Social newsgathering: Charting an ethical course

By on March 6, 2014

Whether covering a plane crash or a war, the Oscars or the Olympics, today’s journalist needs to carry an oversized bag of reporting tools to gather the news accurately and effectively. And you’d better leave lots of room for social tools, given the powerful role social newsgathering now plays in discovering important information and content, especially when news breaks where there isn’t a professional journalist in sight.

The opportunities presented by these tools are endless and exciting. But a news landscape with deep social integration is also riddled with ethical concerns. So how can a journalist robustly engage in social newsgathering while remaining loyal to the central principles of ethical journalism?

We spend a lot of time thinking about this challenge in our day-to-day work in social journalism. And that’s what led us to bring together people with common experiences across the industry into an ONA working group focusing on the ethics and standards of social and digital newsgathering. This group, which falls under the umbrella of ONA’s new News Ethics Committee, is for the first time attempting to identify best practices in this important corner of digital journalism, and ultimately provide education and training resources to ONA members and community.

If you’re attending SXSW 2014 in Austin, be sure to catch Accurate, Fair & Safe: The Ethics of Social News, a talk by Eric and fellow ONA board member Mandy Jenkins that will dig deeper into these points. Keep an eye out for further opportunities to join this conversation later in the year, including the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, April 30-May 4 and the 2014 ONA conference in Chicago, Sept. 25-27.

The group’s initial task has been to identify the key challenges related to the ethical pursuit of social newsgathering to help the group chart its course as it tackles individual issues. We did this by working collaboratively with several members – from the smallest newsrooms to the largest — who contributed ideas to a growing Google doc.

The results of that exercise: We’ve identified the five key ethical challenges of social and digital newsgathering.

Today, we present the first two. Come back tomorrow, when we’ll be back to go through three more — and, we hope, to kick off an industry-wide discussion about best practices moving forward.

1. Verification and accuracy

The hallmark of ethical newsgathering — social or otherwise — is simply getting the story right.

Exactly how this unfolds may vary from one news organization to another. Will you trust verification done by other news organizations or journalists? How do you determine that a social account is reliable? What’s your source of expertise when it comes to verifying user-generated content? Are there tools or technology that can help? How do you even define “verification,” and what’s your threshold for deciding that something is accurate? Are there circumstances where you might distribute content from social without being sure that it’s reliable? How does the decision-making process fit into your newsroom culture? How much of the process do you want to share with your readers and viewers?

Whatever approach you take, it’s critical to come up with policies and procedures before big news breaks. So determining best practices for this area — and looking for common ground across the news industry — will be a high priority for the social newsgathering group.

2. Contributors’ safety

Journalists who engage in social newsgathering may often find themselves working with members of the public who are experiencing challenging circumstances — up to and including the risk of serious harm or death.

Is it OK to ask members of the public to compromise their safety in order to gather information or content for the news media? Or even to accept material from them when they choose to take such a risk? What are our responsibilities to them? How should we be communicating with people we find on social networks who are caught up in a natural disaster, a war zone, an active crime scene — and when should we steer clear entirely? How do we act ethically but remain competitive?

Can the news industry come to a consensus, at least on certain points? We’ll likely explore this soon.

Check back tomorrow as we finish the list. And It’s never too late to add to the group’s agenda — the door remains open to new members. We want to hear from you. If you’re an ONA member and you’re interested in being a part of this ongoing project, please submit your information here. And we welcome your comments at

Read Part II >>

Eric Carvin and Fergus Bell, the founders of the ONA social newsgathering working group, are social media editors at The Associated Press, and Eric also chairs ONA’s News Ethics Committee. Many thanks to the other group members who contributed ideas to this post: Sue Allan, Madeleine Bair, Malachy Browne, Heather Bryant, Tiffany Campbell, Joellen Easton, Olivia Ma, Jerome McClendon, Dawn Needham, Laura Oliver, Stephen Sidlo, Josh Stearns, Ingeborg Volan and Claire Wardle.