Special Section: Social Media
NPR's Ethics Handbook is organized around 10 sections that focus on the core principles that drive our journalism. There are discussions and guidance about the role and proper use of social media throughout.
This special section collects the discussions and guidance about social media. It begins with a general discussion about excellence in social media practices, and moves on through important topics such as respect, honesty and accuracy. There is some overlap between sections, which should not be surprising given the way social media have spread through our culture.
INTRODUCTION: The more things change...
In 2012, when the Handbook was published and the special section was created, the rewards and risks associated with social media were called "new and unfamiliar."
Five years later, NPR journalists are active on social media and those rewards and risks aren't new or unfamiliar any more. In fact, one unpleasant aspect has become all too familiar: While NPR journalists generally enjoy their interactions with the public on social media, they have also been the targets of abuse on Twitter and other platforms. We've added new guidance on how to handle such situations.
But even as new social media tools and challenges pop up, and as old ones evolve, our core principles still drive the way we should conduct ourselves in the digital world.
That's why we continue to say:
"Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline. Verify information before passing it along. Be honest about your intent when reporting. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality. And always remember, you represent NPR."
Though the core principles haven't changed, we've gone through the entries about social media and updated them where we felt it was necessary. For comparison purposes, the 2012 versions are here.
Because the social media landscape is constantly changing, there will surely be more updates in coming years. We'll also continue to post guidance in the "Memmos" that are attached to the Ethics Handbook. The posts already there include:
- "Social Media Rules Of The Road On Election Day"
- "Read This If You Use Social Media; Everyone Should Know Our Thinking"
- "Reminder: There Is No Privacy On The Web, And 'Personal' Pages Are Not Safety Zones"
The Ethics Handbook and the social media guidance in it are living documents. We invite suggestions and welcome feedback.
Mark Memmott, Wright Bryan, Lori Todd
Social media platforms are great tools when handled correctly.
Social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Slack have become an integral part of everyday life for people around the world. As NPR grows to serve an audience that extends well beyond radio listeners, social media are an increasingly important way of connecting with our audiences. Properly used, social networking sites can be valuable parts of our newsgathering and reporting kits because they can speed research and quickly extend a reporter's contacts. They are also useful transparency tools — allowing us to open up our reporting and editing processes when appropriate. We encourage our journalists to take advantage of them.
But reporting in social media spaces requires the same diligence we exercise when reporting in other environments. When NPR bloggers post about breaking news, they do not cite anonymous posts on social media sites — though they may use information they find there to guide their reporting. They carefully attribute the information they cite and are clear about what NPR has and has not been able to confirm.
When NPR correspondents go on the air they may mention discussions they've seen on social media sites as reflecting in part the tone or mood or general reaction to an event. But they realize that is not the same as a scientific survey of public opinion or a substitute for the kind of in-depth reporting that leads to a deep understanding of a subject.
And all NPR journalists understand that to get the most out of social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.
Words matter. Try to strike the right tone.
NPR has always tried to be engaging, entertaining and informative – while being civil. We've never shouted at our guests. We seek answers, not confrontations, when we conduct interviews. We are firm when we need to be, but never mean.
We take the same attitude to social media. We shouldn't SHOUT IN ALL CAPS when we're angry. We shouldn't take the bait from trolls and sink to their level. We don't use foul language. We pause to re-read our responses before hitting "reply."
As we've said before:
"We're professional communicators at a major news organization. What we say and write in public reflects on NPR. No matter what platform we're using or where we're appearing, we should live up to our own standards."
There is room to be a little looser with our language on social media. There are words and phrases that, if written with the right tone, are OK. Take "badass," for example. Used as a compliment, it's a wonderful word.
Tone and intent are critical. Words that cut when used in anger may spark laughs in other contexts – especially when poking fun at ourselves.
How we treat each other.
We sometimes want to write about NPR on social media. Sharing our colleagues' work is encouraged. Pointing to NPR's coverage of news events is of course perfectly fine. But when it comes to criticism of the work done by NPR's journalists, we treat our colleagues as we hope they would treat us. If we have something critical to say, we say it to their face – not on social media.
We also treat each other with respect when using social media platforms such as Slack to communicate internally. When in doubt, it's always wise to ask a few questions: Would I say that to this person's face? Would I say that in front of my co-workers? How would I feel if that was said – in public — to me?
How we deal with abusive behavior by others.
Journalists are just like those in other professions. We enjoy being praised when we do good work. But unlike those in occupations that aren't in the public eye, journalists have to accept that being criticized is part of the job. We know that the words we write and say, the photos and videos we post, the charts we produce and – yes – the things we say in social media may anger others. If we're willing to report facts that may cast public officials in an unfavorable light and are willing to dig into controversial topics, we have to be willing to put up with some pushback from the public.
We do not, however, have to put up with threatening or abusive communications from those who don't like our reporting. We do not have to put up being personally attacked because of our gender, race, religion or any other identifying factor.
The guiding principles when such abuse comes in are "don't feed the trolls" and "don't respond in kind." This is a classic example of "easier said than done," of course. We're human. We want to fire back.
Here are two other approaches:
If the message is unpleasant but not threatening and is about work you've done, try responding with something along these lines – "I appreciate constructive feedback. Can you tell me more about what concerned you?" If the person responds constructively, you've got a conversation going. If the person continues to be unpleasant or becomes abusive, do not continue the conversation. Instead, move to our next suggestion.
If a message feels threatening, do not respond to it. Instead, forward it to our internal distribution list "NPRThreats." It will be read by our Legal, Security and News Operations executives. They will take appropriate actions and keep you updated about what they're doing.
Social media can be wonderful places to spread our journalism and hear from the public. But it's become increasingly clear that social media communities are also places were some people's darker sides emerge. NPR journalists should know that there is support available to them when they come under attack.
We are considerate of community norms.
We know that different communities – online and offline – have their own culture, etiquette, and norms, and that we should be respectful of them. Our ethics don't change in different circumstances, but our decisions might.
Awareness is critical. Strive to be knowledgeable about each social media platform's culture, and be attuned to gaps in your understanding. Your colleagues can be a terrific resource to help you get up to speed on unfamiliar settings.
Consider as well how your conduct in a community will affect your reporting. As you adjust behaviors such as language and dress in different situations, think about what might be most helpful or harmful to effective reporting on social media.
Also, appreciate that journalism can be an intrusive act, and conduct yourself as a decent guest of the community where you're reporting. If it was customary to remove your shoes upon entering a building, you would. It's appropriate to follow the indigenous customs on social media as well.
Don't just spread information. Be careful. Be skeptical. Add context.
When determining whether to pass along information being reported on social media sites by other news outlets or individuals, be thoughtful. When we point to what others are saying, in the eyes of many we are effectively reporting that information ourselves. This is true whether the platform is an official NPR social media account or a post to an NPR journalist's personal account.
Reporting about what's being posted on social media can give our listeners and readers valuable insights into the day's news. We encourage you to do it, with these guidelines in mind.
One key is to be transparent about what we're doing. We tell readers what has and hasn't been confirmed. Here's an example of language we use:
"This is a breaking news story. As often happens in situations like these, some information reported earlier may turn out to be inaccurate. We'll move quickly to correct the record and we'll only point to the best information we have at the time."
A Twitter-sized version might read like this:
"We're following the news from Gotham City. We'll focus on authoritative sources, update as things change and correct any misinformation."
If we are retweeting information, it's because we think it's of value. We know that doing this can make it look like NPR is vouching for what's been said. That's why we use the "quote tweet" function to say more, add context and make clear that we're pointing to something that's been posted by another person or news outlet. Keep this in mind: A retweet may be seen as an endorsement; don't assume it's not going to be viewed that way.
We challenge those putting information on social media to provide evidence. We raise doubts and ask questions when we have concerns — sometimes "knocking down" rumors is of enormous value to our readers. And we always ask an important question: are we about to spread a thinly-sourced rumor or are we passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats?
Above all, proceed with caution, especially when news is breaking and accounts vary widely about what is happening. That means we reach out to other sources for confirmation. And the general standard is simple: We tweet and retweet as if what we're saying or passing along is information we would put on the air or in a "traditional" NPR.org news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or "knocking down," we provide it.
When in doubt, consult the Social Media Team.
Of course, it's not always obvious how to apply journalistic principles to the social media arena. One resource available to NPR journalists is our "Social Media Team." Its members have expertise in collecting information from a variety of sources, in establishing to the best of their ability the credibility of those voices and the information they are posting, and in analyzing the material they use. Always make clear to listeners and readers what has been obtained from our original reporting and what we've found posted in social media outlets. And to the greatest practical extent, spell out how the information was checked and why we consider the sources credible. We may also invite our audience to assist in our efforts to monitor and verify what's being reported on social media. Such crowdsourcing does not determine what NPR journalists report, but it does add to our knowledge. The team can be reached via email: SocialMediaTeam@npr.org.
Follow up offline when appropriate.
It's not hard to fake an identity online. Tonal or contextual nuances can be lost in online exchanges. So when appropriate, clarify and confirm information collected online through phone and in-person interviews. For example, when a social media posting is itself news, contact the source to confirm the origin of the information and attain a better understanding of its meaning. We must try to be as sophisticated in our use of social media as our audience and users are. The Social Media Team is a key asset in this effort.
Take care in using images that have been posted online.
In considering whether to use photos and video that are being posted online by individuals, do your best to verify their accuracy and when in doubt, do not publish them.
Images can be manipulated. Old video can be reposted and made to appear as if it's new. Photos or video taken in one part of the world can be repackaged and portrayed as being from somewhere else. Again, when in doubt, leave them out.
As with all information, bring a healthy skepticism to images you encounter, starting from the assumption that all such images or video are not authentic. Then, with guidance from NPR's Visuals and Social Media Teams (and if legal issues are involved, NPR's Legal team as well), work through a series of questions, including:
- When was it posted?
- Do the images or video match what has been distributed by professionals (wire services, news networks, etc.)?
- Is it original work or copies of what others have done?
- Does this person have the legal right to distribute the work and has he made the materials available for others to use?
More resources: The National Press Photographers Association's code of ethics is posted online.
We are open about who we are.
If as part of our work we are doing anything on social media or other online forums, we do not hide the fact that we work for NPR. We do not use pseudonyms when doing such work.
NPR journalists may, in the course of their work, "follow" or "friend" Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and other social media sites created by political parties and advocacy groups. But we do so to monitor their news feeds, not to become participants, and we follow and friend sites created by advocates from all sides of the issues. It's as basic a tool as joining mailing lists.
If in their personal lives NPR journalists join online forums and social media sites, they may follow the conventions of those outlets and use screen names that do not identify who they are. But we do not use information gathered from our interactions on such sites in our reports for NPR without identifying ourselves to those involved and seeking their permission to be quoted or cited. If we get ideas for stories, we treat the information just as we would anything we see in the "real world" — as a starting point that needs to be followed by open, honest reporting.
Finally, we acknowledge that nothing on the Web is truly private. Even on purely recreational or cultural sites and even if what we're doing is personal and not identified as coming from someone at NPR, we understand that what we say and do could still reflect on NPR. So we do nothing that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage NPR's standing as an impartial source of news, or otherwise jeopardize NPR's reputation. In other words, we don't behave any differently than we would in any public setting or on an NPR broadcast.
We probably couldn't hide anyway, because there is no privacy on the Web.
Imagine, if you will, an NPR legal correspondent named Sue Zemencourt. She's a huge fan of Enormous University's basketball team and loves to chat online about EU. She posts comments on blogs under the screen name "enormous1." One day, an equally rabid fan of Ginormous State ("ginormous1") posts obnoxious comments about EU.
Sue snaps. Expletives and insults fly from her fingers on to the webpage. They're so out-of-line that the blog blocks her from submitting any more comments — and discovers that her IP address leads back to NPR. The blog's host posts that "someone at NPR is using language that the FCC definitely would not approve of" and describes what was said. Things go viral.
The basically good person that she is, Sue publicly acknowledges and apologizes for her mistake. But that doesn't stop The Daily Show from satirizing about the "NPRNormous Explosion."
Be circumspect about your behavior, even when the exchange feels private or anonymous. Even an email to a trusted recipient can be made public, with or without the recipient's knowledge or consent.
Online sources should be on-the-record too.
Many contacts with sources are made online — via emails and social media sites. As we discuss in the guidelines about accuracy and transparency, NPR pushes to keep its interviews on-the-record. The same is true of our "virtual" interactions with sources. We make that clear to potential sources when we reach out to them.
Social media outlets are public spaces.
We know that everything we write or receive on a social media site is public. Anyone with access to the Web can potentially see what we're doing. And regardless of how careful we are in trying to keep them separate, our professional lives and our personal lives overlap when we're online.
The line between private and public activity has been blurred by these tools. Information from a Facebook page, blog entries and tweets — even if they're intended to be personal messages to friends or family — can be easily circulated beyond the intended audiences. The content, therefore, represents us and NPR to the outside world — as do our radio pieces and stories for NPR.org. This applies to the people and organizations we choose to "friend" or "like" online as well. Those are content choices as much as a message or blog post. As in all of all reporting, the NPR Guiding Principles guide our use of social media.
Rule of thumb: You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as being appropriate behavior by a journalist. In other words, don't act any differently online than you would in any other public setting.
And a final caution – when in doubt, consult with your supervisor and, if needed, the Standards & Practices editor and Social Media Team.
Can we follow political parties or advocacy groups related to our beats?
If your work includes coverage of politics and social issues, can you "follow" or "friend" a political party or advocacy group?
Yes, if you're doing it to keep up on what that party or group is doing. And you should be following those on the other side of the issues as well.
Self-protection is part of being accountable online.
Protect yourself: Use the highest level of privacy tools available to control access to your personal activity when appropriate, but don't let that make you complacent. It's just not that hard for someone to bypass those safeguards and make public what you thought was private.
Don't be careless. Keep your opinions to yourself. Imagine what you say or write landing in an AP story or in The Washington Post, and imagine the damage that could cause you or NPR.
Consider the legal implications of your actions, regardless of the medium.
Whether in an NPR newscast or a tweet, "you always have to take into consideration what you're saying, what you know, what you don't know, and be thoughtful about not making libelous comments whatever the medium."1
In many cases, a journalist will be legally responsible for any statement he or she repeats, even if the statement is attributed to another source. There are a few exceptions, and one of them is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects news organizations from defamation liability for content that's created by a third party. Many experts believe this protection would extend to retweets. Citizen Media Law Project co-founder David Ardia put it this way in a Poynter.org story: "So if a journalist or news organization were to retweet a defamatory statement, they would not be held accountable. If, however, they added a defamatory remark as part of the retweet, they could be."
So, in theory NPR would be protected if someone retweets a post that says something defamatory or inaccurate about someone. But be careful about adding comments that would make the message your own and destroy immunity.
But beyond the legal implications, it is important to consider our listeners and readers and the fact that they trust that the information we're giving them is as accurate as we can make it. This extends to the information we tweet, retweet, blog, tumble or share in any other way on social media. And that's why we don't simply pass along information — even via something as seemingly innocent as a retweet — if we doubt the credibility of the source or news outlet. We push for confirmation. We look for other sources. We reach out to those closer to the story. In other words, we do some reporting.
1. Source: NPR's Ashley Messenger, in an article on Poynter.org.
[Editor's Note: This section revised on July 7, 2021 to reflect the work and thinking of the Ethics Handbook Committee.]
The same standards apply.
Do not advocate for political issues online. This extends to your Facebook page or a personal blog. Don't express personal views on a political issue that you could not write for the air or post on NPR.org. These guidelines apply whether you are posting under your own name or — if the online site allows pseudonyms — your identity would not be readily apparent. In reality, anything you post online reflects both on you and on NPR.
Your simple participation in some online groups could be seen to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by just observing a group's activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, be clear that you've done so to seek information or story ideas. And if you "friend" or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for groups representing other viewpoints.
THE LEGAL FINE PRINT
When posting or gathering material online, consider terms of service.
It's important to keep in mind that the terms of service of a social media site apply to what we post there and to the information we gather from it. Also: The terms might allow for our material to be used in a different way than intended. Additionally, law enforcement officials may be able to obtain our reporting on these sites by subpoena without our consent — or perhaps even our knowledge. Social media are a vital reporting resource for us, but we must be vigilant about keeping work that may be sensitive in our own hands.
We understand that what we say on platforms such as Snapchat, where things seem to disappear after a short time, may still exist in the service's database. That's why we follow the same rules on those platforms as on all others. We're as careful about what we say there as we are anywhere else.