Are today’s ethics apposite for tomorrow’s journalist?

Linda Goldspink-Lord posted the above comment on Channel Seven’s Facebook page in July after the network invaded her privacy whilst coming to terms with the loss of her 13-year-old daughter, Molly Jean Lord, who died after a freak quad bike accident. The network dispatched a camera crew, a links truck and a helicopter to the Lord family’s Wollongong property. The cameraman on board filmed pictures of Molly’s body, covered by a white sheet, which were broadcast to air. Mrs Goldspink-Lord was, understandably, distraught by the intrusion.

The comment brewed a social media storm, attracting more than 32,000 ‘Likes’ and 2,000 comments on Facebook alone in less than 30 hours. What created even more public furore was the fact that Channel Seven not only took down the video from their website, but they also removed the comment from their Facebook page, despite the network later claiming the removal was an “error”. As outlined in ABC’s Media Watch program, Channel 7 clearly breached the Media Alliance’s Code of Ethics, which states:

11.  Respect private grief and personal privacy.  Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.

- MEAA Code of Ethics

This story had me thinking. What are the ethical guidelines for journalists in an online environment? Should today’s ethical framework include social media management? Are existing media ethics suitable for new age journalists in an increasingly immediate and interactive sphere?

The rise of social media has led to the power of the people. That is, citizens not only have the means to publish, but also the ability to hold journalists accountable.  Stephen Ward from The Centre for Journalism Ethics asserts most media ethics principles were developed in the mid to late-90s, “originating in the construction of professional, objective ethics for mass commercial newspapers.” Flash-forward to the 21st Century where society, Ward says, is moving towards a “mixed news media” model. A model screaming out for a modernised set of media ethics that apply to both citizen and professional journalists whether they “blog, Tweet, broadcast or write for newspapers.” However, the “ethical challenge” in developing social media guidelines, is allowing reporters to engage in new media, whilst drawing limits on “personal commentary”, says Ward.

Additionally, Poynter says “user-generated content adds diverse voices and opinions to an organization’s journalism, contributes to journalists’ credibility and enhances our mission as trusted guides.” Poynter also contends that in order for ethical standards to be effective, contributors (i.e. everyday citizens) must “know and understand the consequences” of actions that violate guidelines for user-generated content. Consequences include deleting links, deleting comments and blocking users. However, I find it hard to comprehend that Mrs Lord “violated” the guidelines, which Poynter suggests, should form the backbone of today’s ethical framework for journalists. These guidelines state user-generated content should not contravene the following:

  • Obscenity
  • Personal attacks
  • Witch hunts
  • Privacy violations
  • Ethnic or racial slurs
  • Copyright and trademark infringements

Therefore, according to these guidelines, Channel 7 did not have the right to remove Mrs Lord’s comment. Liz Pope from communication strategy company Arment Dietrich says a code of journalism ethics needs to be redefined to include social media practices, as well as bloggers and citizen journalists themselves. Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement and Social Media at Digital First Media, also vows although the core journalistic ethical principles “remain the heart of good ethics”, organisations seldom incorporate or mention journalistic social media policies.

So how do journalists and news media organisations engage in fair, balanced and reliable practices, when a concrete social media management framework fails to be incorporated into global ethics standards? My question exactly.

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