Inside the Times | Mike Fancher
Social-networking sites pose ethical concerns
Seattle Times editor-at-large
If so, your ears should have been burning Tuesday when some of us at The Seattle Times were talking about you. You know who you are, and, because of your posted profile, so could we.
These social-networking sites are fast becoming a robust source of information for news stories. Our newsroom brownbag discussion last week explored when, how and whether to tap into them. It wasn't a theoretical exercise.
When Conner Schierman was accused last month of stabbing two women and two children to death, then setting their home in Kirkland on fire, our reporters quickly found his personal Web page on MySpace.com. It included his portrayal of how he was overcoming drugs and alcohol, as well as a photo of him that we published.
When Naveed Afzal Haq was arrested later in July, accused of killing one woman and wounding five others in an armed assault on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, our reporters immediately discovered he had filled out questionnaires on Classmates.com and Friendster.com.
We published some of the items, including this one:
"Your friends would describe you as: Hard to figure out."
Kyle Huff, who killed six people and then himself at a Capitol Hill house in March, didn't have a Web persona, but several people in the house, including some of his victims, had Myspace pages. In two instances we published brief comments from those pages in stories profiling the individuals.
Make no mistake, reporters should and will utilize these sites for news-gathering purposes. People who post profiles, pictures and blogs in public places on the Internet are volunteering information about themselves, much of which never would before have been available to strangers, even those in the press.
The availability of this information raises practical concerns for reporters. For example, one can't assume the accuracy of the information or even that it was posted by the people listed on the site. Immediate access to the information is only the first step in the verification process.
Most of those reporting concerns are reasonably straightforward, and professional journalists will be guided by the standards of their craft. If anything, reporters should be overly cautious with information of this sort. Editors should push hard, asking reporters, "How do we know this?"
As one person stated in our newsroom discussion, "I think our B.S. meters need to be calibrated pretty high."
The more nuanced concerns — the ones that most challenged us in the brownbag discussion — are ethical considerations. These are the issues of fairness and propriety that readers want us to weigh carefully.
After the session I went to my office and pulled out a document I picked up almost 20 years ago while visiting a class in "Ethical considerations for the press," taught by Lyle Harris at Western Washington University. It poses 13 questions for journalists to consider as they make sensitive news judgments:
1. Is this decision based on well-established principles and practices of journalism? Have I, in fact, followed professional standards of reporting and editing that would stand up when explained to a disinterested person?
2. How much of my ego is at stake here?
3. What other choices do I have?
4. Will this decision be valid two weeks from now and two years from now?
5. What experiences have I had that provide guidelines on how to handle this problem?
6. Who stands to gain or lose from this decision?
7. If this decision will cause suffering, is the news story of a level that it meets the test of the greater public good for all, even though some individuals may suffer considerable grief?
8. Will the repercussions most likely to follow from this decision be worth the story's news value?
9. Do I have another way to solve the problem that will accomplish the same end without the potential negative reactions that I now anticipate?
10. When I look in the mirror tomorrow morning will I be proud of this decision?
11. Will my family understand why I did this and be proud of me?
12. If I were on the other side of the issue, what would be my reaction?
13. Will my motives in publishing this story in this manner be understood by my readers?
Harris, now professor emeritus at Western, handed them out with the admonition that they are questions, not answers.
"Each question, should it apply, is intended as a guidepost through the maze of values, principles, loyalties, preconceived notions and similar cerebral bear traps that confront the traveler."
Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists
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