Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Can There Ever Be Ethics In Social Media?

Can There Ever Be Ethics In Social Media?
Has There Ever Been Ethics In Legacy Media?
Can We Find The Truth, Anyway?

By James E. Lukaszewski ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA

I keep hearing communication colleagues pining for set of rules for social media like those in legacy journalism i.e. critical thinking skills, validated sources of information and quotes, insertion of editorial judgment steps, off the record conventions and ethical principles. My question is since when have there ever been 'rules' ethical or otherwise that actually ever stuck in Journalism? Not to mention that these so called journalism 'rules' have been imposed on the rest of us without our participation or permission.

Social media is wildly open and operating free of the cumbersome fiction of 'rules". Better system, cleaner, more open, when you participate you’d better expect to be exposed in someone’s on line communication. Enter the social media world with your eyes open, or stay out. The question is why play in the legacy media game where you have no say in the "rules"? In fact, the rules in American journalism only favor the journalist. It is hard to believe that social media will facilitate any new rules.


It would seem that America has gotten along very well without "critical thinking skills."
Newspapers are dying because the public seems to believe that most of what they read is fabricated . . . well maybe that's critical thinking at work in reality. I am in the crisis business . . . on the ground when things happen. In these situations the coverage early on is 85% or better made up . . . to beat the competition, and the bloggers and bloviators. No much critical thinking there.

Where is this sought after critical thinking happening? In Congress? The Supreme Court? In Universities? In businesses? In Public relations? It seems extremely rare in modern journalism, and, of course non-existent in the 140 character world of new media.


The true beauty of social media is that practitioners can make their own rules, find their own audiences and publics and communicate directly with them. In so many recent news events, Newtown CT, Boston bombing, Houston explosion, Hurricane Sandy we’ve witnessed the unbelievably clumsy, ethicless, error riddled, largely fabricated performance of the legacy media. Legacy media performance has become so ridiculous, journalists have begun to pre forgive their bad work by announcing that the public should expect errors and mistakes early in big stories. I guess their assumption is that those error problems will all be fixed later. But are they?

The nonsense news was so bad in Boston and Newtown that victims, survivors and relatives called CNN and the other media begging them to stop reporting until the right information could be found. Media mistakes were powerful irritants and insults to the victims’ families. American news mediums never intend to shut up until they have the stories pegged dead right. Or even half right. Imagine CNN and Fox or the BBC or NBC putting up a poster that says, “We’ll be back on the air when we have some proof or truth we can verify.” Instead we see the lying, fabricated, infuriating and deceptive flashing “Breaking News.”

Social media doesn’t have these problems because we already know that half of what is posted is bogus and fabricated; half of the rest is riddled with unverified or validated information and data, half of the rest is from Looney tunes, and the remainder may actually be partially reliable . . . or not. The goal is to be contentious, insulting, confrontational or at least outlandish . . . and to get noticed. How is this different than legacy media?

The difference is emerging, as Pew research has shown. Eighty percent believe and trust new media, even though everyone is pretty aware of what it is, rather than newspapers not at all, radio somewhat more, and television somewhat more than say radio.

These communications realities dramatically illustrate how important it is that we as individuals get really good at managing and controlling our own information destinies because only we can, and only we care.


But wait, American legacy journalism has always been better than social media on any basis, more trustworthy, more accurate overall, civil and more principled. Right? Hardly.

Journalism in America it turns out has always been a rough-and-tumble business. Read Eric Burns’ 2007 book Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. It’s like taking a walk through today, only without all the digital applications and fancy stuff. The ability to spread gossip was colossal, but in those days limited to how far one could toss a newspaper. It's a very contemporary story, about George Washington, and his confusion over how, being as great a man as he knew he was, yet, his treatment by the press, and press treatment of his wife and mother-in-law was at least as depressing as it might be if he were alive today, being subjected to Fox news, CNBC, Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (on even numbered days).

The extraordinary wisdom of U.S. founders to constitutionally protect such an unfettered exercise of freedom remains a monumental cultural achievement. One could argue that America continues to achieve enormous success every day in spite of the tremendous generation of contention and anger that all legacy and now social mediums seem disposed to create. Somehow, for nearly 300 years, Americans have been able to sort out what matters (maybe less than 2% of what they read, see, and hear) from the various mediums. Some days, despite the 24 seven media bleating, there is nothing new to learn from them. Social media has just vastly expanded the contentiousness of the communication wasteland.

Institutions that seem so determined to disrupt people's lives without providing some rational and constructive offsetting benefit reap the ire, the disinterest, or the denigration of the disrupted resulting in searching for alternative sources of truth to aid in the individual pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.


For years I have provided my clients with a process and guidance to help determine the likely truthfulness of what they read see and hear in the news, and now on line. I call it the Truth Index. It’s designed to help them remain calm and focus on what, if anything, really matters in all the nonsense, negativity, and noise called news. Here it is:

TO: Executive Addressed

FR: James E. Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA

RE: The Truth Index: Assessing the Believability and Credibility of News Interviews, Stories, Reporters, Bloggers, Bloviators, Bellyachers and new media Blowhards.


The truth about journalism, according to Janet Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer, New York, Vintage Books, 1990, pp. 3-4), is that “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse... On reading the article or book in question, (the source) has to face the fact that the journalist - who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things - never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.”

Legacy journalism today is relentlessly competitive, amoral, aggressive, and negative. New media has multiplied the level of contentious intensity, negativity, and outrageousness. Survey after survey demonstrates the public's belief that reporters use deception and practice reckless reputation destruction while at the same time the public is increasingly trusting new media. News subjects need the means to judge the validity and believability of their news interview experience, the resulting stories, and of the behavior of the reporters who question them. New media is an extension of these behaviors. Anyone blogging or bloviating is today considered a public journalist.


The higher the score, the lower the believability and, probable validity of a news story. Question reporters directly. Test their believability credibility, and therefore, the probability of story truthfulness.




  1.   Did the reporter personally witness what he or she is reporting about?
1    2    3    4    5


  2.   Did the reporter have any specific knowledge about the topic prior to reporting about it?
1    2    3    4    5


  3.   Is the description and dialog of opposing views balanced, equal, and fair?
1    2    3    4    5

  4.   Is the story clearly biased, unbalanced, or unfair?
1    2    3    4    5


  5.   How many emotionally charged, inflammatory, and negative words, phrases, or concepts are used during the interview and in the final story?
1    2    3    4    5


  6.   How does the story content direction and perception square with what the reporter told interviewees before the interview?
1    2    3    4    5

Too Much

  7.   How much “surprise” material was used during the interview?
1    2    3    4    5


  8.   How do the observations of others present at the same news event compare with and support the reporter's version?
1    2    3    4    5


  9.   How many anonymous sources are used?
1    2    3    4    5


10.   Was the reporter insulting, overly suspicious, or disrespectful?
1    2    3    4    5


11.   Does the headline or online promotion appropriately reflect the content of the story?
1    2    3    4    5

In my experience, which always involves clients in contentious circumstances, usually of their own making, truth is never the product of deception, disrespect, or insulting, aggressively negative behavior whatever the news medium of the skill, reputation or experience of the Journalist.

Too often I see our profession standing back hoping that an abusive lesson from a journalist will teach the client something the professional PR person couldn’t… but that’s a discussion for another time.

By James E. Lukaszewski

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA is the author of Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication, What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management, available now at Amazon.com.

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