JRNL 100: Ethics, Twitter, and “Who Cares if it’s True?”

Journalism Ethics in the Digital Age: Is Transparency Enough?

Why the Truth Matters

At the York Daily Record, an online news platform, content is often published directly by reporters and photographers, and reviewed later by editors as soon as they are able, explains metro editor Susan Martin.

Although this is an extreme case, it demonstrates the trending belief of many digital publications that although the truth is important, it’s equally important to have the content out there. If errors exist, they can be corrected.

This is a big contrast to the intensive editing and fact-checking process followed by The New Yorker between 1952 and 1987 that could take weeks or months, and involved almost every single piece of text within the magazine.

The striking difference between the two approaches is highlighted by Marc Fisher in an article entitled “Who Cares if it’s True?”. He writes that this polarized treatment of information illustrates the difference between the traditions of older media and the methods of newer digital journalists. However, Fisher insists that a publication where speed may trump verification, “is no expression of tabloid amorality” but a different philosophy: provide the audience with “the closest version of the truth” that’s possible at that moment.

For Fisher, this can all be “boiled down to a battle over the very purpose of what [journalists] do”, and Fisher’s question, ‘who cares if it’s true?” is a good one. How can people be affected by information that is unverified? What are the ethical implications for journalists and the institution of journalism alike?

The Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethics Guidelines contains a section dedicated to special issues in Digital Media. Although it’s easy to see how such guidelines are perhaps too utopian to be practical, it’s also important to see, from an ethical standpoint, what many believe journalists believe they should be striving for. One key guideline:

The need for speed should never compromise accuracy, credibility or fairness. Online content should be reported and edited as carefully as print content, and when possible, subjected to full editing.

But, as was seen at the York Daily Record, this is not always the case in online media publications. As Fisher’s article describes of Thunderdome, another online news platform, waiting for something to be verified by their own sources may take up valuable time, so if they “can find a verified reporter who’s tweeted the image, [they’ll] go with it”. However, it can be difficult to tell if that reporter has verified the information themselves, or if it’s a rumour.

The CAJ guidelines include the phrase “we do not re-post rumours”, but Steve Myers’ Poynter article “Should journalists confirm information before passing it along on Twitter?” provides an alternatively valid point. The article links to tweets from journalists who, although some agree more with the CAJ that unverified information should not be shared in any case, mostly see it as acceptable, as long as the journalists are transparent. This seems to answer Fisher’s question of ‘who cares?’ — the audience, because they need to know if they can trust the information.

However, others agree that rumours are an important part of the conversation
The key points that concluded the discussion were transparency and attribution

In contrast to the CAJ ethical guidelines, Stephen J. A. Ward has proposed a “radical new network for media ethics” that deals with the consequences of a system inherited from older media doesn’t work well online, leaving us with a gap in policies used to evaluate journalism. He questions, “for instance, what does accuracy mean in an era of instant updating?”

One of Ward’s arguments is that the principles we follow cannot be fixed and absolute, because this assumes their original perfection. Rather, we should embrace discussion and changes as we continually strive to find the best ethical framework.

I agree with Ward, although I think that there is one immoveable standpoint in journalism: the aim for truth and accuracy, even on more informal places like Twitter. It is ethical for journalists both timely and transparent about the information they share, so the public can stay informed in this generation of digital media.

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