New ethical standards for social newsgathering

The Online News Association (ONA) released a new ethical code on Friday to help the industry set standards around social newsgathering, a much-needed protocol given the recent mishandling of user generated content even by large media organizations.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | April 1, 2016

An assumed video of the Brussels airport bombing that was not from Brussels; a photograph of a current breaking news scene that was from two days ago; a video of a terrorist killing a police officer from an eye witness whose request for the omission of a violent scene was ignored.

As news organizations rely more and more on user generated content, how should they approach eyewitnesses, negotiate usage, verify authenticity and credit content?

“There are new standards that need to be adopted, but everyone is just trying to work it out on their own,” said Fergus Bell, former social media and user-generated content editor at AP, founder of news and media consultancy Dig Deeper and co-founder of ONA’s news ethics initiatives. “Working together will get us there quicker so that we can focus on other pressing issues.”

The “Social Newsgathering Ethics Code” issued by ONA outlined 10 principles:

  • Endeavoring to verify the authenticity of user-generated content before publishing or distributing it, holding it to standards that are equal or equivalent to those maintained for content acquired through other means
  • Being transparent with the audience about the verification status of UGC
  • Considering the emotional state and safety of contributors
  • Considering the risk inherent in asking a contributor to produce and deliver UGC, including whether it incentivizes others to take unnecessary risks.
  • Considering technical measures to ensure anonymity of sources when required
  • Seeking informed consent for the use of UGC through direct communication with the individual who created it
  • Being transparent about how content will be used and distributed to other platforms
  • Giving due credit to the owner of the content providing that consideration has been given to potential consequences, including their physical, mental and reputational well-being
  • Endeavoring to inform and equip journalists to confront the dangers of engaging with sources through social media networks and the digital footprint they leave behind
  • Supporting and assisting journalists who are confronted with graphic or otherwise disturbing content. Maintaining an organizational culture that enables journalists to seek help or speak out when they need to protect their mental health

Besides the ONA, other efforts are also in the work. Several organizations, such as Belling Cat and Meedan, have been created to help news organization verify user-generated content and, a website dedicated to educating editors and journalists about verifying user-generated content, was launched late last year.

More than twenty contributors from New York Times, AP and Northwestern University have worked on the code and it has been endorsed so far by 10 organizations such as BBC, CNN, the Guardian and AFP.

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