Social media have amplified and accelerated the ethical challenges that communicators, professional and otherwise, face worldwide. The work of ethical journalism, with a priority of truthful communication, offers a paradigm case for examining the broader challenges in the global social media network. The evolution of digital technologies and the attendant expansion of the communication network pose ethical difficulties for journalists connected with increased speed and volume of information, a diminished place in the network, and the cross-border nature of information flow. These challenges are exacerbated by intentional manipulation of social media, human-run or automated, in many countries including internal suppression by authoritarian regimes and foreign influence operations to spread misinformation. In addition, structural characteristics of social media platforms’ filtering and recommending algorithms pose ethical challenges for journalism and its role in fostering public discourse on social and political issues, although a number of studies have called aspects of the “filter bubble” hypothesis into question. Research in multiple countries, mostly in North America and Europe, has examined social media practices in journalism, including two issues central to social media ethics—verification and transparency—but ethical implications have seldom been discussed explicitly in the context of ethical theory. Since the 1980s and 1990s, scholarship focused on normative theorizing in relation to journalism has matured and become more multicultural and global. Scholars have articulated a number of ethical frameworks that could deepen analysis of the challenges of social media in the practice of journalism. However, the explicit implications of these frameworks for social media have largely gone unaddressed. A large topic of discussion in media ethics theory has been the possibility of universal or common principles globally, including a broadening of discussion of moral universals or common ground in media ethics beyond Western perspectives that have historically dominated the scholarship. In order to advance media ethics scholarship in the 21st-century environment of globally networked communication, in which journalists work among a host of other actors (well-intentioned, ill-intentioned, and automated), it is important for researchers to apply existing media ethics frameworks to social media practices. This application needs to address the challenges that social media create when crossing cultures, the common difficulties they pose worldwide for journalistic verification practices, and the responsibility of journalists for countering misinformation from malicious actors. It is also important to the further development of media ethics scholarship that future normative theorizing in the field—whether developing new frameworks or redeveloping current ones—consider journalistic responsibilities in relation to social media in the context of both the human and nonhuman actors in the communication network. The developing scholarly literature on the ethics of algorithms bears further attention from media ethics scholars for the ways it may provide perspectives that are complementary to existing media ethics frameworks that have focused on human actors and organizations.
Accuracy is a central norm in journalism and at the heart of the journalistic practice. As a norm, accuracy developed out of objectivity, and has therefore an Anglo-American origin. Nevertheless, the commitment to the rule of getting it right is shared among journalists across different journalistic cultures. The history of accuracy is closely related to other central concepts in journalism like truthfulness, factuality and credibility, because it raises epistemological questions of whether and how journalism is capable of depicting reality accurately, truthfully and based on fact. Accuracy plays a particularly important role with regard to the factuality of the journalistic discourse, as it forces journalists not only to ground their reporting on facts, but to check whether presented facts are true or not—which is reflected both in the description of the journalistic profession as the discipline of verification as well as the central relevance of accuracy for instruments of media self-regulation like press councils and codes of ethics. Accuracy is an important standard to determine the quality of the news reporting. In fact, many studies, most of them carried out Western democracies, have investigated the accuracy of journalistic reporting based on the number of errors that sources mentioned in the articles perceived. As journalism moved online and the immediacy of the news cycle requested a faster pace of publication, news outlets often adopted the strategy to publish first and to verify second, although research has shown that the accuracy of journalistic reporting and trustfulness are related. Especially in the current debate on disinformation, many online fact-checking and verification services have thus seen a global rise of attention and importance.
Lucas Graves and Michelle A. Amazeen
Fact-checking has a traditional meaning in journalism that relates to internal procedures for verifying facts prior to publication, as well as a newer sense denoting stories that publicly evaluate the truth of statements from politicians, journalists, or other public figures. Internal fact-checking first emerged as a distinct role in U.S. newsmagazines in the 1920s and 1930s, decades in which the objectivity norm became established among American journalists. While newspapers have not typically employed dedicated fact-checkers, the term also refers more broadly to verification routines and the professional concern with factual accuracy. Both scholars and journalists have been concerned with a decline of internal fact-checking resources and routines in the face of accelerated publishing cycles and the economic crisis faced by news organizations in many parts of the world. External fact-checking consists of publishing an evidence-based analysis of the accuracy of a political claim, news report, or other public text. Organizations specializing in such “political” fact-checking have been established in scores of countries around the world since the first sites appeared in the United States in the early 2000s. These outlets may be based in established news organizations but also “good government” groups, universities, and other areas of civil society; practitioners generally share the broad goals of helping people become better informed and promoting fact-based public discourse. A burgeoning area of research has tried to measure the effectiveness of various kinds of external fact-checking interventions in countering misinformation and promoting accurate beliefs. This literature generally finds that fact-checking can be effective in experimental settings, though the influence of corrections is limited by the familiar mechanisms of motivated reasoning.
Fake news is not new, but the American presidential election in 2016 placed the phenomenon squarely onto the international agenda. Manipulation, disinformation, falseness, rumors, conspiracy theories—actions and behaviors that are frequently associated with the term—have existed as long as humans have communicated. Nevertheless, new communication technologies have allowed for new ways to produce, distribute, and consume fake news, which makes it harder to differentiate what information to trust. Fake news has typically been studied along four lines: Characterization, creation, circulation, and countering. How to characterize fake news has been a major concern in the research literature, as the definition of the term is disputed. By differentiating between intention and facticity, researchers have attempted to study different types of false information. Creation concerns the production of fake news, often produced with either a financial, political, or social motivation. The circulation of fake news refers to the different ways false information has been disseminated and amplified, often through communication technologies such as social media and search engines. Lastly, countering fake news addresses the multitude of approaches to detect and combat fake news on different levels, from legal, financial, and technical aspects to individuals’ media and information literacy and new fact-checking services.
Mats Ekström and Oscar Westlund
Epistemology is a central issue in journalism research. Journalism is among the most influential knowledge-producing institutions in modern society, associated with high claims of providing relevant, accurate, and verified public knowledge on a daily basis. More specifically, epistemology is the study of how, in this case, journalists and news organizations know what they know and how the knowledge claims are articulated and justified. Practices related to justification have been studied in (a) text and discourse; (b) journalist practices, norms, and routines within and outside the newsroom; and (c) audience assessment of news items and acceptance or rejection of the knowledge claims of journalism. Epistemology also includes the study of news and journalism as particular forms of knowledge. In journalism research, sociological approaches on epistemology have been developed to understand the institutionalized norms and practices in the processing of information and in socially shared and variable standards of justification, as well as in the authority of journalism in providing exclusive forms of knowledge in society. In recent years, epistemology has received increased scholarly interest in response to transformations within journalism: digitalization, emerging forms of data journalism, the acceleration of the news cycle, diminished human resources and financial pressure, and forms of audience participation.