News is breaking. Your editor is breathing down your neck.
Your deadline is approaching and there are holes to fill in your story – but the central figures are either unavailable or unwilling to talk.
Where do you turn?
Chances are you go where many of us go for information these days: social media.
A Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profile can reveal a lot about a person. They provide immediate access to one’s words and activities through posts, pictures, and video.
But, is it OK to publish what you find?
A recent Poynter webinar, “Privacy in a Selfie World: Is It Fair To Publish What You Find on Social Media?” tackled the use of social media content in media stories.
Rotary International Managing Editor and President of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) Theresa Schmedding led the webinar discussion, using the Sandra Bland story as a case study.
Nationwide news coverage ensued after Bland was found dead in a Texas jail cell, days after being stopped and arrested for a traffic violation.
Immediately, questions arose about whether she committed suicide. Did the police have something to do with her death? Was the arrest lawful?
Bland could not speak, but she was very active on social media.
Schmedding, a former managing editor of digital operations for the Daily Herald Media Group, cited several news stories where media organizations published Bland’s posts. At one point #SandySpeaks was a trending topic on social media.
The Social Media Effect
“It’s this whole phenomenon of reporting in real time. where you don’t have time to sit there and wait to get multiple verifications and wait to see what the facts are. So, this is happening a lot more,” Schmedding says.
In one news story, Schmedding says the writer used quotes around Bland’s words as if the writer had spoken to her.
“It’s awkward when we take a social media platform and turn it into a print type story,” she says. “We all do unbiased reporting, but there’s always an angle or a focus of the story. In essence, what we choose to put in a story and what we choose to leave out is at the heart of the issue.”
While social media puts another source of information at journalists’ fingertips, is it a true picture of who that person is? According to one study, over half of users say they lie on social media.
“You’re getting a curated version of that person,” as Ren LaForme, Poynter producer and moderator of the webinar, put it.
Social media has definitely changed the newsgathering game, but many gray areas exist. Schmedding suggests you consider the following when facing the decision to publish your findings from the social media world.
1. Use yourself as a baseline.
There is so much information out there now, but just because it’s there doesn’t mean you should use it, suggests Schmedding. Look at it through your own eyes and ask yourself: if a story was written about you using your social media content, would it be an accurate reflection of who you really are? Social posts are often a snapshot of the true person. Don’t rely on it as your sole source of information.
2. Privacy is a gray area.
3. Always use attribution.
It seems like a no brainer, but when it comes to social media, it’s worth reminding. Attribution should be clear, even if it means repeating the phrase “according to her Facebook page” or “according to her Twitter account” multiple times in your story. Be clear about where you are pulling the content from. Otherwise it could appear as if you interviewed the subject.
4. Have a social media policy in place.
The decision of what to use versus what not to use can be made easier if there is a social media policy in place addressing these issues. Schmedding says competitive pressure creates ethical quandaries. A social media policy puts guidelines in place that will help reporters and editors make ethical decisions – especially in breaking news situations.
Click here for the full Poynter webinar: http://www.newsu.org/courses/privacy-selfie-world .
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Brett Simon is PR Newswire’s former director of audience relations and was a television reporter in her former life. Follow her @savsimon.