The Internet and the social media communities it encompasses can be incredible resources. They offer both a remarkably robust amount of historical material and an incredible amount of “real-time” reporting from people at the scenes of breaking news events. But they also present new and unfamiliar challenges, and they tend to amplify the effects of any ethical misjudgments you might make. So tread carefully. Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline. Verify information before passing it along. Be honest about your intent when reporting. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality. And always remember, you represent NPR.
When determining whether to pass along information being reported on social media sites by other news outlets or individuals, be thoughtful. When we point to what others are saying, in the eyes of many we are effectively reporting that information ourselves. This is true whether the platform is an official NPR social media webpage, a personal blog or a Twitter page that is written by an NPR journalist.
But we also know that reporting about what’s being posted on social media can give our listeners and readers valuable insights into the day’s news.
One key is to be transparent about what we’re doing. We tell readers what has and hasn’t been confirmed. We challenge those putting information out on social media to provide evidence. We raise doubts and ask questions when we have concerns — sometimes “knocking down” rumors circulating on the Web is of enormous value to our readers. And we always ask an important question: am I about to spread a thinly-sourced rumor or am I passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats?
Above all, proceed with caution, especially when news is breaking and accounts vary widely about what is happening. Reach out to other sources for confirmation. And the general standard is simple: Tweet and retweet as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a “traditional” NPR.org news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or “knocking down,” provide it.
Of course, it’s not always obvious how to apply journalistic principles to the social media arena. One resource always available to NPR journalists is our “social media team.” Its members have expertise in collecting information from a variety of sources, in establishing to the best of their ability the credibility of those voices and the information they are posting, and in analyzing the material they use. Always make clear to listeners and readers what has been obtained from our original reporting and what we’ve found posted in social media outlets. And to the greatest practical extent, spell out how the information was checked and why we consider the sources credible. We may also invite our audience to assist in our efforts to monitor and verify what’s being reported on social media. Such crowdsourcing does not determine what NPR journalists report, but it does add to our knowledge. The team can be reached via email (look for SocialMedia in the NPR internal email address book).
It’s often easier to falsify one’s identity online than it is in the offline world. And tonal or contextual nuances can be lost in online exchanges. So when appropriate, clarify and confirm information collected online through phone and in-person interviews. For example, when a social media posting is itself news, try to contact the source to confirm the origin of the information and attain a better understanding of its meaning. We must try to be as sophisticated in our use of social media as our audience and users are. The social media team is a key asset in this effort.
Increasingly, photos and video are being posted online by individuals. In considering whether to use those materials, do your best to verify their accuracy and when in doubt, do not publish them.
Images can be manipulated. Old video can be reposted and made to appear as if it’s new. Photos or video taken in one part of the world can be repackaged and portrayed as being from somewhere else. Again, when in doubt, leave them out.
As with all information, bring a healthy skepticism to images you encounter, starting from the assumption that all such images or video are not authentic. Then, with guidance from NPR’s multimedia and social media teams (and if legal issues are involved, NPR’s legal team as well), work through a series of questions, including:
- When was it posted?
- Do the images or video match what has been distributed by professionals (wire services, news networks, etc.)?
- Is it original work or copies of what others have done?
- Does this person have the legal right to distribute the work and has he made the materials available for others to use?
More resources: The National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics is posted online.
Just as we do in the “real” world, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists when we are working online. So, if as part of our work we are posting comments, asking questions, tweeting, retweeting, blogging, Facebooking or doing anything on social media or other online forums, we clearly identify ourselves and that we work for NPR. We do not use pseudonyms when doing such work.
NPR journalists may, in the course of their work, “follow” or “friend” Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and other social media sites created by political parties and advocacy groups. But we do so to monitor their news feeds, not to become participants, and we follow and friend sites created by advocates from all sides of the issues. It’s as basic a tool as signing up to be on mailing lists used to be.
If in their personal lives NPR journalists join online forums and social media sites, they may follow the conventions of those outlets and use screen names that do not identify who they are. But we do not use information gathered from our interactions on such sites in our reports for NPR. If we get ideas for stories, we treat the information just as we would anything we see in the “real world” — as a starting point that needs to be followed by open, honest reporting.
Finally, we acknowledge that nothing on the Web is truly private. Even on purely recreational or cultural sites and even if what we’re doing is personal and not identified as coming from someone at NPR, we understand that what we say and do could still reflect on NPR. So we do nothing that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage NPR’s standing as an impartial source of news, or otherwise jeopardize NPR’s reputation. In other words, we don’t behave any differently than we would in any public setting or on an NPR broadcast.
Imagine, if you will, an NPR legal correspondent named Sue Zemencourt. She’s a huge fan of Enormous University’s basketball team and loves to chat online about EU. She posts comments on blogs under the screen name “enormous1.” One day, an equally rabid fan of Gigormous State (“gigormous1”) posts obnoxious comments about EU.
Sue snaps. Expletives and insults fly from her fingers on to the webpage. They’re so out-of-line that the blog blocks her from submitting any more comments — and discovers that her i.p. address leads back to NPR. The blog’s host posts that “someone at NPR is using language that the FCC definitely would not approve of” and describes what was said. Things go viral.
The basically good person that she is, Sue publicly acknowledges and apologizes for her mistake. But that doesn’t stop The Daily Show from satirizing about the “NPRNormous Explosion.”
Be circumspect about your behavior, even when the exchange feels private or anonymous. Even an email to a trusted recipient can be made public, with or without the recipient’s knowledge or consent.
In today’s world, many contacts with sources are made online — via emails and social media sites. As we discuss in the guidelines about accuracy and transparency, NPR pushes to keep its interviews on-the-record. The same is true of our “virtual” interactions with sources. We make that clear to potential sources when we reach out to them.
It’s important to keep in mind that the terms of service of a social media site apply to what we post there and to the information we gather from it. Also: The terms might allow for our material to be used in a different way than intended. Additionally, law enforcement officials may be able to obtain our reporting on these sites by subpoena without our consent — or perhaps even our knowledge. Social media is a vital reporting resource for us, but we must be vigilant about keeping work that may be sensitive in our own hands.
Refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog). Don’t express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on NPR.org. These guidelines apply whether you are posting under your own name or — if the online site allows pseudonyms — your identity would not be readily apparent. In reality, anything you post online reflects both on you and on NPR.
Your simple participation in some online groups could be seen to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by just observing a group’s activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, be clear that you’ve done so to seek information or story ideas. And if you “friend” or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for groups representing other viewpoints.
We know that everything we write or receive on a social media site is public. Anyone with access to the Web can potentially see what we’re doing. And regardless of how careful we are in trying to keep them separate, our professional lives and our personal lives overlap when we’re online.
The line between private and public activity has been blurred by these tools. Information from a Facebook page, blog entries, and tweets — even if they’re intended to be personal messages to friends or family — can be easily circulated beyond the intended audiences. The content, therefore, represents us and NPR to the outside world — as do our radio pieces and stories for NPR.org. This applies to the people and organizations we choose to “friend” or “like” online as well. Those are content choices as much as a message or blog post. As in all of all reporting, the NPR Guiding Principles guide our use of social media.
Rule of thumb: You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization. In other words, don’t behave any differently online than you would in any other public setting.
And a final caution – when in doubt, consult with your supervisor.
Case studies | Key questions
If your work includes coverage of politics and social issues, can you “follow” or “friend” a political party or advocacy group?
Yes, if you’re doing it to keep up on what that party or group is doing. And you should be following those on the other side of the issues as well.
Protect yourself: Use the highest level of privacy tools available to control access to your personal activity when appropriate, but don’t let that make you complacent. It’s just not that hard for someone to bypass those safeguards and make public what you thought was private.
Don’t be careless. Keep your opinions to yourself. Imagine what you say or write landing in an AP story or in The Washington Post, and imagine the damage that could cause you or NPR.
Whether in an NPR newscast or a tweet, “you always have to take into consideration what you’re saying, what you know, what you don’t know, and be thoughtful about not making libelous comments whatever the medium.”1
In many cases, a journalist will be legally responsible for any statement he or she repeats, even if the statement is attributed to another source. There are a few exceptions, and one of them is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects news organizations from defamation liability for content that’s created by a third party. Many experts believe this protection would extend to retweets. Citizen Media Law Project co-founder David Ardia put it this way in a Poynter.org story: “So if a journalist or news organization were to retweet a defamatory statement, they would not be held accountable. If, however, they added a defamatory remark as part of the retweet, they could be.”
So, in theory NPR would be protected if someone retweets a post that says something defamatory or inaccurate about someone. But be careful about adding comments that would make the message your own and destroy immunity.
But beyond the legal implications, it is important to consider our listeners and readers and the fact that they trust that the information we’re giving them is as accurate as we can make it. This extends to the information we tweet, retweet, blog, tumble or share in any other way on social media. And that’s why we don’t simply pass along information — even via something as seemingly innocent as a retweet — if we doubt the credibility of the source or news outlet. We push for confirmation. We look for other sources. We reach out to those closer to the story. In other words, we do some reporting.
- Source: NPR’s Ashley Messenger, in an article on Poynter.org. [↩]
Realize that different communities – online and offline – have their own culture, etiquette, and norms, and be respectful of them. Our ethics don’t change in different circumstances, but our decisions might.
The foundation of respect in reporting on any community is awareness. Strive to be knowledgeable about the culture, and be attuned to gaps in your understanding. Often your colleagues can be a terrific resource to help you get up to speed on unfamiliar settings.
Consider as well how your conduct in a community will affect your reporting. As you adjust behaviors such as language and dress in different situations, think about what might be most helpful or harmful to effective reporting.
Also, appreciate that journalism can be an intrusive act, and conduct yourself as a decent guest of the community where you’re reporting. If the customary etiquette is to remove your shoes upon entering a building, for example, it’s appropriate to oblige.
And of course, factor in your own security. In unstable situations, for example, journalists can be targets of violence. At such times, the most appropriate consideration may merely be blending in. As always, we rely on your good judgment.
Social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have become an integral part of everyday life for millions of people around the world. As NPR grows to serve an audience that extends well beyond radio listeners, social media are becoming an increasingly important aspect of how we interact with our audiences. Properly used, social networking sites can be valuable parts of our newsgathering and reporting kits because they can speed research and quickly extend a reporter’s contacts. They are also useful transparency tools — allowing us to open up our reporting and editing processes when appropriate. We encourage our journalists to take advantage of them.
But reporting in social media spaces requires the same diligence we exercise when reporting in other environments. When NPR bloggers post about breaking news, they do not cite anonymous posts on social media sites — though they may use information they find there to guide their reporting. They carefully attribute the information they cite and are clear about what NPR has and has not been able to confirm.
When NPR correspondents go on the air they may mention discussions they’ve seen on social media sites as reflecting in part the tone or mood or general reaction to an event. But they realize that is not the same as a scientific survey of public opinion or a substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting that leads to a deep understanding of a subject.
And all NPR journalists understand that to get the most out of social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.