IPSO issues new social media guidance


It looks as though it’s been a busy time at IPSO HQ. Following the guidance issued on court reporting as covered by my colleague in a recent law column, last week saw the publication of further new guidance, this time concerning social media.

Though there have been no changes to the Code itself, the new guidance provides pointers designed to support reporters and editors by informing decision making in the context of material obtained through social media and used to produce articles. The document aims to provide a “framework for thinking through questions about using material taken from social media.”

IPSO has helpfully highlighted four particular clauses to which the guidance is most relevant and have set out some questions that reporters can ask themselves when encountering these types of issue to enable them to consider the pertinent issues thoroughly.

The first clause given special consideration is, unsurprisingly, accuracy. It will come as no surprise to anyone that not everything we see on social media is accurate and as highlighted by the guidance, particularly in the case of a major incident “misinformation is commonplace.”  Issues such as the age of the source social media posting especially in a breaking news situation are identified as being of note, with reporters encouraged to check timestamps and verify details independently ahead of publication.

Of equal importance is the issue of privacy. The guidance confirms that significant weight will be attached to the extent which the individual complaining has made the information concerned public. The privacy settings of a social media profile will be a relevant consideration, but it is highlighted by the regulator that the absence of privacy settings does not automatically mean that information can be published. Other features such as the nature of the material and context of the story must also be reviewed before deciding to proceed.

Reporters are encouraged to consider how they might demonstrate that the information was publicly available in the event that privacy settings are applied after the fact. In addition, if the information was available in the public domain, who placed it there? What disclosures of private information has this person made previously?  As we all know, numbers of privacy claims and complaints are rising, and this fact seems to be reflected in the amount of detail given to this issue in the guidance. The onus, as always, is very much on the publisher to consider the justification for publishing anything that could be intrusive to the privacy of an individual.

Also considered in the Guidance is the clause of intrusion into grief or shock. Sadly, tragedies occur on a daily basis and since social media erupted onto the scene, news of upsetting events now has the capability to spread at an unbelievable rate. In these circumstances, timing and sensitivity are key in reporting. The points made in this section of the guidance are all geared towards handling publication sensitively, placing importance not simply on whether the death of an individual has been confirmed officially, but whether the family is aware prior to publication.

Also highlighted is the need to consider the use of photographs of the deceased in a way that is sensitive and takes into account the wider circumstances of their death – for example publishing a picture of a person swimming when they had later drowned may cause further unintentional distress for their families.

The new guidance also considers how the reporting on matters concerning children interacts with social media. Much of the guidance is very similar to the general code guidance and covers matters such as parental permission for interviews and avoiding intrusion into a child’s time at school.

There are also more social media specific considerations, such as identifying where a social media account belongs to a child and if they are accurately representing their age and other personal details. There is of course a public interest exemption and reporters are reminded that if it seems as though a breach of the Code would take place through publication, the public interest must be exceptional in order to justify such a breach.

Although there is nothing inherently new about anything published in the Guidance, the questions IPSO recommends reporters ask themselves prior to publication may serve as a useful reminder of some important principles.

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