Social Media Guidelines for Student Journalists

The Cronkite School encourages participants in its professional programs to make use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which are valuable reporting tools and promotional and distribution channels for our content. To ensure the highest journalistic standards in these programs, participants must abide by the following standards for social media use drawn from The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

Ethical Principle: Act Independently
As stated in the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know. Actions that call into question a journalist’s ability to report fairly on an issue harm not only that journalist but his or her news organization and fellow journalists. Participants in the Cronkite School’s professional programs are bound by these standards in their use of social media regardless of whether they are at work:

  • Recognize that your actions involving social networking sites, including those taken when you aren’t working, affect the credibility of yourself, the Cronkite School’s professional programs and other journalists participating in those programs.
  • Avoid posting information to social networking sites or blogs that could embarrass you or your news organization or call into question your ability to act independently as a journalist. This includes expressing political views or opinions about newsmakers or sharing internal communications, even if you are participating in what is supposed to be a private group.
  • In profiles and in use of privacy settings, restrict access to your most private information, including removing any mention of political leanings and information that could be misinterpreted as conveying a bias.
  • Aggressively manage “friends” and followers and their comments. Delete comments that call into question your ability to act independently as a journalist and, if necessary, remove “friends” or followers who make such comments.
  • Recognize that actions taken for journalistic reasons can be misinterpreted, such as signing on as a “fan” of a political campaign or interest group in order to follow updates. When appropriate, tell that group that you have signed on to look for story ideas. If identifying yourself as a follower of a campaign, interest group or political party, seek to follow sites of the other candidate/s, the other political party or groups on the other side of the issue.

Ethical Principle: Seek and Report the Truth
As stated in the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. The Cronkite School’s professional programs recognize that using social networking sites helps journalists find sources and develop story ideas as well as making personal and professional connections. Participants in these programs are bound by these standards when using social networking sites as a reporting tool:

  • Recognize that use of social networking sites is just one way of gathering information. It is no substitute for face-to-face interviews and digging for information.
  • Work offline to confirm information gathered via social networking sites. Seek through every means possible to interview sources in person or by phone to verify identities, claims and statements.
  • Be transparent with your instructors, supervisors, editors and audience when using information drawn exclusively from a social networking site or messaging through a social networking site. Let them know how and in what context you contacted sources and gathered information and how you verified that information or sought to verify it.
  • Compensate for the younger, whiter and more affluent skew of users of social networking sites. Seeking diversity is an ethical principle as well as a journalistic goal, and social networking sites used exclusively or predominately as a way to report news can limit the inclusion of diverse views.

Ethical Principle: Minimize Harm
As stated in the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists should treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect. Participants in the Cronkite School’s professional programs are bound by these standards intended to minimize harm from the use of social networking sites as a reporting tool:

  • Obtain informed consent from sources, disclosing who you are, what you are seeking and where your story will and/or could run. The informality of social networking sites makes it easier for potential sources to misunderstand your intentions and the impact of cooperating.
  • Take care when dealing with minors and other vulnerable people who might not fully understand the consequences of cooperating with a journalist. If contacting a child through a social networking site, make sure he or she connects you with a responsible adult.

Written by Steve Elliott, director of digital news for Cronkite News Service, with acknowledgment to "A newsroom guideline for using social networks" by Kelly McBride, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies