The ethics of real-time social reporting

Paul Carr has written a thought provoking post for TechCrunch looking at the role of social media and real-time citizen reporting in last week’s Fort Hood shootings.

He asks how, even with the best intentions, how many of us are often drawn into a acting in a way of “look at me looking at this” and may be losing a sense of our humanity:

…none of us think we’re being selfish or egotistic when we tweet something, or post a video on YouTube or check-in using someone’s address on Foursquare. It’s just what we do now, no matter whether we’re heading out for dinner or witnessing a massacre on an Army base. Like Lord of the Flies, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, as long as we’re all losing our perspective at the same time – which, as a generation growing up with social media we are – then we don’t realise that our humanity is leaking away until its too late.

He then points to this video, which seems to summarise these darker sides of our human nature.

Balancing such difficulties and how to best report breaking news is something that journalists are trained to do, although mistakes do happen particularly in the highly competitive atmosphere of 24 hour news. Journalists also usually work as part of a team and rarely does news go live without editorial decisions being made.

Although not wide spread, when consuming news from main stream sources many of us have learnt how to interpret what we are hearing, reading or watching. We have learnt some basic literacies, such as the brand identity, the ownership of a newspaper, editorial standards, advertorials, PR. We also roughly know, or think we do, the agenda or philospohy of a media player, mention any of the following and you will immediately have thoughts about them: Fox News, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Channel 4.

We have learnt these skills over time, and as much as there is a need for citizens to be aware of ethics and their humanity around what they broadcast, we also have a responsibility to be literate in understanding what our friends, colleagues, followers broadcast to us and how we respond. Do we repeat what’s told us – which is now only takes a click – or do we take a few moments to consider a different response, to question what’s being told us, whether it breaches someone else’s privacy, whether it is appropriate?

In some ways these problems aren’t new. Gossip and news has always travelled quickly. What’s different is that the reach and speed now possible and the wider and deeper impact there in.

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Also see the reflections on Paul’s post by Euan Semple and Antony Mayfield.

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UPDATE 6pm 8/11/2009: In preparation for some other work later this week I came across the Charter for Media Literacy written by the Media Literacy Task Force which was set up in 2004 with support from the UK government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

The task force state that: “A media literate society is therefore not a luxury, it is a necessity in the 21st Century – for social, economic, cultural and political reasons”.

And it has has high goals:

If people are to participate fully at work or in their community, or communicate effectively with family, friends and colleagues globally, or consume media intelligently they need to be media savvy. They need to understand how media works and to feel comfortable questioning what they watch and read. They need a sense of who knows or owns what, and to what extent what you see is really what you get. And, very importantly, they need to become confident in using and exploiting the possibilities of new devices and media channels.

[Full Charter here – PDF]

Updated in July 2009 it deserves commendation and has been signed up to by many of the major media organisations and educators in the UK.

But what it possibly lacks is the need for awareness around some of the more legal and ethical issues that surround social media. Not only that of privacy, accuracy and verification, but also issues such as copyright and data protection.

It’s more than just media literacy really. As Antony Mayfield summarises it is literacy across “social/digital/media”.

UPDATE 10/11/2009: Also worth reading on this subject: Bill Thompson’s BBC column for this week.