Corrections, UGC and More: Ethical Issues in the Digital Space

Photo: Zach Behrens/SPJLA

By Naomi Ogaldez

Correcting online news reports and verifying user-generated content were among the topics discussed at a recent digital media ethics panel hosted by NBC4 in Burbank.

“Ethical Issues in the Digital Space,” moderated by NBC4 Tech/Social Media Reporter Mekahlo Medina, attracted 45 journalists and public relations professionals on Jan. 16.

“It was billed as a panel discussion but it was really more like a collaborative meeting, with everyone around the table,” said Julie Walmsley, freelance journalist. “It was really a productive conversation among journalists, acknowledging their challenges and sharing practices and protocols.”

The discussion clarified many questions the attendees had about covering breaking news under nail-biting deadlines.

“I learned the most about the changing aspect of covering the news. It just made me think a lot,” said Joe Marchelewski, public relations manager for the Shernoff Bidart Echeverria Bentley law firm.

Panelist Megan Garvey, assistant managing editor for digital at LATimes.com, started out by reflecting on how several news organizations in December initially misidentified the shooter who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newton, Conn.

Even when subsequent reports from sources and other news agencies might cause a reporter or editor to question the accuracy of their original story, it can take awhile to find out the truth and make updates.

“You don’t want to make a mistake on top of a mistake. So you have to leave (the original story) up for a while until you know,” said Garvey.

However, once the original story has been corrected, in Garvey’s opinion, it should not be deleted from the news organization’s website.

“My personal feeling is we should leave up the original reporting with a strong correction, otherwise it seems like you’re trying to pretend like it didn’t happen,” she said.

Today’s reporters still need to follow long-established rules such as reporting information in context, getting two people to confirm information and verifying sources, just at a much faster speed than the pre-digital days.

Panelist Jonathan Lloyd, managing editor for NBCLA.com, raised the topic of user-generated content. He said that the TV station has always used photos provided by outsiders, but now that technology has improved, there are ethical questions that need to be answered before deciding whether to post user-generated content.

NBCLA.com has a system for accepting pictures and videos from the public that gives disclaimer-relinquishing rights and makes the contributor provide contact information. Lloyd recommended that journalists use their instincts when choosing whether to use the content submitted.

“Your enemy is immediacy and the novelty of having that image,” said Lloyd. “We reach out to that person. You’re not only reaching out to confirm, but also to maybe get yourself a real good story. And that leads to providing context to the story. A lot of it is research.”

He displayed images that were obviously fake and others that looked altered, but, in reality, were authentic. He explained his process to ensure that the potentially bogus photos were real before using them.

Panelist Alice Walton, political reporter for KPCC 89.3 FM and founder of TheCityMaven.com, transitioned the discussion to how non-traditional journalists can more effectively handle ethical issues.

spjla-nbc4Walton advised bloggers to be transparent, report the truth and establish a group of professionals willing to give advice when a problem comes up.

“You can’t make ethical decisions in a vacuum,” said Walton. “You have to create a community for yourself, a ‘kitchen cabinet’ of advisors.”

Walton’s advice was especially helpful to independent journalists.

“Alice’s comments about creating her blog, her specific answers to my questions about growing as a writer without an editor and protecting one’s self legally when doing investigative pieces were really valuable,” said Walmsley.

After the discussion concluded, a handful of attendees toured the NBC4 studio. They learned how the newsroom is run and were able to take some memorable snapshots at the news desk.

Naomi is a CSUN journalism student. Follow her on Twitter at @Nogaldez.

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