Last week, Time.com’s new Technology Editor Peter Ha wrote on his blog, “Just caught wind that BusinessWeek is shutting down. Can anyone confirm or deny?” Within hours, employees of Business Week retweeted that they hadn’t heard of any sort of closing. The simple one sentence update led to yet another controversy surrounding the social media website, Twitter. Gary Weiss, a prominent reporter wrote on his blog, http://garyweiss.blogspot.com/ the problem with social media and the news.
What concerns me the most or what bothers me is the distinction between social media and traditional media. As journalists, we are trained from the beginning not only to seek the truth but to report the truth. But it doesn’t stop there. Ethics play into what we write, how we write it. According the Society of Professional Journalists, one of the code of ethics is to minimize harm. Generally we don’t report death with the victim’s name unless the family has been notified. We don’t report the news as news unless we have adequate background checks to verify what we are saying. This is true for journalists around the world in newspapers and on television. Is online media not the same?
Don’t tell me that Ha doesn’t realize he has over 1,000 followers on twitter that respect and pay attention to what he writes. Don’t tell me he didn’t figure that an employee from a competitive newspaper doesn’t check Ha’s updates daily, if not hourly to see if he was reporting something that Business Week should be aware of, if not already producing in print. So why is it okay for a journalist to treat Twitter, a social media website as something more personal, when his profession more or less depends on websites such as this.
When more people use social media outlets as a source of news than traditional media, we must begin to treat our blogs, tweets, updates as pieces of articles we write, on the record, from the horse’s mouth. People get suspended, and in the worse case scenario, fired from their jobs when they are caught saying negative comments. Football players get fined for venting about fans on Twitter. Potential employees get scanned by hiring employers. They might not have the SJP’s code of ethics memorized by any means but doesn’t the idea of being careful what you say over the internet, go without saying?
Maybe this is just a new topic that needs to be discussed in our journalism classrooms. Social media responsibility and controversy that can come from it is something that should be taught to every journalist student that comes through the Walter Cronkite doors. Yet I feel that this new tech savvy generation and anyone with half a mind should understand the power that social media can have.
Bottom line: One clause under Minimize Harm in the SPJ’s code of ethics, recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.