Should News Organizations Develop Social Media Policies?

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Storify, Tumblr, Instagram, WordPress, Google Plus, YouTube, LinkedIn, Flickr. The list of social networks seems almost endless. Social media has become a phenomenon that has changed everyday life for millions, for better or worse. People use these digital platforms to meet new friends and communicate with old ones, for public spheres to discuss current event and politics, gather ideas such as recipes and even mobilize to produce societal change. Not only has social media altered the life of the average citizen, it has also transformed journalism.

Social media has had a major impact on the profession. Now journalists have access to an array of sources and have the ability break news to millions of followers in an instant. Additionally, reporters can gather information from various social media sites and even find stories on the Web. One of the most interesting ways a reporter can use social media is to create stories on platforms such as Storify and blogging websites. Journalists also use social media to interact with the public, share information and promote their work. As a testament to the importance of social networks, a 2010 study conducted by Cision and Don Bates of The George Washington University’s Master’s Degree Program in Strategic Public Relations suggested that the majority of journalists now rely on social media to research stories.[i]

While reporters use social media for professional reasons, like many people, they may also have personal accounts. This brings up the age-old battle between a journalist’s professional and personal lives. In response, many news organizations have created social media guidelines for their reporters. These guidelines attempt to protect the image of the publication by asserting that an employees’ online identity is a reflection of the employer. But should newsrooms develop social media guidelines in an attempt to dictate a journalist’s personal social media account?

“Everybody needs these guidelines,” said Kelly McBride, senior faculty at the Poynter Institute who specializes in ethics, during a phone call. While every newsroom in America doesn’t have published guidelines, a growing number of major organizations have sided with McBride and developed a set of online rules for their reporters.

According The Washington Post’s website, the paper expects its employees to maintain credibility, avoid conflicts, be professional, promote transparency and be careful when linking as they navigate through various social media platforms.[ii] The Los Angeles Times’ social media guidelines warn reporters to be conscious of perceptions.

“If you ‘friend’ a source or join a group on one side of a debate, do so with the other side as well,” the guidelines state. “Also understand that readers may view your participation in a group as your acceptance of its views; be clear that you’re looking for story ideas or simply collecting information. Consider that you may be an observer of online content without actively participating.”[iii]

The Roanoke Times’ social media policy specifically addresses reporters and editors with personal blogs, cautioning them to be aware of their online identities.

“As with our policies on participating in civic life, any personal Internet postings should be crafted with concern for how they might reflect on our news products or our reputation for fairness and professionalism,” the guidelines state. “Personal bloggers should notify their immediate supervisor that they have a blog, and talk through any potential conflicts of interest or complications.”

Journalists Under Fire for Social Media

Several guidelines, including those of The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, mention a journalist’s personal accounts, noting that even a reporter’s private account could affect the organization’s reputation.

It may seem harsh to punish a reporter for a simple tweet or Facebook post, but some believe that it falls in line with other journalism practices that seek to protect image and credibility.

“I have no problem with employers reprimanding journalists,” McBride said. “If your employer’s expectation is that you keep your biases to yourself, and that expectation has been made clear, it should be obvious.” The Orlando Sentinel’s guidelines explicitly state that reporters and editors must assume that their personal and professional lives will blur online.[iv] McBride shares this sentiment.

“I do not think its possible to separate the professional and personal lives. In

fact I think it’s dangerous to think that you can have a personal life that has no bearing to on your professional life,” McBride said. “That’s how a lot of reporters get in trouble.” And a lot of reporters have gotten in trouble.

To underscore how strongly news organizations believe that a reporter’s online identity is a reflection of the publication’s journalistic standards, there have been a handful of journalists who have been reprimanded, and even fired, for something posted on personal social media accounts including Brian Pedersen, Gavin Miller and Damian Goddard.[v]

Goddard, a former on-air host for Rogers Sportsnet in Toronto, was fired last year after he tweeted about his opposition to same-sex marriage, according to an article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).[vi]  Rogers Sportsnet released a statement announcing Goddard’s departure just one day after he posted his opinion on Twitter.

“Damian Goddard is no longer with Rogers Sportsnet. Mr. Goddard was a freelance contractor and in recent weeks it had become clear that he is not the right fit for our organization,” the director of communications wrote, according to CBC.

One of the most reported incidents happened in 2010 when CNN fired editor Octavia Nasr for a controversial tweet. According to the Washington Post, Nasr, who covered Middle Eastern affairs, tweeted admiration for Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah—a man with links to Hezbollah.[vii]

“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot..,” Nasr tweeted. Although Nasr had been working at CNN for 20 years and later apologized for her post on the popular social network, CNN decided to let her go citing that her credibility had been compromised.[viii]

While Nasr may have been one of the most well-known journalists to come under fire for an online post, she isn’t the only reporter to be reprimanded.

Around 2006, before the extreme popularity of the websites Facebook and Twitter, news organizations were eager to incorporate blogging into newsrooms. It was during this time that the news director at WECT in Williamsburg, N.C., asked then sports anchor Kevin Hull to start blogging. Although Hull, who is now a graduate student at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, was to begin blogging, the only instruction he was given was to post regularly about whatever he wanted.

“It was really unregulated,” Hull said. “Since it was so early on they didn’t have social media requirements.”

One day Hull decided to write about politics, a topic he had been interested in and knew a great deal about because of his former job as a political reporter. At the time, there was a woman running for city council who had publically-known financial problems. Hull decided to voice his opinion on the blog.

“I wrote something like, ‘I don’t think I would vote for someone to run the money in my city if she can’t even control her own finances.’”

About an hour after Hull wrote his sentiments, the WECT new director stormed into his office and demanded that he delete the post. Although Hull was not happy about having to remove his post initially, he soon understood that his personal views would be perceived as a reflection of WECT’s. This may still hold true even if a disclaimer is given stating that an individual writer’s opinions are not necessarily held by the news organization.

“It’s easy [for a reporter] to write ‘these are my own opinions,’” Hull said. “But at the end of the day you are an employee and it’s hard to separate those.”

Steve Buttry, director of community engagement & social media for Journal Register Company, warns journalists that even if they choose to set up separate personal and profession accounts to avoid confusion, they must act professionally on their personal accounts. However, he stated that publications shouldn’t try to restrict employees from being personable on social networks.

“Newsrooms should allow journalists to interact freely with people and trust their judgment,” Buttry said during a phone interview. “The truth is we’re effective as journalists because of our ability to interact with other people.”

Do Journalists Need Social Media Guidelines?

Buttry, who has extensively written about social media guidelines on his blog The Buttry Diary, believes that newsrooms shouldn’t go too far when developing social media guidelines. In fact, he doesn’t think that newsrooms should have social media guidelines at all.

“We don’t need many special rules for social media,” Buttry said. “We may need some training, but we don’t need special rules.” Instead, Buttry prefers that news organizations focus on the ethics rather than the platform. After all, ethical standards shouldn’t vary from medium to medium.

“Digital tools present different circumstances for making ethical decisions. The truth of the matter is, if I do something that is wrong on Twitter it’s probably going to be wrong if I do it in a different forum,” Buttry said.

However, Hull believes that his situation could have been avoided if he had been given explicit, specific guidelines about publishing online.

“Had those policies that I’m sure are in place now been in place then, I would have never written about anything but sports,” he said.

While reporters like Hull may benefit from online guidelines, others like Nasr believe that these policies tend to disadvantage newsroom staff.

“I see them as a way to protect the employer’s back, but they don’t protect the employee,” Nasr told Poynter in February, citing how she believes news organizations only take action after public opinion is formed. “What’s happening now is that it’s not about what you say and what you mean, but it’s about the perception of what you said and what you meant. What guidelines are going to address that?”[ix]

Some news organizations such as National Public Radio (NPR) and The New York Times have taken Buttry’s approach and avoided creating a stand-alone social media policy. NPR, which has no separate code of ethics for social media, states that the organization strives to maintain quality and credibility on any platform and that their journalists must be honest online, impartial in their personal lives and accountable when interacting with the public.[x]

Despite news outlets like NPR and The New York Times not having separate social media policies, a growing number of major news organizations are developing distinct, strict guidelines for their staff.

However, like Buttry, some believe that these news organizations are taking the wrong approach. In a May 2011 post on the technology blog GigaOm, journalist Mathew Ingram discussed the trouble with such policies.

“These kinds of policies have a number of flaws—including the fact that much of what they are prohibiting is either common sense or impossible to police (or both),” Ingram wrote. “One of the biggest flaws of most policies is that they spend so much time talking about how bad social media is for the profession, and so little time talking about what makes it useful, or how to approach it as a positive tool for journalism.”[xi]

Ingram also stated in a different post that many traditional news organizations miss the mark on social media because they embrace reporters using the platforms as a tool to publish and promote news, but attempt to restrict the social aspects.[xii] To combat this, Ingram suggested that a positive social media policy would include guidelines like “talk to people” and “link to others.”

Buttry stated that newsrooms should apply journalism best practices to special circumstances that may arise on the Internet, such as linking.

“Technology gives us an opportunity to do something different, but the principle doesn’t change,” he said. “For example, linking is how you attribute on the Web. “

If journalism practices and ethics can translate from print, to television, to the Internet, why would a news organization develop separate social media guidelines?

“We want to have these guidelines to make sure reporters know what the rules of engagement are,” Mark Russell, editor of the Orlando Sentinel, said in a phone conversation. “They set the pace.” Russell stated that the Orlando Sentinel has had few problems with reporters and editors using social media, partly due to the explicit guidelines, which were developed by the paper’s parent company Tribune in 2010.

The Orlando Sentinel has an online policy in place, but that doesn’t mean that social media is viewed as a negative medium. Russell stated that the reporters and editors at his newspaper are well-versed in social media and typically know who to conduct themselves online. Furthermore, while Russell thinks that it is hard for a journalist to separate their professional and personal identities online, like Buttry, he believes that social media gives practitioners an opportunity to show the public their human side.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a professional site that has an occasional glimpse into the personal life,” Russell said. In fact, that’s what he does on his social media accounts.

Social Media Rules of Engagement

It is clear that the Internet’s impact on the press has brought up an array of new issues that journalists must tackle. To better help editors craft social media policies, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) created a list of 10 best practices.[xiii]  After analyzing the social media policies of various news organizations, ASNE recommends the following guidelines: Traditional ethics rules still apply online; Assume everything you write online will become public; Use social media to engage with readers, but professionally; Break news on your website, not on Twitter; Beware of perceptions; Independently authenticate anything found on a social networking site; Always identify yourself as a journalist; Social networks are tools not toys; Be transparent and admit when you’re wrong online; Keep internal deliberations confidential.

Whether editors at a news organization choose to develop hard-and-fast social media guidelines, address Web practices in the current code of ethics or allow staff free reign on social media, reporters and editors must know how to navigate through these digital platforms. Because social media has become integral to the process of news and allows the journalist and public to connect in an unprecedented way, possessing online skills has become a vital asset to both new and seasoned journalists. When in doubt, a reporter or editor should refer to the best practices that have been a staple in journalism before social media. As Buttry stated, ethics don’t change based on the medium, therefore practitioners should use their best judgment on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

“Whatever the platform, our job is to seek truth and report it,” Buttry said.

Liz Heron, social media editor at The New York Times, has more simple advice. When explaining the paper’s view on social networks at the BBC’s Social Media Summit in 2011, Heron offered advice that she tells reporters: “Use common sense and don’t be stupid.”[xiv]

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