Journalism ethics and social media

A few words I addressed to Moroccan media colleagues in Casablanca

Some things never change. 

To be a journalist is to strive for accuracy and fairness, and to rely on personal integrity in seeking to verify all that we make public. In the UK and Ireland we have a succinct Code of Conduct that seeks to define what is expected of us as journalists.

The Code was first devised way back in 1936 at a time when some were insisting that journalists should be registered with the State, and could be banned from working as journalists if they were considered to have behaved badly.

But if we are to serve the public interest, not vested interests or state security, we believe it is vital that people can trust our independence and the integrity of our material. 

The rise of social media networks should not change that one iota.  Indeed the plethora of information and opinion that now crowd out the public sphere make it all the more important that we stick to our guiding principles.

How does this translate to the social media landscape? 

Access to so much information, personal, political and commercial contacts may make our job easier in many respects, but it also makes it more onerous. How so? Because central to our responsibility is verification.

We have to tread more carefully because the overwhelming desire to be first must be challenged by the requirement to be accurate. We have all been caught out at some point by wanting to break news rather than risk delays by investigating further. 

And no doubt we have all relied too heavily on our own assumptions, let alone prejudices.

Never assume anything. Find out for yourself. Even if bloggers and politicians and public figures do not, it is essential that we are open and accountable about fact-checking material. 

There is nothing to be lost and everything to be gained from acknowledging our sources when verifying information.  If our audiences wish to go deeper we have provided them with the means to do so. After all, all that we can do is to precis, as accurately as possible, the information that is available.

Of course we must maintain an absolute commitment to protecting confidential sources, while remaining alive to the fact that they may be feeding us incorrect information. It is our job to stand up their information independently, while standing by our pledges to them.

The temptation is especially strong when Facebook/Meta, Instagram, Snapchat, Tiktok, YouTube, WhatsApp, or what used to be called Twitter, offers compelling images or videos to support their claims.To say they can be deceptive is an understatement. 

They say that the Internet has done away with our role as gatekeepers who filter what news the public receives. I would say that it intensifies our role, to sieve out the facts from the fictions.

There are now so many ways to conduct reverse image searches to check the veracity of visual material on social media platforms. Bing, Google, Shutterstock, Tineye, and no doubt others, all have quite simple systems to check when and where images originate. It is incumbent upon us as professionals to be aware of and make use of them.

Many TV stations, including Al Jazeera, the BBC, EuroNews and France 24 now have verification spots to analyse problematic statements and images. 

The big question is how many regular viewers actually see these shows? The risk is that millions of people rely upon their own assumptions that what they first saw or heard on social media must be the the truth. And so often it is not. 

Yet more and more people rely on their smart phones and social media for information.  Part of our job these days is to forewarn them, or at least try to put the record straight. It is a hapless task.

It is interesting to note that many media houses in the UK, including the BBC expect, if not require, their journalists to have a personal online presence. This is not so much to express opinions as to preserve the journalistic integrity of the brand. Overt political bias is not acceptable, and the slightest hint of it often leads to public controversy.

In effect additional rules apply on social media, in order to bolster trust and personal integrity. And it is through these personal accounts that the record can so often be put straight, especially if we are reporters on the ground.

Indeed I first joined Twitter while on assignment on Egypt. I thought I might need to let people know what was happening quickly. And that was how I knew that a civil war was breaking out in Syria. A trusted source, a respected journalist working for a reputable company, tweeted disturbing images from Damascus, with a commentary.

Even that did give rise to another ethical issue about use of social media –  namely the potential harm of delivering shocking images or footage without fair warning. Sometimes those images can cause trauma among the unwary.  

When Daesh videos of executions were being transmitted directly into newsrooms, some years ago, I attended a session in London’s Frontline Club for foreign correspondents where it was agreed between broadcasters and the news agencies to whom the videos were being sent, that direct transmission should cease. The word of reputable agencies would suffice as confirmation of the content to allow broadcasters to inform the public.

But there are other, apparently trivial, but no less problematic issues that can arise from our reliance on social media for stories.

Take for instance news of a crime, an accident, a natural catastrophe, or war, where individuals are casualties. How valid or appropriate is it to use images or other information taken from their social media accounts? If it is on Facebook or Snapchat does that mean it is in the public domain, and therefore legitimate to republish? Well, that may depend on a variety of circumstances. 

Do you know under what terms it was posted? Was it under restricted viewing conditions? Have you checked the terms and conditions and privacy policies of the platform? Indeed, have you ever read the terms and conditions and privacy policies of any platform? 

It could prove costly, in more ways than one, if material is placed in the public domain without the consent of its subject or owner.

There is a world of difference between something published on a private, password-protected Facebook group and material published on ‘X’, using a hashtag, which is clearly inviting support or reposting.

When publishing some material – especially photographs or segments of text gleaned from the internet – is it important to acknowledge the source, if not just to avoid accusations of plagiarism or breaches of copyright.  

For 30 years I was Director of the journalism ethics NGO MediaWise, and one of the most frequent complaints was that personal images, including portraits of deceased family members, had been used without consent. It is so much easier to access such images today than when we started out 30 years ago, but seeking informed consent remains the crucial issue.

Many of us do not stop to think about what ‘informed consent’ might mean for people on the opposite side of the desk to us. For us it can simply mean – they know that we want to use the image in an article or programme.  That may be true. but we are also conscious that exposing material to a vast anonymous audience, well beyond the originator’s experience of social interactions, could have devastating, if unintended, consequences. 

It may be something as direct as alerting an estranged partner or relative to the location of a child’s school, or opening up someone up to prejudice and online abuse.

The controversy over Youtube influencer Amine Raghib’s reveleations that explicit private Snapchat photographs and videos were being shared by other online groups is indicative of the risks of unprofessional sharing of images. Does sharing explicit images within an online group constitute entering the public domain? Are personal moral objections enough to override the private intentions of the originators? And if a law had been broken, should you first tell the public or the authorities? 

You can see that all manner of ethical dilemmas can arise.

As professionals we know that publication can have consequence about which ordinary members of the public may have no notion. We are duty bound to explain this if we want to claim permission was granted or that our usage was permitted with genuinely ‘informed consent. I have known individuals to have been assaulted and family homes attacked when such information was released by the media thoughtlessly.

At MediaWise we operated under a simple creed – that Press Freedom is a responsibility exercised  by journalists on behalf of the public. And that the public has a right to know when incorrect information has been published, and deserves to have it corrected.

It seems to me that these are basic tenets that should underpin our work, on and off the Internet.  We should always be interrogating ourselves not just about what we are producing, and why – but how we have gone about collecting information.

Can any user of social media have a reasonable expectation of privacy these days? Why not? Do they have any obligation to ensure that what they publish is truthful? Evidently not.

Does the age of the originator or the person depicted make a difference? Are we in compliance with the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Morocco is a signatory? The Convention does have implications for us as media workers.

Unless there are valid extenuating circumstances, when approaching those whose material we hope or intend to use, we should explain who we work for, why we want to use the material, and how we intend to use it

Ideally we should alert them to any potential consequences, and if we have established that the material is already in the public domain we should explain that we do not need their permission. Many users of social media are not aware of the protocols and pitfalls, so our courtesy calls may act as a form of media literacy.

I will end as I began by reiterating that the existence of social media may make our work much easier, but it brings with it additional responsibilities. To be aware of the internal and external regulations that apply is essential/

I appreciate that control and supervision of content in Morocco does come under considerable scrutiny. Journalists have been put at risk and even jailed over material originated on social media.

My concern here has been to see how long established codes of practice, such as those promoted by the NUJ and the IFJ are as relevant today as they were in the last century.

Indeed the Paris Charter on Artificial Intelligence and Journalism produced by 17 media organisations in November last year echoes their central themes and mine: 

  • Ethics must govern technological choices within the media;
  • Human agency must remain central in editorial decisions;
  • The media must help society to distinguish between authentic and synthetic content with confidence;
  • The media must participate in global AI governance and defend the viability of journalism when negotiating with tech companies.

I will end with a quote from a former General Secretary of the IFJ and now President of the Ethical Journalism Network, Aidan White. 

Addressing the Doha World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in November 2023, he warned on the potential harm of social media outlets driven by Artificial Intelligence in the hands of propagandists and those intent on prompting division. 

“Whether we are engaged in sharing knowledge or research or investigating and interrogating the events and realities of human society we provide intelligence and fact-based information that is vital for the public we serve. That is part of the social role we play in society. This is not a marginal benefit for humanity, but gets to the heart of what we mean by being human.”

Casablanca, 12 Feb 2024


A journalist:

  1. At all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed
  2. Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair
  3. Does her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies
  4. Differentiates between fact and opinion
  5. Obtains material by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means
  6. Does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest
  7. Protects the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work
  8. Resists threats or any other inducements to influence, distort or suppress information
  9. Takes no unfair personal advantage of information gained in the course of her/his duties before the information is public knowledge 
  10. Produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation
  11. Does not by way of statement, voice or appearance endorse by advertisement any commercial product or service save for the promotion of her/his own work or of the medium by which she/he is employed
  12. Avoids plagiarism. 

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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