Social newsgathering: Five key ethical challenges, Part II

By on March 7, 2014

Yesterday, we shared the mission of an ONA working group that aims to tackle the five key ethical challenges of social and digital newsgathering, starting with the first two, Verification and Accuracy, and Contributors’ Safety (read the post here). Today, we pick up where we left off:

3. Rights and legal issues

When do we have the right to share user-generated content on our platforms — to publish it, to distribute it, to embed it?

There’s a growing body of law around what is and isn’t fair game for news organizations to use. But it can be confusing, and every case is a little different. Also, there may be circumstances where the legal right to use someone’s content may not mean it’s the right thing to do, given the value of the work that’s been created.

When and how should the people who created this content be credited for their work? When it’s requested, what’s the best way to work with anonymity? And what do you do if someone gives you permission to use their UGC, and then takes it back?

Different news organizations may reasonably disagree on some of these issues, but there are likely points of consensus around the notion of protecting the rights of UGC creators.

Relatedly, how informed are UGC contributors and potential contributors — otherwise known as the general public — about their rights? Do we have a responsibility to educate them about the law and the process by which a news organization works with content found on social media? When they let the news industry use something they’ve gathered, do they know what they’re getting into?

This seems like fertile ground for developing some best practices for the industry. It’s in our collective interest to make sure members of the public remain eager to contribute to our storytelling efforts.

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.

4. Social journalists’ well-being

The safety of those who gather content and share it with the news industry is obviously critical. But what about the well-being of journalists who spend the day looking for user-generated content?

Looking at videos on YouTube may seem like safe work. But some people who monitor social are exposing themselves to a barrage of disturbing imagery — death, dismemberment and otherwise graphic content. Some may face severe distress when a contact in a dangerous place suddenly goes silent. Are they putting themselves at risk of PTSD or other psychological or emotional problems? Are journalists ever putting their own safety at risk by reaching out to someone over social media?

A lot of thought — and perhaps some research — would seem to be in order when it comes to these emerging issues.

5. Workflow and resources

Workflow may not seem to be relevant to a conversation about ethics. But there are crucial connections.

How does a newsroom with tight resources develop the expertise to make strong ethical decisions about social newsgathering? Are there tools that might help a newsroom manage user-generated content in a way that makes it easier to maintain standards? What are some good strategies for disseminating this ethical approach throughout an organization?

This group might be able to offer some guidance when it comes to integrating best practices into a news organization’s workflow and is also well positioned to find out, from the industry, what help is most needed.

Hopefully our new group will help you do your job as we think about these issues and establish some best practices. If you’re an ONA member and you’re interested in being a part of this ongoing project, please submit your information here. And since we’re here to serve you: What did we leave off? What did we get wrong? What ethical challenges do you face in your newsroom when you turn to social channels to gather the news? We welcome your comments

Read Part I >>

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.