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:
- 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.
I will admit I was intrigued when I learned QUT’s propitious Online Journalism students would be graced by the presence of John Grey, the witty and enigmatic up-until-one-month-ago editor (and founder) of couriermail.com.au. Although enlightening, it was also rather frightening. As Grey painted a somewhat bleak, pessimistic future of the journalism industry (“I hold grave concerns about the profession – news organisation’s aren’t looking for quality any more”), timorous-filled-whispers filled the theatre. Not only did Grey succeed at taking the spring out of my step, I could feel the fiery ambition of my fellow budding journalists beginning to fester. Grey failed to instil in me the optimism I had been longing for from the industry.
Does this mean death to journalism? Well, in a way. Not every newspaper will have identical reporters covering the same stories, geographical areas or sub-industries. It simply does not make sense in today’s digital world. Instead, there will be one journalist reporting from Canberra on behalf of all organisations, for example. It will be like one big news wire service. All papers will also share content. Therefore, this will result in more jobs, but for less people. As Grey reiterated, it is “out with the old” and “in with the new” when it comes to changes in journalism styles and skills.
Sure, there will always be demand for jobs within the industry, but these positions will be extremely difficult to score. As Grey said, “…you just need to be a good writer.” So, the ability to write remains the most important skill if you want to become a successful journalist, you ask? Yes, but you must also be versatile and comfortable with a range of content management systems. “You must be able to tell a story in different ways through pictures, video and words. It’s the whole package,” said Grey.
Despite a dramatic rise in the number of citizen journalists and bloggers who are equipped with the technology, facilities and abilities to deliver news, a democracy such as ours will always require “big media organisations” with “deep pockets” to obtain the real facts, said Grey.
I came across this fascinating ’21st Century newsroom model’, which outlines how a news story typically passes through a converged newsroom today. The model suggests speed and depth are the two strengths of online mediums. News organisations now have the ability to distribute and publish information faster than ever before. There’s Twitter, Facebook, moblogs, apps, and the list goes on. Interestingly, Grey stated there is no such thing as an ‘exclusive’ story any more, due to the perils of the Internet. He says a media outlet would be “lucky” to have an exclusive for three minutes. Three minutes!
So, how do you stand out from the crowd? How can you resurrect yourself in the digital age? In her blog, British freelance journalist Lara O’Reilly pinpoints the skills new journalists require if they are to succeed in today’s fast-paced newsrooms:
- A portfolio showcasing your work
- Innovative thinking
- News gathering skills
- Concise writing style
- Ability to understand your audience
- Social media and online tools
- An interactive blog
- A network of contacts
- Layout and design skills
- Ability to capture video
In sum, new age journalists need every string to their bow, from the fundamentals of writing to new techniques such as layout, design and social media, to resurrect themselves in an industry that is becoming increasingly cutthroat, bloodthirsty and on the cusp of a traditional death.