforms are evolving, and sharing sites like Pinterest are increasing in popularity, it seems inevitable that more and more questions will be raised about which social media practices can be considered ethically acceptable for journalists. While Poynter noted that most journalistic decisions of whether to use Facebook and Twitter material are made on a “case-by-case” basis, perhaps the journalism world will come together in creating a universal set of guidelines which could steer journalists in their dealings with social media sources.