What recently happened when one of the most popular car magazine in the Philippines, Top Gear, posted the Facebook profile of Nelson Punzalan on its Facebook Page was heartbreaking. Many immediately assumed him to be the criminal. With this single act of posting online, Punzalan was falsely accused of killing cyclist Mark Vincent Geralde because Top Gear did not properly verify the information it got regarding the conduction sticker number of the Hyundai Eon car involved in the road rage. It turns out, the unknown informer misread the conduction sticker by just one digit. All these were researched and reported by ABS-CBN News Online.
Top Gear magazine’s editor Vernon Sarne apologized publicly for the error and was reported to say he will do his best to reach out to Punzalan and personally apologize to him and his family. Then, what next?
RESPONSIBILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN SOCIAL MEDIA
The sub-title above kept changing. This is probably the 10th iteration.
Long before the Internet and social media, news reports such as the above were fully investigated. We called it (and still call it) “journalism” and it was a four-year course in colleges and universities. News of the day, events, information, ideas and people were written up and reported with facts, much the same as the school reports and theses we had to defend. Journalism is also referred to as an occupation rather than just a type of work or function, and journalistic media often included print, television, radio and even newsreels. A decade or so ago, we added the Internet to this list of media and recently, social media.
When blogging started appearing on the forefront of journalism, it was a facet to reckon with because it was cheap to do, fast to publish, and went head-on against traditional journalism. Blogging started as an online diary, sort of like an opinion website where bloggers would write their ideas and thoughts much like the diaries Baby Boomers and Gen X people kept locked in their closets. Through the years, blogging crept into the mainstream of journalism.
Now, you have social media and social networking sites like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest, to say the least, where people are publishing news of the day, events, information, ideas and people without the constructs, orderliness and structure of journalism. In the 1920s, American writer, reporter, and political commentator Walter Lippmann said that the journalist fulfilled the role of mediator, or translator, between the general public and policy-making elites. American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey, on the other hand, believed not only that the public was capable of understanding the issues created or responded to by the elite, but also that it was in the public forum that decisions should be made after discussion and debate. His ideas became more commonly known as “community journalism,” where journalists are able to engage citizens and the experts and elites in the proposition and generation of content.
But regardless of differences in opinion as to what journalism should be, the principles inherent to those who practice it came about as such – truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability. These principles became the general Code of Ethics in the application of newsworthy information and its subsequent dissemination to the public. Because of the pressure on journalists to report news promptly and before their competitors, factual errors started to occur more frequently. Take in case of the previous US elections where some news channels started reporting that the winner of the 2000 U.S. presidential elections was Al Gore until the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in where it halted the Florida recount that was occurring. Everybody knows George W. Bush won and became 43rd President of the United States.
And so here lies the problem when news of the day, events, information and ideas are written up and published online barring truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality or fairness because the individual or organization wants to disseminate newsworthy information before their friends, colleagues or competitors do so. Once the inaccurate, partial, non-objective (and sometimes untruthful) news or information gets published online, a multi-level network of friends, family, colleagues and total strangers begin to re-publish (“SHARE” is today’s synonymous term) the inaccurate news or information, and the chain of copy-pasting bad content begins to spread like wildfire.
ARE YOU A JOURNALIST?
Ask yourself: Am I a journalist? Because if you are not and you re-publish (“SHARE”) inaccurate or false news or information online, you have probably just mandated yourself to be a journalist. The mere action of sharing the same content without checking the source (and its underlying sources) makes you impartial, discriminatory, and presumes guilt over innocence. You have vested yourself to have the power to push news and information to your multilevel network and with that single action, you have also created public accountability upon yourself.
Are you ready to be accountable for becoming impartial and discriminatory even if you did not create the source of the news or information?
Can you really say you are accountable for your acts and omissions when you re-published that single page of inaccurate news or information?
WHAT I DO
Over the years of publishing digital information through traditional websites, blogs and social media channels, I have come to realize and conclude that I will only re-publish or share positive content – news, information and ideas that provide a “feel good” emotion and upholds my moral fiber. When negative news is something I need to share, I make sure the source (the individual or organization) has taken investigative steps to provide truthful and accurate information before clicking “Share.” If I publish an opinion, it is likely based on my own experience or I make sure to research well before attempting to write a thousand-word article, also making sure my sources are footnotes to my text.
That is why I “tweet” a lot. Tweets are 140-character text with images or videos that provide a short prose on what I want to share. I don’t include the hyperlink of my source because that is simply like re-publishing the entire news or information which I have no time to research on. More often than not, I make sure to just include a hashtag of the source of my tweet. Once tweeted, my tweet reverberates to my other Twitter and Facebook accounts, which trickles down to my multilevel network of people who have access to anything I post (or publish).
That is why it takes me at least three hours to blog even if the source of the content comes directly from a company’s press release. I cannot copy-paste without researching some of the elements mentioned in the press release. A clear example is a company’s pronunciation of being the best, the top, the number one, and so on. Sometimes, vague advertising declarations creeps into the press release and I question myself whether that’s really true or not. When there are just too many items being extrapolated, it takes me well over my three-hour average. Blogging is an Internet-given piece of freeform of writing but regardless of the democracy we live inside our virtual world, our code of conduct in re-publishing or sharing has to be upheld consistently – being fair, objective, accurate and by far our biggest responsibility, being accountable.
I know one travel writer who resigned from his job to work full time on his travel blog in 2005 or so. But before he started blogging, he first took up a few journalism classes as well as photography courses. He made sure he had the right journalistic methods and structures when it came to blogging, and he understood the principles and codes of conduct involved in public writing and publishing. He also took a few classes in small business management to make sure the tenets of finance, human resources, business etiquettes, strategy, management and so on are well ingrained in his new profession – the independent online publisher or blogger. What he did was to make sure he knows to be responsible and accountable for anything he publishes, even if his subject matter has nothing to do with current events, government, scandals and so on.
I can continue on for eternity, telling you what we all should do before we click the “Share” button, or before we write a lengthy prose that informs our readers about someone, something, or some place that begets wrongful speculation and personal damage. But I won’t. I hope I’ve given you enough thoughts not to be an impartial, discriminating journalist.
Even if you are not the originating source of the news or information, the moment you share, you have re-published the entire content. You have become a journalist who is responsible and accountable for the content you shared. Think of it as re-printing a book and distributing the re-printed copies even without recompense and even if it has been unedited. So, think a hundred times before you click that “Share” button; read it a hundred times before you click that “Share” button.
And if you blog, don’t just copy-paste the press release. Give yourself ample time to validate and research elements of the company text so that you have assured both yourself and your readers (and followers) that despite your blog feeling like a company dictum, it is accurate and truthful even if it is not impartial.
Ending my prose, just keep in mind these journalistic principles before you hit the “Share” button:
And if you have time, read the “Journalists’ Code of Ethics”as posted by the Philippine Press Institute, which a national association of newspapers. Important words like accuracy, fairness, privacy, moral honesty, intellectual honesty, tolerance, justice, courtesy, dignity and decency are capitalized (all-caps to the Millennials) in each of the organization’s principles.