Juggling with the ethics of publishing news on social media

TOMORROW in the Worcester News we will report on the disturbing events at the Chase School, Malvern, in which a teacher and pupil were allegedly hurt by a boy wielding a knife. Thankfully, their injuries were not severe.

We are able to tell the story with some calmness, having asked the relevant questions on our readers’ behalf and carefully considered our choice of words and the tone of our coverage.

Online today, things have been very much more frantic.

It was a story of enormous public interest and sensitivity unfolding at a breathtaking pace.

We used all the tools available to a modern publisher to keep people informed: a live report on our website and posts on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

And then we had to make a decision that left many of our readers perplexed.

We published online the name and a picture supplied by the police of a boy wanted in connection with the incident at the school. It was important that he was found quickly, and publicity was considered vital.

As it happened he was found just minutes after we published his photo. Our priority then changed from finding a boy who may have been a danger to himself and/or others to protecting a vulnerable child.

So we deleted his picture from our website and social media accounts. No one told us to. We were guided by the Editor’s Code; we did it because it was the right thing to do.

On the day that the new Independent Press Standards Organisation opened for business, it was a reminder that the ethics of newspapers face new tests in a business being profoundly reshaped by social media.

Many of our readers struggled to understand our ethical juggling act. First we published the picture of the boy, then we removed it. They asked why.

I defended our stance on our Facebook page, but it left me in no doubt that our industry’s new regulator, which came into being amidst much controversy over what was published in print, is likely to face many of its biggest challenges with what is published on the web.

 

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About John Wilson

Group deputy editor of the Worcester News, Berrow's Worcester Journal, Malvern Gazette and Evesham Journalist. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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