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The Ethics of Engagement in Journalism

Storyful Global News Editor David Clinch somewhat churlishly described the relationship between publishers, platforms, and audiences as “a really interesting three way” that tends to leave people wondering: “Who is screwing who?”

The morals of this relationship were at the heart of the matter for Clinch and three other journalism experts on the panel “Platforms as Publishers: Rights and Responsibilities” at the Silicon Valley + Journalism conference hosted by The Tow Center.  

Setting the Scene: The Complicated Relationship Between Social Media and Journalism

The crux of the issue is essentially one of scale versus content, and it exists between social media sites and the organizations that create content: Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have the benefit of large audiences, but they need interesting content in order to keep those audiences. Journalists and writers, on the other hand, require an audience but their distribution power is often limited.  

Although this might seem like a symbiotic match, it has become a challenge for all parties.

Journalists have always lived by a certain set of ethical guidelines. But now that social media is playing a central role in the distribution of news, it has become clear that these guidelines do not extend to third-party platforms.

“Social networks play powerful role in dissemination of news,” acknowledged Kate Crawford, a panelist from Microsoft Research. “Silicon Valley values users — does this ignore journalistic responsibility and ethics?”

The Idea of ‘Engagement’ is Making Ethics More Complicated

The digital media industry has started talking about engagement as the new gold standard of audience measurement; however, the panel worried that — without examining the concept in more detail, and perhaps defining it — publishers and social networks would approach the issue from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at UNC Chapel Hill who explores the interactions between technology and society, described the issue saying: “The problem isn’t engagement. It is that platforms have been ‘just giving people what they want.’”

And although this has been effective (in terms of comments, likes, shares, users, etc.), digital publishers need to think twice about relying on third-party platforms to decide what information is distributed to audiences, and what is muted.

Andrew McLaughlin, at betaworks, wondered if there is any other way for journalists to help social media platforms in thinking through how to distribute ethical content: “Out of the vast ocean, how do you present a glass of drinking water?”

Tweet McLaughlin’s Question

Digital publications are working diligently to figure out the solution to this challenge, but the panel was in agreement that modern distribution models, including algorithms proprietary to each system, are taking away readers’ choice. Engagement metrics figure into algorithms, but not in a way that is visible to the people creating the pieces being surfaced or to those consuming them as readers.

The end-goal of each third-party platform is to grow its own user base, and not necessarily to inform an audience or the public. Content consumption has become the currency for success, and whether or not a particular audience sees the content is no longer in the hands of digital publishers.

So, is there a way to connect distribution, engagement, and ethics? At this point, only time will tell.

What do you think? Share your perspective with us on Twitter by tweeting to @parsely.