Ethical Standards: Journalism vs Academics. Is it time for universal ethic guidelines?

This week, we are delighted to introduce a guest blog from our CaSMa intern, Levi Rickman! Levi is in the closing stages  of her Psychology degree at Nottingham Trent University, and is currently working with us on Phase II of the “Exploring Academic Attitudes to Social Media Research Ethics” project.

leviWhen I started my Internship with CaSMa a few weeks ago, I had a limited understanding of the ethical issues surrounding social media
research and, therefore, this was the main area for me to focus on. Having studied Psychology for five years, I have grown accustomed to the ethical guidelines that researchers must consider in order to have their projects approved by ethic committees, including informed consent, minimisation of potential harm to participants, and so on. These ethical issues can easily be dealt with when researching individuals in a laboratory setting, but pose a slightly more difficult challenge when trying to apply the same set of codes to research online, and particularly data produced on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

After three weeks of reading a range of research papers concentrating on the predicaments between social media and research, I have become more knowledgeable about the difficulties that these innovative academics face. A number of questions have stood out:

  • How is it possible to guarantee certain anonymity to participants, when data can be later identified to the individual through metadata on photos or shared demographic information?
  • Is it even possible to gain informed consent from big data sets, which can extend beyond 500,000 participants?
  • What is regarded to be in the public and private domain?
  • If researchers have to sign up to a networking site to see certain profiles is this then considered private, even though the social media sites are considered public?

These are only a few challenges that researchers intending on diving into the social media aspect of research have to overcome, as well as facing a sometimes gruelling ethic review process where definitive guidelines have yet to be developed that can adapt to the changing environment of online research.

During my literature search and browsing online, one thing certainly stood out for me: the difference in ethical standards between journalists and academic researchers in handling digital data.

It is expected that regions of the media will use direct quotes from those interviewed; indeed, it’s almost a given that individuals will be aware that they may be cited in a newspaper or magazine. Additionally, Facebook can use photos uploaded to the site in advertising campaigns, according to their Terms and Conditions. However, it is new online media that raise a particular cause for concern, where websites such as Buzzfeed are known for sharing social media data from individuals to embed within their articles.

Take for ilevipicblognstance a recent article titled “Women Are Live-Tweeting Their Periods And It’s The Realest Thing Ever”, where multiple tweets from others were quoted that included the “#livetweetyourperiod” hashtag (see photo). These Tweets included the individual’s full name, Twitter Username, a profile picture and even a link taking you directly to their profile.

With regards to the precautions that researchers are required to take, such as ensuring that data are as anonymous as possible, this displays an irregularity in the two perspectives on ethical standards. Why shouldn’t journalists also be obliged to respect ethical guidelines surrounding confidentiality when they are allowing personal data to be shared so publicly?

Yes, you could argue that because a ‘public’ hashtag was used that the Tweets can be considered to be within the public domain and therefore available for use. However, lack of informed consent from the user can lead to trepidation, not only because the individual may be unaware that their information has been used and shared, thus breaching their right to privacy, but it could also place that individual in harm or attract unwanted attention.

For example, a link to a user’s Twitter profile within an article can lead to multiple new followers, or in extreme cases, receiving abuse from other online users regarding a tweet about a potentially sensitive topic. It is not clear whether Buzzfeed actively seeks consent from Twitter users that it quotes within its articles; we have contacted the journalist who wrote the previously cited article, but have so far received no response. Nevertheless, this should spark a debate about the apparent lack of ethical guidelines imposed on journalists when using information obtained from social media.

We also see this issue in recent news, where Gawker have found themselves under scrutiny regarding a recent post that exposed a politician allegedly intending to use a gay escort service, revealing screenshots of personal texts sent between the two parties. The original Gawker article was eventually removed, with the decisions driving this action found here. Though complicated, this example further illustrates the point that if researchers are required to obtain ethical approval from Institutional Review Boards (which in some complex cases can take up to a year to be approved), shouldn’t journalists have to do likewise? At present, some journalists seem free to produce articles that appear to violate many of the ethical standards that research ethic committees have spent years fine-tuning.

With this in mind, I leave you with the following question: should there now be a universal online ethical code of conduct that isn’t just applicable to academics, but towards all professionals seeking to use social media within their publications?

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