Social media responsibility

Last week,’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, 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.

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5 Responses to Social media responsibility

  1. Dawn Gilpin says:

    Amanda, this is a great topic for a post, and nice link to ethics. What about comparing SPJ and PRSA codes of ethics on this topic? Is there a tension between them?

    On a more technical note, make sure to link to the first blog post you mention, and make all links live (clickable). Use the “link” button in the WordPress screen for that (let me know if you have trouble finding it). You want to make it easy for people to find the contact you’re linking to, and build relationships with the authors of the blogs you mention. This only happens when they can follow links back to the source.

    Good post, though, in general.

  2. glindsay says:

    Amanda, great post!

    I think this is an entirely legitimate argument mostly because I think we, as citizens, should have a reason to believe that journalists work to follow their code of ethics both inside and outside the newsroom.

    For the same reason that you would be wise to think twice about discussing your political views as a journalist, you should keep your private life, private, and not subject to 1,000 followers on Twitter.

    I believe this did not minimize harm and that Ha had plenty of other resources to figure out if BusinessWeek had actually shut down.

    Where does this code of ethics end? Should it? With social media being such a new “frontier,” I think situations like this will raise questions that will force people in all fields to address issues such as ethics in regards to social media and clarify new guidelines for it.


  3. bihrig says:

    I find it shocking that a reporter for would think making a comment like that is acceptable. As students we are taught to make sure the information we report is accurate. Regardless of the way the information is being shared, people working in the world of news dissemination should uphold traditional journalistic ethics.
    Ha should have verified his information that Business Week was closing, as he would have for a print article. Twitter may not be seen as serious as a traditional new outlet, but like you said, he had over a 1,000 followers who look to him for news updates. Those 1,000 followers could quickly turn into 10,000 people who receive false information because Ha didn’t think he needed to verify his information before tweeting. Hopefully everyone, especially journalists, will take what they tweet about more seriously in the future.

  4. bgansar says:

    I do think that people take advantage of the power they have with social media. This guy had to have known what he was doing and the havoc he was going to cause. I believe that having several accounts for things, like Twitter, is not a bad idea. If you want to have a personal one to avoid issues like starting rumors in the professional world and then a professional account where you can give factual updates. If there was a better separation of the two then people wouldn’t have to worry about breaking codes of ethics.

  5. ekozak says:

    I honestly do not think Ha did anything wrong with his Tweet. Twitter allows for dialogue between news organizations and their audiences. Recently I have started following many local news organizations and I regularly see tweets asking for sources. The fact that he included “Can anyone confirm or deny” means that he did not know if the news was fact or fiction and he was relating that to his followers.

    Rumors flourished in the era before Twitter and they will continue to flourish whether they are spread by neighbors talking on front lawns, friends catching up by telephone or news organizations seeking sources on Twitter.

    If Ha had only posted “Just heard wind that BusinessWeek is shutting down,” I think that would be completely different. Although it is a subtle difference, neglecting to put some sort of clarifying question changes the entire connotation of the tweet.

    Overall, with all forms of social media, people need to think twice before posting and tweeting because once the send button is hit, there is no going back.

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