Friday, March 14, 2014

6 digital ethics issues: What's your take?

Digital journalism ethics is a fascinating and challenging topic, because there are no specific guidelines for many of the issues modern journalists face every day. This means a lot of experimentation coupled with thoughtful, deliberate choices -- and above all, tons of dialogue.

I don't know the answers. My opinions might change tomorrow. Every story seems to bring up different questions, and different people have different opinions.

I recently chatted with Ivan Lajara, one of Digital First Media's leaders in digital journalism. We talked about six important and common ethical issues related to digital journalism. Here are some interesting ideas he shared on the topics, as well as some other things to think about.

1. Retweeting the scanner:

Lajara: This one's easy. NO, NEVER. You can point to it, if you'd like. They're online. But a report of "multiple shootings" can always simply just be a faulty exhaust pipe freaking out a neighborhood. Use it like you use twitter. A good starting point to start reporting.

CounterpointMy newsroom regularly tweets live from the scanner. 

In fact, scanner reports are almost part of reporter Mitch Byers's brand, and certainly a contributing reason for his nearly 3,000 followers. 

Is this ethical? Is this good journalism? What do you think? 

Of course, we don't tweet everything -- but the scanner is public info, and anyone else can hear it, too. What if it were the police department's Twitter account? How is it different reposting scanner information, attributed as such, than retweeting a police twitter post?  

These aren't rhetorical questions. I am truly curious to hear opinions on this.

Whether it's ethical to retweet the scanner can vary by topic. If it's a silly Tweet, some believe it doesn't need to be confirmed with the police. Do you need to confirm every scanner report?

During life-or-death, breaking news situations, like the Colorado floods, Twitter and the scanner was our main source of information. If you hear on the scanner that a wall of water is coming down the canyon and you can't reach an official to confirm it, do you really wait until you can actually see the wall of water yourself before telling the public?

Well, we didn't.

And it turned out the wall of water thinned out before striking town. This garnered the paper a bit of criticism for unnecessarily alarming the public. I think it brings up an interesting debate: What would you do?

Other times, the police scanner can be an important part of a story.

When a rap group, Tyler, the Creator, visited the Fox, police reported on the scanner there was a "riot situation." We tweeted this. The police sent out forces in riot gear -- only to find there was not, in fact, a "riot situation" (although they did make several arrests).

It raised questions about whether the police would have called it a "riot situation" at, say, a String Cheese Incident concert. Could it have had anything to do with the type of music or demographic at the show? We did not get into this in the story (and it would not have necessarily been appropriate to do so), and I'm not even saying these questions are legitimate -- but it brings up interesting questions that contribute to having a fuller picture of the story.
Other topics I talked to Lajara about: 

2. Relying on community tweets for information.

YES. ALWAYS. But! And this especially applies to emergencies, start with the trusted sources you already have, and be suspicious of everyone new.

3. Republishing community photos. 
Yes. You can embed online. And as long as you follow Terms of Services you're OK (Storify is OK if you put photo tweets there, for instance).  For print (or to use online if you download the photo), you should ask for permission. 

BUT! You have to make sure the photos are legit. So, if you don't know the person with the photo:
 check twitter bio, # of tweets, how long on twitter. Do reverse image search on Google (and date it for at least last year's storm or flood. The pic might not be photoshopped, but it might be old).

4. Accuracy vs. spreading rumors of community tweets. 
"We're looking" is vague enough but it tells people you're aware of them. Don't spread. Debunk.

5. Quoting tweets.
This is OK. They're public. But it is important to put them in the right context.

6. Handling spambots.
ScribbleLive is incredibly good at handling spambots. They've got the magic sauce. But if your hashtag gets spammed, you've made it! Change it up, tell your peeps. You can later use both if the spam subsides. 
Continuing the dialogue

Steve Buttry
 has written extensively on the topic of the new ethics of modern journalism. On the topic of ethics in social networks, he advises: 
  • Don't function online anonymously. 
  • Assume everything you do is public. 
  • Don't believe anything at face value, without researching first. Use social media as a starting point, not end point, to reporting. 
  • Talk with your newsroom about how to handle personal opinions online, and consider having separate public and private profiles.

Buttry's most-read post in 2013 was about verifying the accuracy of information on Twitter. He provides a variety of useful tools to help you wade through the muck to find the truth. 

For more considerations:

Mandy Jenkins and the AP's Eric Carvin, brother of Andy, talked at SXSW on the ethics of social news. The hashtag is #UGCEthics. Learn more about it here

Hungry for more? Don't miss Ivan's journalism blog here. 

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