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By Jerry Lanson
Jerry Lanson points out that getting a story first isn’t as important as getting it right. It is just as easy to disseminate rumor as fact when relying on near-universal, unedited means of spreading opinion, fact, and opinion-as-fact to the general public.
Don't retweet this yet.
Don't post it on your news site. Not until you check to see if I am who I claim to be.
That I'm a professor and not a charlatan. That my links are real. That I didn't make up this blog—wholesale—or attribute it to unnamed sources who thought they overheard something.
Twitter has been praised for helping to break major stories, from Arab Spring and the Trayvon Martin shooting, to atrocities in Syria. It is a powerful tool.
But along the way, the world of Twitter has led journalism through its own atrocities, or at least train wrecks. And Twitter's use by reputable news sites, professional reporters and opinion writers at times remains about as sophisticated as law enforcement during the days of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
For example, the ethics code of The Los Angeles Times sets this standard for its staff: "Our job is to tell readers what is true, not what might be." Yet increasingly journalists are trafficking in the fast lane of rumor, throwing out "what might be" and then scrambling to see whether what they’ve published is true or false.
In April, for example, The New York Times noted that reporters from "old and venerable media" (CBS News and The Washington Post) had joined those from The Huffington Post and others in rushing to repost a false rumor that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was about to be indicted on charges of tax fraud. Noted the Times, the case involved:
...a liberal-leaning 25-year-old blogger eager to make a name for his new Web site, and a buzz-seeking political press corps that looks to the real-time, unedited world of Twitter as the first place to break news.
In retrospect, there were clear reasons to doubt the March 29 report, from a blog called the Palmetto Public Record ... The blog's editor, Logan Smith, never asked the governor's office for comment before he posted his report. Later, in an e-mail, Mr. Smith said he could not be sure whether his sources were correct.
A Times timeline notes that two minutes after Smith posted under the headline "Haley indictment imminent"—this based on two unidentified "well-placed legal experts"—a blogger for the Washington newspaper The Hill had already tweeted it. Nine minutes later, The Daily Beast had reposted it; 20 minutes later, the Washington Post—and the deluge of calls to Haley's office was underway.
Were this some horrible aberration of journalistic practice it would be embarrassing enough to professional journalism, whose very future as a paid profession rests to a significant extent on what of value it can provide readers and viewers beyond the gossip mill of YouTube, Twitter, the blogosphere and "citizen journalism."
But this is anything but a horrible aberration or a unique screw-up.
Writes the Times, "This episode is not the first time that a questionable Twitter report has roiled the 2012 elections.”
And national politics has no corner on the market. I teach journalism ethics, and questionable or tasteless uses of Twitter became a recurring course theme this spring.
On January 20, for example, the Poynter Institute told the story of a senior editor for California Watch who tweeted the overheard conversation of a woman he was "99 percent sure" was a Santa Ana City councilwoman. He neither bothered to confirm her identity nor ask for comment.
In early February, CNN suspended contributor Roland Martin after he sent homophobic tweets during the Super Bowl, Poynter reported.
A week later, Jim Romenesko reported on his blog that Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock posted a crass stereotype about Asian-Americans after basketball sensation Jeremy Lin, the remarkable Chinese-American point guard who burst onto the scene this season, led the New York Knicks to victory.
In a letter to Whitlock, the Asian-American Journalists Association wrote: "The attempt at humor...exposed how some media companies fail to adequately monitor the antics of their high-profile representatives."
The list goes on. Which raises the question: Why?
When it comes to issues such as plagiarism or conflict of interest, most high-profile journalism organizations have clear, blanket policies—don’t, don't. Don't steal other people's work, don't serve on your school board when you're covering education, don't endorse presidential candidates, don’t advise the college newspaper if you’re covering higher education.
But the rules for Twitter are murkier, if articulated at all. For example, the New York Times' lengthy ethics code, posted online with 139 separate points, has an entire section on blogs, but nothing on Twitter. Then again, the policy is dated October 2005.
NPR's new Ethics Handbook, unveiled in February, includes a special social media section. It warns reporters to "Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. ... Verify information before passing it on."
That seems like good advice. But then NPR seems to suggest it won't always happen:
One key is to be transparent about what we're doing. We tell readers what has and hasn't been confirmed. We challenge those putting information out on social media to provide evidence. We raise doubts and ask questions when we have concerns ... And we always ask an important question: am I about to spread a thinly-sourced rumor or am I passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats.
I, for one, like the emphasis on verification rather than on passing on rumor and saying it may or may not be true. But in an age in which polls suggest that millions of Americans still believe our president is a Muslim born in Kenya—and no, he's neither—even the most upstanding news sites can't always ignore what's whirling around on the Internet.
That does not mean, however, that journalists need to contribute to the confusion. It is one thing for a news organization to deconstruct a widely-spread rumor, to track down where and how it started, to dissect what aspects of it have been verified and what aspects are simply false. That is responsible journalism if, at times, a distraction from breaking news that really did happen.
It is quite another thing, however, for news organizations to pass on rumor—without verification, without an effort to verify, without in some cases so much as a comment from the subject of the rumor. That is the antithesis of good journalism and a practice that can only damage even more the already shaky credibility of the journalism profession.
More than ever, news organizations need policies that emphasize the importance of being right, not just first. They need to remember that a reporter's first responsibility is to check things out—before passing things along. They need guidelines on when to tweet, how to tweet and how to check the veracity of tweets.
So. Maybe my name is Ernie and I'm a dentist. Don't believe what you read just because it's in print.