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Ethics in the eye of the storm
Keep your live coverage error-free


Queens, N.Y., Nov. 1, 2012 — FEMA Community Relations (CR) team members moved through Breezy Point and Rockaway, NY, after Hurricane Sandy. The CR members talked with disaster survivors about FEMA assistance and assessed the situation on the ground. Photo by Walt Jennings/FEMA


by Megan Fromm

When Hurricane Sandy hit the United States early last week, citizens turned to Twitter for a constant stream of information.  The hashtag #Sandy provided hundreds of live perspectives each minute, including photos of the impending storm and subsequent devastation.

For those covering the story live, the storm spawned an entirely new lexicon of descriptors (“Frankenstorm” among the most widely-used) and created an ethical dilemma all-too-common in today’s instant media environment: How to sort the fact from the fiction?

Even today, a week out from the storm’s landfall, fake images from New York and New Jersey are still making the rounds on social and professional media outlets.

Would your students know which photos were real, and which were fake? Have your students take this quiz, and then use the following information to further consider the importance of verifying information as it is shared in real-time.

This Atlantic article is among the best sources we found for updating Sandy images as they are verified (or debunked) and is a great starting point for a larger discussion with your journalism students and scholastic journalists:

• Did your students retweet or repost any of these images?  Which ones?
• How many followed the Hurricane Sandy hashtag?  Did they make any attempts to verify the information they were receiving? Why/why not?

While Hurricane Sandy has provided fodder for a national debate about the reliability of social media, these concerns should also be explored at your school, with both digital and print student journalists.

• How can your students verify information received through social media?

• How can your students tell a fake photo or student prank from a real, newsworthy image?

After significant staff discussion, consider creating a step-by-step policy for verifying information from social media, including Twitter, Facebook, email, and text messages.  If your staff covers news live via Twitter, Facebook, or a news website, how can they ensure accuracy? How can they alert readers about potential verification issues?

Make this policy a part of your staff manual, and train editors to hold each other accountable for adhering to it.

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*Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series of rotating columns by commission members to appear Wednesdays. Megan Fromm will present best practices for teaching ethics; Jeff Kocur will discuss common problems student leaders and advisers face and how to overcome them; Candace Perkins Bowen will examine journalistic ties to teaching issues, like Common Core standards; Mark Goodman will write about current events and impact on law as it affects scholastic media and Marina Hendricks will address ethical issues and online journalism.

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