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Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Ethics Toolbox

Be the keeper of reliable social media information

By Andrew M. Seaman

As everyone knows, the business of news changed dramatically over the past two decades. Major newspapers, websites, television and radio stations now crave clicks and screen time. In that quest, news organizations ceded a lot of editorial power to social media companies.

While journalists are not always in a position to oversee the partnerships their companies enter into, they should be watchful that their organizations’ editorial independence aren’t harmed by those joint ventures.

Unlike news organizations’ websites and their comment sections, newsrooms and journalists don’t set the ground rules for social media like Twitter and Facebook. Instead, developers and other employees determine what is and is not appropriate and what is and is not prioritized on people’s screens. In other words, those developers and employees are now making some editorial decisions for newsrooms.

In her speech to the Oxford University’s Reuters Institute last year, Emily Bell of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism argued that “journalism has an important role in building and deploying new technologies, shaping non-commercial parts of a new public sphere and holding to account these new extensive systems of power.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics also offers support to the idea that journalists should use their voices to make sure new social media and technology follow the profession’s best practices. The Code says journalists should “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.” Also, journalists should “deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.”

The battle over power between social media companies and news organizations may seem one-sided and doomed from the start, but that’s likely not the case.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are not working so diligently with journalists and news organizations out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. Instead, they need journalists and their stories to populate their products with content – stories, pictures, audio, video and graphics.

People who aren’t professional journalists add content to the platforms, but they don’t add context and various perspectives like journalists. The problem for social media companies is that people still want those stories from journalists, but the links often lead to outside websites. So, we’ve seen social media platforms work with news organizations to keep people on their products.

Now, in Facebook, people will see stories published directly to Facebook with Instant Articles. People clicking on those stories can read or view it and then seamlessly navigate back to their Facebook newsfeed. Similarly, Twitter recently introduced Moments, which aggregates the top posts about current events and trending topics.

Since social media platforms need journalists’ content, it gives journalists and their news organizations some leverage in negotiating where and how their stories appear.

Most importantly, journalists and news organizations should ensure editorial freedom and protection from restraint. For example, journalists should ask whether these agreements guarantee stories won’t be removed if they’re reported as unpopular. Also, do these agreements offer leverage in making sure news stories appear prominently in the social media platform, and not hidden in some random tab?

Also, journalists should lobby for the rights of their audience. If one of the goals of social media is to allow for engagement, the conversation must allow for dissent. The SPJ Code says journalists should “encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

Journalists need to be ardent supporters and defenders of the First Amendment. As Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in a dissenting opinion, “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

When there are no boundaries drawn, social media companies get to make editorial – including censorship – decisions on the fly with little oversight.

Journalists and their news organizations need to stand up to powerful social media companies. Their users want reliable, accurate and fair information, and journalists are its keeper.

Andrew M. Seaman is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a senior health reporter at Reuters. On Twitter:

@andrewmseaman

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