News Theory Questions 4

What sorts of verification and accuracy standards are appropriate for material gathered on social networks?

With the rapid rise of social media and citizen journalism, the legitimacy of news is often lacking. Anyone can post anything on social media, meaning that a lot of news is completely fake. Both BBC Sport and Sky Sports News have quoted tweets on broadcast and online platforms thinking they are legitimate news stories, but not knowing the original tweets were posted by parody accounts. A ‘verified’ badge check is always a good pointer, but these have been handed out wrongly in the past.

It is common practice for journalists to double and triple check every fact they use in their articles and social media is no exception to this. It is arguably a journalists job to go above and beyond usual fact checking mechanisms due to the high risk of inaccuracy. The source is always the first place to begin to try and find out how factual a story is. A certain element of trust is placed in someone on the other side of a screen, so it’s always important to try and find a second source for the information.

However, as social media expert Clay Shirky says, it is inevitable that ‘you trade speed for accuracy’ by getting updates from Twitter. But, he argues that mistakes tend to be corrected quickly when other users contradict misinformation (Shirky cited in Newman 2009). It is always a competition for media outlets to get their story out before their rivals, but their is a fine balance between rushing a story out too early and not getting all the facts correct, or waiting until a story is 100% factual but being the last to publish.

But whilst there can be difficulties in determine the accuracy of information, citizen journalism has enhanced news coverage. For example, in the 2015 Paris Attacks the pictures being projected on TV’s around the world were videos from the camera phones of the public. This is discussed by Sambrook (2005), who said after the 7/7 bombings, the BBC received more than 1,000 photographs, 20 pieces of amateur video, 4,000 text messages, and 20,000 e-mails within six hours of the attack.

Newman, N., 2009. The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream journalism, [online]. Oxford: Reuters Institute.

Sambrook, R., 2005. Citizen Journalism and the BBC. Nieman Reports: Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. 1-5.

Does a journalist need to get permission from a member of the public who’s posted material on a social network before using that material? What other rights issues need to be considered?

This is a tricky ethical question, as it is common courteously in day to day life to get permission before using someone else’s material, however it could be argued that these rights are forfeited on social media as the information is already out for the public to access. Under fair use, a journalist can legally use material on social networks for newsworthy purposes. Knight and Cook (2013) reiterate this, saying: “many journalists agree that material that is visible to the public may be publicly used in any other medium”. But journalists do have to be careful with material such as pictures, as they could identify someone who does not wish to be identified in mainstream news – where members of the public are in a picture, permission should be gained.

Many people use twitter as a means to get publicity, so in this case it could be argued that permission isn’t necessary as the member of social network would be benefitting from added publicity. Murthy (2011) agrees with this stating: “Twitter affords citizen journalists the possibility to break profound news stories to a global public”. However, just pinching something off of social media is lazy journalism. Especially on Twitter, 140 characters can easily be taken out of context and do not tell the whole story.

The privacy settings on the respective social networking site are also very important. For example, if someone has their twitter on the public setting then it should be presumed that the user is happy for their content to be in the public eye. However, if someones privacy settings are restricted on Facebook, then permission is necessary, as the user is making a conscious effort to hold information back from the public.

To stay safe, journalists should always make an effort to obtain permission from the publishers of UGC. However, if the material is such that it is accurate breaking news, the public interest in reporting it should take priority.

Knight, M. and Cook, C., 2013. Social media for journalists: Principles and practice. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.

Murthy, D., 2011. Twitter: Microphone for the masses? Media, Culture & Society, 33 (5), 779–789.

Should a member of the public, who shares newsworthy material on social networks be credited by a journalist who uses that material?

In usual circumstances it is held that when using someone else’s newsworthy material, you should always credit it, as it is good journalism, regardless of where the material arises from.  Giving credit to material displays to the reader that the news isn’t just plucked out of thin air, it proves that research has been conducted: “The use of attribution is standard practice in journalism. It is a vital ingredient that adds to the credibility of a story” (Hermida 2015).

As a journalist trust and good practice goes along way in establishing yourself as a well respected journalist, so taking people’s work without credit could be seen as unethical and dishonest. This is reinforced by Knight and Cook (2013), who argue that “you need people to respect your copyright in order to pay your bills, and you can’t expect your rights to be respected if you disrespect others”.

However if you take the basic news from material obtained on social networks and then transform it into your own, the previous user may not need to be credited. This doesn’t mean taking the information and rewording it, new angles and research must be added to the story to make it original. If it is simply a rearrangement of words, then credit must still be given.

Hermida, A., 2015. Nothing but the truth: Redrafting the journalistic boundary of verification In: Carlson, M. and Lewis, S. C., eds. Boundaries of Journalism: Professionalism, Practices and Participation. Oxon.

Knight, M. and Cook, C., 2013. Social media for journalists: Principles and practice. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.


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