IPSO Blog: Social media and journalism during COVID-19

Communications & Public Affairs Officer Hanno Fenech on how journalism and social media interact during the coronavirus pandemic.

While social distancing, few of us can connect with family and friends as we would normally do. Therefore, social media has become an even bigger part of our lives as we use Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram to keep in touch with one another remotely during this pandemic.   

Social media users may also be expressing their feelings about, and sharing their experiences of, the coronavirus pandemic. Depending on a user’s privacy settings, these stories can be widely shared and garner significant interest; sometimes attracting the attention of news journalists.

Many people may not necessarily expect something they’ve posted on social media to end up in a newspaper or news website. However, something posted on social media without privacy settings is put into the public domain and can be seen by anyone, including journalists. Depending on the nature of the material, it could potentially be published.

There are of course limits to what journalists can publish from social media content; whether about coronavirus or other subjects.

The Editors’ Code of Practice (the set of rules IPSO-regulated publications adhere to) has specific provisions to protect the privacy of individuals, including on their social media posts:

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 specific rules regarding intrusion into grief or shock and those that offer extra protections to children. If a journalist has used social media content to write a story, they must consider whether publishing it would be in line with their obligations under the Editors’ Code. 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.

Journalists may also use social media to contact individuals about a story, especially if they are not able to approach them in person. Journalists are allowed to use social media to make approaches in the course of newsgathering but the rules in the Editors’ Code around harassment still apply – if they are asked to stop contacting an individual they must desist from doing so. IPSO has a 24-hour harassment helpline service for anyone concerned about this – find more details here.

If you are concerned about the information you, or a friend or relative, has put on to social media about the coronavirus (or any other matter), you should:

  • check your privacy settings for the relevant social media websites
  • read IPSO’s information on social media
  • contact IPSO if you think the Editors’ Code has been breached, are worried about potential intrusion, or if you need further advice.

While IPSO does not regulate social media platforms themselves, where information obtained from social media is published in a newspaper or magazine, IPSO can take complaints under the Editors’ Code. Find how to complain to IPSO here.