Ethics usually aren’t black or white

Got ethics ?You can’t turn on the news without hearing about a company or an individual that has been impacted by social media. Just today, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about whether or not companies should monitor their employees’ social networking accounts. Because social media is still a new means of communication, there are still a lot of questions about what practices are and are not ethical. Even with careful consideration, a company or individual can still get into trouble because social media ethics are rarely black and white.

This week we learned the three steps to making an ethical decision:

  1. What are my motivations?
  2. What are the likely effects and to whom?
  3. Where does my duty lie strongest?

If you’re struggling with an ethical social media issue, these questions are great places to start. When I deal with ethical concerns, I like to focus on the second question. If I’m not sure if I should post something, whether it be on my personal or professional sites (If you’re even questioning it, you probably shouldn’t), I try to think of what the possible outcomes might be.  I wouldn’t post the same content on my business page, that I would post on my personal page. When I’m posting professionally, I’m representing my company, so my duty lies with the brand and its reputation.

That theory sounds simple enough, but as the lecture proved, practically applying the theory can get a little more complicated, especially in the field of journalism. As a journalist, I have sought out information about someone I was writing about on social networking sites. I’ve used pictures from Facebook, researched who their friends were, pulled quotes from statuses, and used social networks to connect with potential sources. Some may consider it unethical, but it’s a method of survival in the reporting industry.

I’ve always considered using social sites as a tool as ethical, because the person is putting the information out there, so as a reporter, why wouldn’t you use that information? You have a duty to your company and to your profession to tell the whole story, and social media sites can help you do that.

In the case of adding the friend of a murder victim on Facebook without identifying yourself as a reporter, I would consider that ethical. Once you send the friend request, the person has the ability to see who you are, and they can make the decision of whether or not they want to add you. The ball is in their court. While I don’t think there’s anything unethical about it, I don’t know that it’s the kindest of things to do. The person has just gone through a major tragedy, so as a human being, you should respect that and not overstep your boundaries.