The Ethics of Social Networking for Journalists

  • by Estrella Gutiérrez (caracas)
  • Friday, January 28, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

In the view of Brazilian university professor Rosental Calmon Alves, the world is experiencing 'a revolution with very few historical precedents, comparable to the one brought about by (Johannes) Gutenberg,' the 15th century inventor of the printing press.

Alves is a prominent advocate of network journalism and a promoter of what he calls a 'media ecosystem,' very different from the dominant system in the 20th century, in which the multimedia digital platform will be more powerful than newsprint.

One element of this 'ecosystem' is the change from a 'media-centred' system to a 'person-centred' one, in which every person is a potential participant, says the Brazilian cyber enthusiast. 'We have entered the 'prosumer' society,' made up of producers who are also consumers of media content, he told the Spanish newspaper El País.

The prosumer society has multiple forms of self-expression, and it is still early to tell which of these will survive the founding of the new era. Social networks stand out, particularly Twitter, which is based on ordinary citizens creating online information.

What are the rights and responsibilities of professional communicators with regard to the social media? Are journalists barred by their profession from expressing themselves on networks like Twitter? Can media owners set limits on what reporters say as private individuals online?

Latin American experts gave IPS their views on these and other questions of topical interest to journalists.

Javier Darío Restrepo of Colombia, regionally recognised in the field of journalistic ethics, established one premise: 'Ethics do not change with technological changes.

'Principles that were valid for Gutenberg are still valid for web surfers. They must be applied more rigorously by the latter, in fact, because netizens have a more powerful instrument. The greater the technological power, the greater the responsibility demanded,' he said.

'I have an ethical commitment to truth as both a journalist and a twitterer,' he added.

As for the responsibilities of journalists who twitter, there are differences between what they publish in the media they work for and what they tweet, said Restrepo, who is head of the ethics department at the New Ibero-American Journalism Foundation (FNPI).

'In a newspaper, a reporter writes in the name of a media outlet that has real credibility, conferred by its readers. On Twitter, he or she speaks as a private individual; this reduces his or her responsibility, but not his or her commitment to the truth,' he said.

In Restrepo's view, whenever journalists communicate, they must bear in mind that 'they are not free to say whatever they want, but what they ought to say,' and 'neither their freedom (of expression) nor their rights are absolute. They are always limited in practice by the rights and freedoms of others.'

Margarita Torres, a professor of communications at Mexico's Ibero-American University, said journalists have the same rights as other citizens to use social networks, but added that 'protecting and respecting their own profession will set limits' to their use.

Torres finds it hard to separate journalists and human rights. 'I can't just set aside the idea of integrity,' said this member of the Red de Periodistas de a Pie (On-the-Ground Journalists' Network) which is very active online.

'The human rights of journalists cannot be curtailed; they should be the same as those of any citizen. But at the same time reporters are 'guardians' of the much-trumpeted right to information, with all this implies,' Torres said.

When journalists use networks like Twitter, they must remember that their followers -- in this case, the general public -- want 'reliable information,' told more boldly, perhaps, 'but reliably,' said Torres, an expert on social responsibility among communicators.

She gave examples of cases in which followers have demanded corrections of mistaken information given by journalists through their personal Twitter accounts, and of others working in conventional media who have been called to account, over the social networking sites, for editorial decisions made by their publication.

In regard to the rifts and conflicts that have emerged between journalists and the media outlets that employ them because of their personal expressions on Twitter and other networks, Torres added to Restrepo's ethical mantra the tool of self-regulation, particularly in promoting transparency.

The codes of ethics and internal regulations of media outlets provide a route map. But when a journalist's point of view collides with that of the publication he or she writes for, they will not prevent firing or disciplinary action for what is said in a personal capacity in cyberspace or in opinion and analysis columns in the publication itself.

The problem, according to Torres, 'is that the media have not been required to have clear labour and ethical policies, and now additional policies relating to social networking sites are needed.'

One of the most famous cases of a reporter being sacked by her employer because of opinions expressed in social media is that of CNN journalist Octavia Nasr, who was fired in July because she expressed sadness at the death of Lebanon's Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah on her personal Twitter account. And there are hundreds of other cases, on every continent.

Raisa Uribarri, a professor at the University of the Andes in Venezuela, pointed to another problem faced by journalists who express their personal opinions on networking sites or in the blogosphere: the political or economic powers-that-be can use their views to blacken the reporter's reputation.

'The tracks you leave of your private life on the networks create opinions that may work for or against you when the chips are down,' said Uribarri, who described the case of a journalist who asked Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez an awkward question.

Government-aligned media and officials used opinions critical of the Chávez administration, posted by the journalist on Twitter, to discredit her, said Uribarri, who is an expert on communications and new technologies, as well as a journalist.

'Because they are so easy to use, social network services have contributed to journalists' exposure to the public, not as workers for a particular media outlet but as private citizens with their own opinions which, obviously, do not necessarily coincide with the editorial stances of the media for which they work,' she said.

Ideally, in Uribarri's view, this mismatch should not create any more difficulties for journalists than their ethical commitments, but media reprisals against employees have been documented 'when they express different opinions, in a personal capacity and outside the outlet in question.'

The question of what to do was answered by Uribarri with questions of her own: 'Shall we practise self-censorship? Shall we be like angelic creatures, devoid of opinions? Shall we stop using the social networks, or only post about topics other than our professional work? Shall we lead parallel lives on the networks? Would the media find this acceptable? Shall we hide behind a shield of anonymity? Is that ethical?'

She also related an incident from a recent international web seminar on journalists' identity management on the net. A young Latin American woman, recently graduated in social communication, who has been active online for years and has an established online identity, asked the debating thread: 'Does this mean that when I start working for a media outlet I won't be able to be myself?'

Uribarri offered her own recipe: 'I am very careful about every tweet, every update on Facebook and every line in my blog. Because yes, I am a citizen, but I have special responsibilities because of my profession.'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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