Social networks

This section addresses these ethical questions:

Social networks raise a variety of issues ( for news organizations. Note that this section focuses strictly on the use of social networks for engagement and distribution of information and content. See the separate section on “User-generated content” for issues related to social newsgathering.

Advocacy and expressions of opinion by journalists

Social networking profiles can give journalists an opportunity to show what they’re like as people — people with opinions, feelings and individual experiences. At the same time, a journalist who tweets or posts is a representative of his or her news organization. What does this mean for expressions of opinion?

Impartial news organizations

If you’re at a traditional news organization that focuses on reporting the news in an unbiased way, your journalists should, at a minimum, avoid expressing opinions on contentious issues. Opinionated tweets and posts can easily become associated with your news organization as a whole and can damage its reputation as an impartial outlet. That, in turn, can harm relationships with customers and sources.

Some details you’ll need to decide on: Does this practice also apply to your non-news staff? They could also be associated with your organization if they do something controversial. Can a journalist express opinions on a topic she doesn’t cover? It’s usually best to avoid the most controversial topics no matter what, though there might otherwise be some wiggle room. But think about whether a journalist may, some day, cover different topics, or if one staffer’s opinions might affect another staffer’s ability to report the news.

What about opinions on sports and entertainment? Opinions in these areas might be acceptable for journalists who don’t cover them, though gushing praise or angry vitriol may still be an issue. And think about whether you need exceptions for certain journalists, such as columnists or bloggers who express opinions as part of their jobs.

Point-of-view news organizations

What if your news organization openly professes certain points of view? In that case, opinion by your journalists may not be a problem — in fact, it may fit in with the character of your operation. You may need to consider this on an issue-by-issue basis, depending on the focus of your news organization.

Even if your organization encourages staff members to share opinions, consider whether you want to place any limitations, such as barring personal attacks or foul language, or discouraging running arguments on social media.

What about retweeting, reblogging and reposting?

In situations where a journalist is asked to refrain from expressing opinions, can she retweet, reblog, reshare or otherwise repost the opinions of others? The best practice is to append some material on such posts to put them into context, so the re-posts aren’t seen as an endorsement of the original opinion.

Some news organizations find it acceptable to do a straight retweet or resharing of something opinionated, as long as one’s social profile notes that retweets and other similar posts don’t constitute endorsements; others note that these profile details are rarely read by others, and that such a disclaimer becomes meaningless when a journalist repeatedly re-shares the same sorts of opinions.

Angry exchanges

In general, journalists should avoid getting into angry exchanges with fellow journalists, sources, members of the public or readers/viewers on any topic. We have a responsibility to treat people with respect. There may be some exceptions, though — journalists who are paid to be opinionated might benefit their news organizations by mixing it up a bit, though they should be careful not to cross over into abuse. And journalists at point-of-view news organizations can certainly engage in civil debate on topics of interest, which can encourage discussion and serve to inform viewers and readers.

Identifying yourself

In general, journalists should clearly identify themselves by their name and organization in the biographical material of any social network they use. You’ll want to give some thought to whether there should be any exceptions to this — in particular, whether a journalist might be allowed to create an account to go undercover in pursuit of an investigative story. This can be a dangerous practice, given the importance we journalists place in getting accurate identities from our sources. So if this happens at all, it should be done rarely, in consultation with the organization’s top news executives and only in pursuit of high-impact news that can’t be reported another way.

Using social networks to share news developments

How certain do you do need to be about a news development to share it on a social network, whether from an institutional account or one belonging to an individual journalist? An ethical approach to social journalism demands some standards, though the exact approach can reasonably vary. Here are some considerations for various types of shareable information:

Rumors/hearsay: Many journalists believe they should report news only from legitimate sources, avoiding rumors — whether they’re found on a social network, overheard in a public place or discovered in some other way. An exception might be made if the existence of such rumors is itself a newsworthy phenomenon (for example, if unfounded rumors prompt an elected official to hold a news conference to set the record straight). An exception could also be justified for journalists who specialize in using social networks to verify rumors through crowdsourcing. In that case, material that is only rumor should be clearly identified as such. This is explored further by the Ethics Advice Line for Journalists.

Reports by others: You’ll need to make a decision about whether (and under what circumstances) your news organization or journalists might tweet or post information reported by another news organization or journalist. Some news operations already have standards for when they might pick up information from another news organization; if so, this might also inform your policy on what you might retweet or otherwise reshare. Maybe you’d only do this if you’re familiar with the originating reporter. Or maybe only if the source is identified and is credible. Maybe you wouldn’t do it at all, or only if your news organization already picked up the information for a story. Have a plan before news breaks.

Information tweeted/posted by a primary source: What if, for example, a prominent public figure, government agency or business directly shares information over a social network? In most cases, this would be reasonable to reshare, with some caveats:

You need to be certain you know that the account is authentic. Some news organizations use the presence or absence of a “verified” badge as a guide, but others do their own verification, noting that such badges have been wrongly handed out before. The best approach is to ask an official representative whether the account is real (and to do so before (“before” in italics) big news breaks).

When you verify an account, find out what you can about how the account is run; you’ll be able to make better decisions if you know whether a celebrity or a staff member, for example, is doing the tweeting.
Keep an eye out for red flags indicating someone’s account may have been compromised, like uncharacteristic posts, surprising grammatical errors or sharply worded political opinions.

Observations and color from the scene: This is generally fair game, though see the separate note on safety below.

Independently verified information: This is fine to share on social networks from an ethical perspective — though you’ll need to factor in your news organization’s business considerations when deciding whether to break news on social or wait until it’s distributed to customers some other way. Consider whether the limitations of a social network allow you to report information in context. Use multiple tweets if needed to provide context or answer questions that arise.

Safety and security: Regardless of what sort of news organization you represent, you need to consider any safety issues that might arise from your decisions about what to tweet or post. Sources, members of the public, story subjects and fellow journalists could be put in danger by a careless tweet or post, such as one that identifies someone’s location in a war zone or that identifies a source who put his life at risk by sharing information with you. If someone in the public is posting to social media from the scene of a crime or disaster, encourage them to be careful of their safety. When in doubt, skip the tweet or posts.

Friending and following

Is it OK for a journalist to friend or otherwise follow a source? Generally yes; it’s a reasonable way to keep up with what they’re posting, which is central to your job. However, if you work for an impartial news organization, make sure you follow and at least attempt to friend people on both sides of any contentious issue to avoid perceptions of bias. And think carefully before friending or following a source who’s giving you information anonymously. This action might reveal a source’s identity. Ask the source if it’s OK, and when in doubt, steer clear.

Within your news organization, consider whether it’s wise for employees to issue friend requests to one another. Some news organizations may decide that people shouldn’t friend colleagues working below them because of the pressure the more junior employee would feel to say yes. There isn’t usually an issue in the other direction. At other news organizations, being connected on a social network like Facebook or LinkedIn may be central to the operation, so open friending might be encouraged. Following on a channel like Twitter is generally fine within the newsroom, as a follow is a one-way action that doesn’t require approval.

Are any posts “private”?

Many journalists consider that anything posted on a social network is public. But even the contents of password-protected sites and streams might be revealed by someone with access. As a result, some reporters believe people posting on social should have no expectation of privacy, whatever security settings they set up or however few followers or friends they have.

Other reporters have a more conservative approach. If they wish to quote a post made to a very small number of people, they may feel an obligation to contact the poster and at least let him or her know that they plan to quote the post. They also feel a need to make sure that any post they quote reflects the general tone of the person’s other postings.

In any case, most journalists agree that when quoting social network postings, we should be clear that the quote comes from a social network, and which one.

Errors and corrections

Regardless of the nature of a news organization, journalists should do everything they can to avoid errors in their tweets and posts — a mistake made there shouldn’t be seen as somehow less serious than one published in another way.

That said, mistakes will be made, and they need to be corrected. The best practice is to put out a new post with the correct information, noting that the other post was corrected and exactly what was wrong. Some social networks, like Facebook, give you the option of revising a post after publication and offer readers an easy way to see the edit history. You’ll need to decide how and whether to use this sort of feature. Some organizations leave the original post up, for transparency’s sake, if it can’t be edited, unless it’s determined to be defamatory or otherwise legally problematic. Other organizations favor deleting inaccurate posts that can’t be edited, rather than leaving them online to be read or shared without the correcting post. You also might want to consider whether your responsibility to correct an error includes direct communication to people who have retweeted, liked or shared your erroneous post. One good approach is to edit any post that needs a correction, and to put up an additional post or comment explaining what was changed and why.

The main author of this section is Eric Carvin of The Associated Press.

See also the sections on “Accuracy,” “Corrections” and “Removing material from your archives.”

Additional resources
“How to verify information from tweets: Check it out,” The Buttry Diary, Jan. 21, 2013