IPSO Blog: Privacy and social media

Joint Head of Complaints Holly Pick explains how the Editor’s Code applies to journalists using social media.

Privacy and freedom of expression are both fundamental rights that are equally vital to our society, democracy and way of life. But they can sometimes appear to be in conflict with each other – something which is further complicated by the ubiquity of social media. 

Every day millions of people post details of their lives on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. When something is posted on social media without privacy settings, this information is put into the public domain. 

Anyone can potentially see this information, including journalists. 

Increasingly comments, information and pictures taken from social media are used to illustrate stories. Many people would not necessarily expect something they’ve posted on their social media to end up in a newspaper, but – depending on the nature of the material posted – if it is in the public domain, a newspaper may be able to publish it. 

However, there are limits to what journalists can publish. 

The Editors’ Code – the set of rules IPSO-regulated publications must follow − has specific provisions which protect the privacy of individuals, including around “digital communications”. It says: 

  • i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. 
  • ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. In considering an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so. 

There are also separate rules covering intrusion into grief or shock and offering extra protections for children. 

Once a journalist has found any information on social media, they must consider whether publishing it might break any of these rules. Unless there is a public interest, journalists should generally not publish information which: 

  • is protected by privacy settings and is not in the public domain 
  • is private information about a person (such as medical information or shows them engaging in a private activity) 
  • is about a child’s welfare or time at school 
  • shows someone who is not relevant to the story 
  • might intrude into someone’s grief or shock. 

People are often surprised when journalists contact them via social media to gather further information or to check facts. However, this may be the easiest way for them to get in touch with people they do not already know, and they are allowed to do this. That said, they must ensure that they do not harass people and should stop contacting you if you ask them to. 

If you are concerned about the information you, or a friend or relative, has put onto social media or you are unsure about your privacy settings, you should: 

  • check your privacy settings for the relevant social media websites which you use (most provide helpful information about how to do this) 
  • Consider asking for advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which has helpful information about online safety and social networks 
  • Consider consulting the UK Safer Internet Centre, which has guides for most social media websites and how to use their safety features. 
  • Contact us if you think the Editors’ Code has been breached or if you need further advice. 

You can find out more information on journalism and the use of social media here. 


Originally published 4 October 2019.