Ethics for the Twitter journalist

Editorial ethics are at the heart of all good journalism. Without ethics, some so-called journalists will be pumping out public relations (PR) copy or propaganda. Ethical values are as important for the instant-information social networking world as they are for traditional media.

The great thing about Twitter is the speed of delivery and publication.

It was set up so that people could answer the question “What are you doing?” in a 140-character text message, sent from either a mobile device or a computer.

It's instant and it is focused. The message is not drowned in unnecessary words.

People using Twitter for sending news have to be disciplined. It's ideal for news headlines. Short, sharp and to the point.

The information atmosphere is now thick with tweets with a richness of subject variety that is often leaving the mainstream media behind.

Is the information trustworthy?

More and more journalists are using Twitter as part of their newsgathering process. There are still those who dismiss it as a distraction, irrelevance or something for kids, but many are now embracing it, because they know it connects them with their audience and offers them tips and leads that are often ahead of the wires.

So, what about Twitter ethics for journalists? Are these any different from traditional editorial ethics?

I would argue not; the only thing that has changed is the conduit/platform.

Journalism remains the same and is based on impartial, objective, fair and accurate reporting that reaches the whole audience and represents all significant voices regardless of race, religion or financial status.

Here are the main categories

  • Accuracy: Well-sourced information based on solid evidence
  • Impartiality : Fair and open-minded coverage exploring all significant views
  • Fairness: Transparent, open and honest coverage based on straight-dealing
  • Offence: Delivering challenging journalism that is sensitive to audience expectations
  • Integrity: Dealing with groups keen to use the media for their own advantage
  • Privacy: To be respected and not invaded unless it is in the public interest.

Accuracy

A journalist will always be judged on the accuracy and reliability of the journalism s/he produces. It must be:

  • well sourced.
  • supported by strong evidence.
  • examined and tested.
  • clear and unambiguous.

The journalist tweeting doesn’t have to have the whole story, but they need to be totally transparent in making clear the difference between verified fact and rumour and speculation. Journalists should not deal in rumour and speculation. Others tweeting can, but a journalist should not.

Impartiality

Being impartial means not being prejudiced towards, or against, any particular side, and to be fair.

This is a tough one. How is that achieved in a tweet of 140 characters?

The main thing is that, as you uncover different facts and piece them together, you aim to cover the whole story with all perspectives explored. So, if you are restricted to 140 characters you are going to have to string together several tweets .

If you can bring all the facts together in an online article and provide a link, all the better. If not, try retweeting the additional information. Perhaps let those following you know that you will update with more information soon and include more perspectives/opinions.

Only by reflecting the diversity of opinion fairly and accurately can we hope to offer a true picture of what is really happening.

All journalists have their own views, and yet to deliver comprehensive and authoritative coverage of news and current affairs they must rise above their own personal perspective.

This is particularly true with controversial issues. Here, particularly, journalists need to be objective and impartial and keep their own opinions firmly under wraps. Impartiality means:

  • provide a balance of issues and views.
  • reflect a wide range of opinion.
  • explore conflicting views.
  • ensure that no significant strand of thought is under-represented.

Journalists should be free to:

  • cover any subject if there are good editorial reasons for doing so.
  • report on a specific aspect of an issue.
  • provide an opportunity for a single view to be expressed.
  • avoid bias or an imbalance of views.
  • cover stories that might offend part of the audience.
  • be fair with contributors and let them respond to our questions.

Fairness

Journalists must always aim to be fair, honest and straightforward with everyone they come in contact with, particularly contributors and the audience. So when we tweet, we should seek opinions from those who may hold opposing views and perspectives and offer them the opportunity to comment and be prepared to tweet that, too. We should always offer the right of reply when reporting allegations.

Offence

Journalism that is rigorous, robust and searching may occasionally offend parts of the audience. The same is true with tweets. Journalists must ensure that the material they cover has a clear editorial purpose. However, journalists need to be careful that allegations of offence are not used to try to prevent them from covering stories.

Just because someone is offended doesn't mean the topic should not be investigated. You can't keep everyone happy, and neither should you try to do so.

Integrity

Without integrity, your journalism is untrustworthy and suspect. The same goes for the Twitter journalist. Integrity affects every area of a news organisation from senior management down. Integrity gives you the authority to investigate and dig where others don't.

Without integrity, journalism becomes easy to manipulate, and there are many cases where that is apparent in today's media. To stand apart and to inform the public debate with accurate and rigorous journalism you need integrity. In editorial terms it means the following:

  • to be independent of both state and partisan interests.
  • not to endorse or appear to endorse any organisation, its products, activities or services.
  • not to give undue prominence to commercial products or services.
  • not to unduly promote your own media organisation.
  • to be as rigorous in your coverage of your media business's dealings as you are with others.

Privacy

Journalists face a difficult balancing act. They must respect privacy but they must also be robust in their investigation into issues that are in the public interest. This will mean that in some cases it will be necessary for a journalist to carry out an investigation that interferes with someone’s privacy. Such cases could include:

  • crime and antisocial behaviour.
  • corruption or injustice.
  • incompetence or neglect.
  • public health and safety.
  • misleading public statements.
  • political statements.

Summing up

To sum up, because tweets are restricted to 140 characters it does not mean that journalistic ethics can be ditched. If traditional, mainstream media are to contribute to this fast-evolving communication network they need to remain true to the values that have underpinned journalism through its many previous evolutionary stages. The platforms and conduits change, but journalists must remain true to editorial values adjusted only to reflect societal developments.

David BrewerThe author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who set up and runs Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online. He delivers journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide.



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