Mediamorals.org is pleased to welcome contributor David A. Craig, professor of journalism and associate dean at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Craig’s essay on Twitter and journalism continues our series of articles on media issues by leading journalists and scholars. In this piece, Prof. Craig draws on his background in print journalism and his current work in media ethics to explore some persistent tensions between traditional ‘best practices’ and the evolving realities of journalism and social media.
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.
Created in 2006, Twitter by 2009 had already gotten enough widespread attention as a journalism tool that American Journalism Review published an article titled “The Twitter Explosion”. Now it is used much more widely and harnessed for a variety of purposes.
Twitter itself has summed up the range of uses in the “Twitter news compass,” outlined earlier this year by Vivian Schiller, who was until recently a Twitter executive dealing with news initiatives. In this framework, Twitter is used for detecting, reporting and distributing content, and engaging audiences in discussion. This is more than corporate speak; each of these elements shows up in a wide variety of journalism today.
The thinking about ethics and best practices in journalistic use of Twitter has sharpened and evolved since the platform’s early days. Some news organizations have developed thoughtful guidelines for journalists’ use of social media including Twitter. (Three examples: National Public Radio, Reuters, and the Canadian Association of Journalists. Journalism academics have discussed social media ethics at conferences (such as this one last year at the University of Florida) and in published work (such as Ethics for Digital Journalists, a book I co-edited, which has several chapters on Twitter-related topics).
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, navigating the boundaries between personal and professional identities, and providing context and narrative structure in 140-character bits. Along with describing the state of professional practices and the challenges, I will offer some thoughts on navigating them.
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.
A June 2014 Twitter chat on PBS EdShift, involving journalism educators and journalists, brought these differences of opinion to the forefront. The contrasting perspectives appeared in an exchange between Steve Fox, a veteran journalist and a University of Massachusetts journalism professor, and Andy Carvin, whose work covering Arab Spring via Twitter gained widespread attention when he was at NPR. Fox tweeted that “the idea of passing along rumors being Ok if they’re identified is a bad slippery ethical slope we’ve accepted.” Carvin responded by linking to several tweets he posted when he was covering the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, to show that he was doing more than passing things on:
Contradictory reports over whether there's 1 or 2 shooters in #Newtown. Please not that this type of confusion is _very_ common at shootings
— Andy Carvin (@acarvin) December 14, 2012
— Andy Carvin (@acarvin) December 14, 2012
There's a legit possibility that the name circulated for the last 2 hours is actually the guy's brother. So please don't shout "confirmed!"
— Andy Carvin (@acarvin) December 14, 2012
I think Carvin’s approach is valuable because he is acting transparently, but also aggressively questioning the truth of information, openly in real-time.
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. (Jarvis clearly recognizes the potential for harm, as he acknowledged in a conversation with me a few years ago.)
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. Alfred Hermida, a professor at the University of British Columbia and social media scholar, suggests four approaches to verification – focused on the message, user, topic, and propagation or spread of the information. (Slides and audio of a presentation on this are available here; Ethics for Digital Journalists includes a detailed chapter.)
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. She found that although there were “some small signs that institutional opposition to transparency about viewpoints is weakening,” overall the guidelines still warn against stating opinions on social media. The Associated Press, for example, said, “AP staffers must be aware that opinions they express may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news.” The AP’s advice extends to retweeting, on the notion that passing on statements without additional context introducing them can imply support. Some journalists try to ward off implications of bias by putting statements on their profiles such as “RTs are not endorsements.”
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 consensusthat 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.
Of course it’s important for journalists working for organizations to read any social media guidelines to see what constraints they are working under. For others who may be working for organizations without policies, or working independently doing websites or blogs, it’s important to think carefully about expectations and, where possible, discuss them with others. The Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project may be helpful in developing guidelines. It includes advice to help in creating guidelines on social media and other topics, whether the site is aiming for impartiality or writing from a point of view. Which approach to journalism is being used should affect the extent to which journalists voice opinions related to subjects they cover.
For all journalists, it is also important to include the perspectives of the public and known individuals in the social network in development of ethical guidelines and practices. They have a significant stake in the outcome.
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 signaling a series, 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. Live blogging platforms to which tweets can be embedded are another means of providing context, though again original, immediate context can be lost.
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.
Every social media platform will create its own set of challenges and opportunities because of the constraints and freedom provided by the structure it creates. But creative thinking, informed both by ethical principles and the ideas of a wide range of Twitter users – journalists and others – will help foster more ethical practice and therefore better public communication on Twitter.