Ethics for Citizen Journalists

Lecture segment on ethics for citizen journalism. October 2021. Video by Andrei Stoica.

Ethics for Citizen Journalism

While no ethics guidelines can cover every situation, it’s important that citizen journalists both have an ethics code and are transparent about what it is. For some citizen journalists, such as livestreamers, that might mean a very simple, “Only give the basics of what’s happening. Let the people you’re filming explain the rest, and let the footage speak for itself,” (this is, incidentally, how IMA started).

Citizen journalists doing more in-depth work may find additional guidelines helpful. IMA, for example, currently uses the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics as a baseline, and adds onto it the guidelines addressed in the video above. Impress, a democratically run independent news regulatory body in the UK, also has a set of ethics standards that are updated every few years.

Organizations like Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) also have ethics guides, press law guides, and other legal resources for independent journalists, including citizen journalists.

Regardless of what ethics code you abide by, there are always a few key concerns:

  1. Consent: People deserve to know when they’re being reported on, how their information will be used, and how it will be framed. If you’re attending an event as a reporter, clearly mark yourself as such. Let people have the autonomy to decide whether or not to talk with you given what you’re there to do. Additionally, if you’re going to use information from an interview for anything other than straightforward reporting (e.g., if you’re going to use it in an opinion piece), tell your interviewee that. They deserve to know how what they tell you is going to be used.

  2. Transparency: While there are certainly reasons that people publish anonymously, remember that journalists are fundamentally accountable to their readers and to the public. If you don’t provide ways for readers to contact you or correct you, you’re not allowing them to hold you accountable. If your readers DO correct you on something of importance (e.g., more than a typo), you should run a correction--don’t just remove or edit a post. Owning up to your mistakes (rather than pretending they never happened) is just as important as your efforts to do better next time.

  3. Fact-checking: As we saw throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation kills. If you’re putting information out into the world, even if you got it from someone else, you have a responsibility to fact-check that information. That often means asking additional questions that will allow you to verify information, crediting your sources clearly (so that your readers can do their own fact-checking and hold you accountable) and, sometimes, not running claims you can’t verify, especially if they might be construed as libel, slander, etc. (either on your part or on the part of your source).

  4. Reporting on vulnerable subjects: There are serious ethical and legal concerns related to reporting on minors, reporting on court cases (or potential court cases), and other similarly vulnerable subjects. If you’re working on a story that concerns legal action or criminal activity, minors, medical information or other potentially sensitive information, it’s always a good idea to do your background research first, including on possible legal ramifications for you as a citizen journalist.

Learn more about structuring stories and doing ethical reporting here.