September 28, 2009
Illustration (Newseum)

Illustration (Newseum)

News Ethics in the Digital World

At its first national meeting in 1923, the American Society of Newspaper Editors adopted guidelines for journalists that covered responsibility, independence, truth and accuracy, impartiality, fair play and decency.

Called the "Canons of Journalism," later renamed the "Statement of Principles," the guidelines were meant to "preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people."

In April 2009, ASNE dropped "newspaper" from its name to become the American Society of News Editors, which includes editors who direct news content at wire services and newspaper-affiliated Web sites.

No national code of ethics for journalism exists, but most news organizations have written their own guidelines.

Journalism in the 21st century requires a new set of ethics tailored to the digital world. As reporters write their own blogs and increasingly incorporate Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks into their personal and professional lives, news organizations are beginning to define the limits on the use of social tools.

The Washington Post released new guidelines Sept. 28, 2009, concerning social networking, after one of its top editors closed his Twitter account when his personal "tweets" raised conflict-of-interest questions.

"What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account," the new guidelines state. "Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility."

A look at the ethics guidelines at some of the nation's newspapers reveal how much face time Facebook, Twitter and blogs are allowed in news content.

The Wall Street Journal: "Consult your editor before 'connecting' to or 'friending' any reporting contacts who may need to be treated as confidential sources. Openly 'friending' sources is akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex. … Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter. Don't Tweet on personal matters if it's clear that you're a Dow Jones employee. Common sense should prevail, but if you are in doubt about the appropriateness of a Tweet or posting, discuss it with your editor before sending."

The New York Times: "Outsiders can read your Facebook page, and … personal blogs and 'tweets' represent you to the outside world just as much as an 800-word article does. … Remember that although you might get useful leads by joining a group on one of these sites, it will appear on your page, connoting that you 'joined' it — potentially complicated if it is a political group, or a controversial group."

Los Angeles Times: "Assume that your professional life and your personal life merge online regardless of your care in separating them. … Assume that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public and knowable to everyone with access to a computer. …You must identify yourself as an LAT employee online if you would do so in a similar situation offline. Make sure that people you are communicating with understand how you plan to use the information."

The Philadelphia Inquirer: "Everyone should keep in mind that the Internet is a public forum. Therefore, people mentioning their Inquirer affiliation should be very careful not to express opinions that would compromise their impartiality in covering the news."

Houston Chronicle: "Take care in deciding to initiate or contribute to a Web log. … Avoid posting anything on the Internet that could call into question your objectivity as a journalist or reflect unfavorably upon the Chronicle."

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa): "You will find valuable information on social networks, but it won't always be easily distinguished from the lies, mischief and misinformation. Use the social network as a starting point in your reporting, but be sure to verify and attribute. … If you are blogging or Twittering through your reporting process, be careful not to write about matters you might later need to discuss with editors.

Orlando Sentinel (Florida): "Staffers who operate their own Web sites or publish personal blogs must not post information on topics they cover for the Sentinel. They also should be mindful that their personal postings can affect their credibility as journalists and, by extension, the Sentinel's credibility as a news organization. Thus, they should avoid postings that reveal personal biases or that otherwise compromise their professionalism."

Exhibits on ethics, credibility and digital news reporting are on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery, the Bancroft Family Ethics Center and the Digital News Gallery located in the Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery.

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