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Chapter 8: Applying ethical principles to digital age investigation

Fergus Bell is head of newsroom partnerships and innovation at SAM, a social media search, curation and storytelling platform designed for the news industry. He joined SAM from The Associated Press, where, as international social media and UGC editor, he led the global operation to source and verify user-generated content for the AP’s platforms. In 2013, Bell co-founded a committee for the Online News Association that has brought together leaders in the journalism community to explore the ethics and standards of UGC and digital newsgathering. Bell is a graduate of the University of Leeds and has also worked at ITN, CNN and radio stations across the U.K.

User-generated content (UGC) is taking an increasingly prominent role in daily news coverage, with audiences choosing to share their stories and experiences through the content they create themselves. Our treatment of the people who share this compelling content has a direct impact on the way that we, and other organizations, can work with them in the future.

It is essential to determine what ethical standards will work for you and your audience, and what actions will allow you to establish and preserve a relationship with them. Our approach must be ethical so that it can be sustainable.

Individuals contribute to news coverage in two typical ways. In one, journalists can invite and encourage people to participate in programming and reporting. This type of contributor will often be loyal, create content in line with the organization’s style, and will be conscientious with any contributions.

The second type of contributor is the “accidental journalist.” This could be an eyewitness to an event, or someone sharing details that will aid your investigation, even if that person may not be doing so with the idea of assisting journalists. These types of contributor often have little or no idea that what they have to offer, or are inadvertently already offering, may be of value or interest to journalists. This is especially true in the context of investigative reporting.

This chapter highlights some key questions and approaches when applying ethics and standards to newsgathering from social media, and when working with user-generated content.

Entering private communities

Private communities can be extremely fruitful for generating investigative leads. Obvious examples of private communities are blogs, subreddits and Facebook groups. A less-obvious private community might be when an individual uses a YouTube page to share videos with friends and family. It’s a public account, but the user assumes a level of privacy because the material is being shared with specific people. The key takeaway here is to consider how the content creator sees their activity, rather than how you see it. This will help you apply the most sensitive and the most ethical approach.

The main issue is likely to be how you identify yourself to and within that community. Within your organization, you need to consider two questions about how transparent you should be.

1. When is anonymity acceptable? — Users on platforms such as Reddit and 4Chan are mostly anonymous, and it might be acceptable to start interactions without first identifying yourself as a journalist. However, if you are more than just conversation-watching, there will likely be a time when it’s appropriate to identify yourself and your profession. Reddit recently issued guidance on how to approach its community when working on stories. These should be consulted when utilizing that platform.

2. When is anonymity unlikely to be an option? — Networks such as Facebook and Twitter are often more useful for breaking news because people are more likely to use real names and identities. In this kind of environment, anonymity as a journalist is less of an option. Again, if you are just watching rather than engaging with individuals, then being open and honest about who you are is often going to be the best way forward.

There are always going to be exceptions to the rule. This is also the case when it comes to deciding when it’s acceptable for journalists to go undercover in the real world. Working out your policy before you need it is always going to yield the best results. You can then act with the confidence that your approach has been properly thought through.

Securing Permission

Seeking permission to use content from creators of UGC helps establish and maintain the reputation of your organization as one that gives fair treatment. Securing permission will also help you ensure you are using content from an original source. This may save you legal headaches in the long run. All of the principal social platforms have simple methods for communicating quickly and directly with users.

Communication with individuals is, of course, an important part of any verification process. This means the act of asking for permission also opens up a potential source of additional information or even content that you otherwise wouldn’t have had.

The question of payment for content is a separate issue that your organization needs to determine for itself. But it’s clear that securing permission and then crediting is the new currency for user-generated content. Claire Wardle covers this in the next chapter.

Contributor management and safety

Audience contributions/assignments

If you are gathering content from your audience through requests or assignments, then there are several ethical issues to take into account. At the top of the list is your responsibility to keep them safe. When devising standards in this area, you should discuss the following issues:

  • Does an assignment put someone at risk?
  • Could an individual get too close to a dangerous event or to people who may cause them harm?
  • What is your responsibility to a person who is harmed while carrying out an assignment set by you?
  • How will you identify this person in the publication or broadcast?
  • What impact does an assignment have on the honesty/authenticity of the content being produced versus something that was created unprompted?

Discovered content

The above issues also apply to those people whose contributions you’ve discovered, as opposed to having them sent to you. However, in the case of accidental journalists, there are additional questions you need to ask within your organization. These help establish your policy for communicating with them and for using their content:

  • Does the person realize how they might be affected by sharing this content with the media?
  • Do you think the owner/uploader knew that their content was discoverable by organizations like yours? Do you think they intended it for their personal network of friends and family?
  • For something that is particularly newsworthy, how can you seek permission or contact with them without bombarding them as an industry?
  • How can you sensitively communicate with individuals who have something newsworthy but are perhaps in a situation which has caused them distress, or loss?
  • Does the publication or broadcast of their content identify their location or any personal information that might cause them to be harmed or otherwise affected?

Charting an ethical course for the future

The Online News Association has several initiatives to address many of the issues raised in this chapter. The aim is to create resources that will allow journalists at all types of news organizations to chart an ethical course for the future.

The ONA’s DIY ethics code project allows newsrooms to devise a personalized code of ethics. The ONA’s UGC working group was established to bring leaders together from across the journalism community to freely discuss challenges and possible solutions to the ethical issues raised by the increased use of social newsgathering and UGC.

The group is focusing on three specific areas:

  • Can the industry agree on an ethical charter for UGC?
  • Can we work with the audience to understand their needs, frustrations and fears?
  • How can we further protect our own journalists working with UGC?

Those interested in becoming a member of this working group can join our Google+ community.



Published on: 15 April 2015
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