In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world of journalism, social media has become an essential tool in the marketing of news. To be the first to report on breaking news is an almost-primordial need that every reporter has, with social media platforms being the first point of contact for most. It is because of this hustle and bustle and constant hurly-burly that errors can sometimes occur.
This then begs the question of whether it is better for journalists to be fast in their news dissemination or slow and steady, like the tortoise in the fable of yore.
In terms of journalistic ethics, whether you are a follower of the Deontological or Teleological schools of thought, you are certain to see the word ‘accuracy’ typed out in bold red letters after flipping open a book on ‘Journalism 101’. Truthtelling and the concise dissemination of news are thus the bread and butter of every reporter hoping to remain employed by their respective publications.
The abovementioned ethical frameworks (deontology and teleology) are seen as the two main branches of ethics, with various other ethical principles falling into either one of these categories.
In Layman’s terms, teleological ethics deals with the consequences and goals that would be achieved through taking a particular course of action, thus basing an actions ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ on a scale of consequentialism. An example of teleogical ethics is Utilitarianism, an ethical principle associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
The primary focus of deontological ethics, on the other hand, is duty and the absolute following of rules. German Philosopher, Immanuel Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ is an example hereof. Unlike the utilitarian principle-which focusses on doing the greatest good for the greatest number, with happiness being the main objective-the categorical imperative stresses an action’s universality. The two main maxims of the categorical imperative are: “Always act in such a way that you can also will that the maxim of your action should become a universal law.” and “Act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.”
The dilemma that many journalists face regarding whether they should be the first to report on matters on social media, or wait for confirmation about the validity of facts, is one for the ages. On the one hand, we have the ‘if you snooze, you lose’ factor, and on the other, if any information disseminated by media workers is incorrect in any way, both they and their publications could lose credibility or even be sanctioned, according to the law.
Think of how many times Nelson Mandela “died” before his actual death in 2013. Lazy journalists sometimes simply see a tweet from a source that they deem as credible and propagate the information as such, without double-checking to ensure that the tip-off is not a hoax, or simply an attention-seeking troll on social media.
Going back to the utilitarian principle, which stresses that one should do the greatest good for the greatest number, whilst minimising harm, the doctrines underlined herein can also be used as an example for the importance of fact-checking.
Think of the lorry attacks that occurred in Nice on the 14th of July, as a 19-tonne cargo truck deliberately drove through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais. These attacks were allegedly committed by the notorious terrorist organisation, the Islamic State (IS) and left more than 84 people dead. The French authorities had urged people to be responsible on social media after a myriad of false information had been showcased on Twitter, sparking panic and rage among the masses.
One of the tweets which stood out for me in particular, was the false-naming of a suspect in the attacks by various news organisations. Veerender Jubbal, was named as the mastermind behind the attacks, when in actual fact, a man by the name of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was behind the travesty. The picture posted of Vereender was a Photo shopped image of him holding a Quraan, when in actual fact, he was holding his Apple Mac.
The false naming of any suspect is a fundamental error that journalists should steer clear of. It is far better to be the second organisation to report on any occurence, than to inadvertently ruin an individual’s life through false accusations and libel.
In terms of Kant’s categorical imperative; if a reporter was to report on an event on social media and make mistakes in, their accuracy, spelling or grammar usage and got away with said errors Scott-free, then every journalist should be painted with the same brush and never face any repercussions for negligent social media reporting.
On the other side of the coin, being fast and frugal with social media reporting can be beneficial when covering events like the local government elections, keeping audiences up to date with the goings on at various voting stations.
Traffic reports can also be done via Twitter and can be seen as a service to the community at large, instead of making them wait every 60 minutes for the ‘on-the-hour’ news report.
Holistically, social media is a tool that should be used by journalists responsibly in order to disseminate information at a faster rate than any other medium. It is important to always double, and even triple check your facts before circulating any information to the public. We are the leaders and should always be wary of our social responsibility towards the public we serve. At the end of the day, the buck stops with us.