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The top 3 ethical challenges journalists will face in 2017

The top 3 ethical challenges journalists will face in 2017

Elyssa Pachico | February 10, 2017

A new report by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) examines the challenges faced by journalists in a “post-truth era,” in which facts and informed opinion have arguably taken a backseat to propaganda and misinformation.

The report, made up of a series of essays by journalists and academics, offers snapshots of the challenges faced by media in the U.S., the UK, India, Turkey and elsewhere.

Some of the principal challenges identified by the report include the following:

1. How to report more responsibly on hate speech and intolerance.

The report defines “hate speech” as statements that call for discrimination or violence, which is different from controversial statements that others — or specific communities — may find insulting. Journalists face the balance of distinguishing one from the other, in order to avoid censoring speech merely because it is offensive.

One particular problem is how to report on public officials who advocate for intolerance. Media coverage of these controversial statements may drive up TV ratings or attract more readers, but it may also amplify those statements or give them legitimacy they don’t deserve.

How can journalists produce more responsible media coverage on controversial, intolerant views? The EJN has published a checklist to guide journalists through this process, which includes considering, pre-publication, whether the speech is fact-based and whether it may be outrageous without being newsworthy. Journalists can also use an EJN infographic to help guide their reporting, in order to ensure that they avoid sensationalizing and thus “place what is said and who is saying it in an ethical context.”

Another area where hate speech may flourish is in the comments section, the EJN report notes. If news organizations don’t have the manpower to properly oversee this section — or if editors know they’ll be publishing an article which is likely to attract an overload of malicious, hateful responses — the report recommends shutting the comments section down.

“Why should [media organizations] host an activity which outstrips their ability to manage it responsibly?” the report states. “News organizations that understand this duty close comments for stories that generate more vitriol than they can manage.”

2. The ethics behind publishing viral photographs of violence and death.

As journalists continue to report on phenomena like the Syrian conflict, mass migration and the refugee crisis, they’ll continue to confront dilemmas when considering ethics in photography. (EJN has separately published a guide on covering migration, which can be viewed here).

One of the most circulated images of 2015 — the body of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee — was widely shared on social media and newspapers’ front pages, yet stirred debate on whether publishing the photo was in good taste.

The EJN report recommends that media organizations shouldn’t rush to publish an image simply because it’s gone viral — editors need to take a step back and consider whether they need to provide additional context (such as the identity of the photographer or crucial information that is missing from the image) first.

3. Dealing properly with sources and verifying online news.

The EJN report includes an extensive guide on how journalists can best deal with their sources of information. When trying to establish a good relationship with a source, the guide urges journalists to consider some of the following issues:

  • Journalists should be fully transparent about their intentions and ensure that their source understands the conditions of their interview.  

  • If interviewing a young or vulnerable person, a journalist should ensure the source understands the consequences of publishing the information they give.

The guide also includes questions journalists should ask themselves when dealing with anonymous sources, as well as tips on what to do if journalists are pressured to reveal their sources or share their content with sources before publication.

Given that many journalists now use social media as a source of information, the report includes a guide for verifying posts, videos, images and other web content. Tips include:

  • Verifying that there’s no way an image or video sourced from social media was altered (for example, through Photoshop).

  • Identifying and then contacting the original source of social media content, in order to corroborate where the content came from and whether it’s actually showing what it purports to show.

In addition to the EJN report, more tips on social media verification can be found in the Verification Handbook, which is also available in Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Barry Solow.

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