Social media

Social media is not a ‘private playground’ for journalists; newspapers need social media policies

Social media give journalists an audience bigger than they ever dreamed of. You work for a paper with a circulation of 4,000? On social media, your audience can number in the hundreds of thousands … or more.

Then why do so many journalists treat social media like a private space in which they can say what they want?

We look forward to linking to our stories on Facebook or tweeting about them on Twitter, knowing that this can significantly increase our audience. But journalists who posted on social media to reach more readers often run personal opinion up the social media flagpole as if they thought only their close friends would see it.

And things we would never write about for our audience of 4,000 seem fair game to write about for a potential audience many times that large.

Go figure.

This week a Newsweek political reporter tweeted “I believe Trump was institutionalized in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown in 1990, which is why he won’t release medical records.” He had no evidence. And note the first two words: “I believe….”

Journalism has always been about what we know to be factual, what we have multiple sources to confirm. But for some reason, some people throw our time-honored standards out the window when they log on to Facebook or Twitter.

The reason this reporter (no novice, by the way – he has worked for the New York Times and Vanity Fair) wrote that as a tweet instead of a breaking news story is that an editor would have said, “Where are your sources for this? We can’t run speculation as news!”

But there are no editors on Twitter. Write it, keep it to 140 characters, and hit the “Tweet” button.

This is becoming all-too-common in journalism. Reporters have expressed opinions about their stories and their sources and have shared personal information about themselves which can call their fairness into question. And they have engaged in nasty social media wars with readers and news sources.

So is this an example of technology outpacing media ethics and standards? Not exactly. Most media have policies on this type of activity (and if your paper doesn’t, you need to work on one immediately). For instance:

  • ●The New York Times standards editor wrote this to Times employees in 2012: “We should always treat Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms as public activities. . . . Civility applies whether an exchange takes place in person, by telephone, by letter or online.”
  • ●Reuters’ policy states: “If we want to tweet or post about a school play, a film or a favorite recipe, we are free to do so. When dealing with matters of public importance and actual or potential subjects of coverage, however, Reuters journalists should be mindful of the impact their publicly expressed opinions can have on their work and on Reuters.”
  • ●NPR sums up the reason for such policies: “Everything you say or do in a social media environment is effectively a public statement from an NPR journalist.”

Earlier this month, the standards editor of the New York Times summarized why this is such an important issue: “While you may think of your Facebook page or other social-media platforms as a private area completely separate from your Times role, in fact everything we post online is to some degree public — and everything we do in public is likely to be associated with The Times.”

Social media are a place where we can let our hair down – share personal information, show photos of the great meal we just had, post our cute dog/cat/baby photos, sound off about the poor customer service we just received on our last flight, and talk about our pet peeves. Unless, of course, you’re a journalist. And that’s where our public trust has to be taken into account.

All Americans, for instance, have the right to put a political bumper sticker – or lots of them – on their cars. But as journalists, we know we must limit that free speech right in the interests of our audience, so that people don’t perceive us as biased. We know that we could keep our bumper allegiances out of our stories, but our readers may view what we write with suspicion. And the same thing goes for expressions of opinion on social media.

AP’s social media policy addresses that issue: “Sometimes AP staffers ask if they’re free to comment in social media on matters like sports and entertainment. The answer is yes, but there are some important things to keep in mind: First, trash-talking about anyone (including a team, company or celebrity) reflects badly on staffers and the AP. Assume your tweet will be seen by the target of your comment. The person or organization you’re deriding may be one that an AP colleague is trying to develop as a source.”

If you’re looking for some help in beginning to establish your paper’s social media policy, a good place to begin is with the American Society of News Editors’ 10 Best Practices for Social Media. Along with some of the links in this blogpost, that should give you some good background for writing your own newspaper policy on social media for employees.

Perhaps you’ve never encountered a problem with an employee’s social media posts. Count yourself lucky. Many people have an unfortunate predisposition to think of their posts as a private playground instead of the world’s most public stage. So don’t wait until your newspaper is facing a social media firestorm to implement a policy.


Why community papers should be reporting on deaths from drug overdoses

This blog, used by permission of Ken Blum, originally appeared in Blum’s email newsletter, Black Inklings. You can join the Black Inklings mailing list by emailing your name, job title, newspaper and email address to [email protected].

A question.

If a person in your community passed away for any of the following reasons, would you report how it happened, including the name of the deceased?

  1. 1. Auto accident
  2. 2. Shooting
  3. 3. Drunk driving
  4. 4. Assault
  5. 5. Domestic violence
  6. 6. Drowning
  7. 7. Farm accident
  8. 8. Fire
  9. 9. Flood
  10. 10. Drug overdose

Likely, the answers are easy, until we get to number 10. Too many hometown newspapers hesitate to report deaths involving illegal opioids, unless those deaths occurred in unusual circumstances. Too often, the only report of an OD death is a submitted obit that avoids the cause of death.

“Died unexpectedly” is the most common statement, usually for deceased in the 16-35 age range. You see a lot of “died unexpectedlies” in community newspapers these days.

It’s not that the problem hasn’t been reported. It is that the quantity and quality of the reporting in no way matches the scope of the crisis in this country – not drug use, mind you, but overdose deaths from lethal and illegal drugs, particularly the most demonic and deadly of all, heroin and its monstrous new cousin, unimaginably 50 times more potent than pure heroin – fentanyl.

OD deaths are rampant and everywhere and anywhere.

Take my county – Wayne County, Ohio. It’s a progressive county with a nice mix of agriculture and industry. Population 114,520. Fine schools and colleges. Solid middle to upper middle class.

In 2015, there were 20 overdose deaths linked to heroin and/or fentanyl in my county. 20! There were eight deaths in the county that year from traffic accidents.

And there would have been many more if law enforcement agencies and fire departments did not have access to Narcan, a nasally administered drug that reverses the effects of opiates. In Wooster, the county seat, the fire department administered Narcan 40 times in 2015.

There’s a story behind every one of these deaths.

For example, a few miles away from my home a woman died of a heroin overdose supplied by the man who had reported her as unresponsive. Later, it was learned she gave birth to a baby at the home only hours before she was rushed to the hospital. The dead child had been placed in a cardboard box found in a bathtub.

Hard to write or read, but too important and tragic to ignore.

Again the OD epidemic is everywhere and anywhere in the U.S., from the ghettos of Detroit to the villages of Connecticut to the farm towns of Nebraska.

The most recent totals available are from 2014, when 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the Unites States, 28,647 from opioid overdoses. That’s 14.7 per 100,000 persons in the country.

Let’s put that figure into perspective:

  • ●Let’s say your paper covers a very small rural county, 20,000 population. Expect three to four overdose deaths this year.
  • ●America’s total involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1965 to 1975, 10 years. During the longest war in our history, there were approximately 58,000 Americans killed in action and 2,000 missing in action, for a 60,000 total. Again, compare to American OD deaths for just one year – 47,055.
  • ●U.S. traffic deaths in 2014 – 32,675. Drug overdose deaths – 47,055.
  • ●Breast Cancer claimed about 40,000 victims in 2015. Most areas in the country – rightly so – host events supporting the fight against the disease, mainly the Relay for Life campaigns. Again, these efforts are worthy and needed.

Still, where are the relays for the 47,000 dead from drug overdoses?

It’s not like the days when heroin overdose deaths were the plight of desperate people living in desperate circumstances.

Today, no economic or social class, race, creed or age group is immune.

It’s so easy to get hooked. Take a dose as an experiment. Experience a high like you never imagined. Take another dose in a search for a repeat of that state of euphoria. And another. You’re hooked.

You may get off of it after a few hellish weeks. But the longing is still there. You give in. Buy the same dose from a dealer, although there’s no way to be sure what dose you’re buying, or maybe it’s fentanyl. Oops – the same dose you had been taking before now constitutes an overdose because you’ve been off the stuff for a while.

You’re dead.

Why don’t these people – people who may well be your friends, your neighbors, your parents, your children – just go to rehab and get off the stuff?

Try this – don’t drink anything for a few hot days. Then try to stay away from a glass of water.

It’s even worse for an opioid addict who without a fix goes through nausea, sweating, shaking, muscle spasms.

So let’s get back to the questions at the beginning of this piece.

Why do so many community newspapers fail to report overdose deaths from illegal drugs?

My guess is the stigma associated with drug like heroin, and the newspaper’s sensitivity to the feelings of the family of a person who died from overdosing on the most stigmatized drug of all.

But what good does hiding the cause do?

Does it inform readers about the human tragedy of an epidemic that’s right under their noses, happening to people they know and respect?

Does it alert readers to the danger in their midst – not only the danger of taking opioids, but also the danger of the crimes associated with the culture of drug abuse, such as break-ins, robberies and any one of a hundred crimes to obtain the money to make a buy.

Does it help raise the community’s awareness of drug dealers in its midst, and encourage citizens to report suspicious persons to law enforcement?

And is it a violation of the fundamental ethics of journalism? A crime has been committed in that someone sold the illegal drug to the victim and possession in itself is a crime; there has been an investigation by law enforcement and an autopsy, and the most ominous result of all for that crime has occurred – a death in your town.

How can you not report it, including the name of the victim?

How does your newspaper handle deaths from drug overdoses? Has your newspaper made an effort to inform and educate readers about the impact of this epidemic on your town?  If so, please pass along your strategy to

Business of News Circulation Cool tool

Newsletters are hot, and they can be a great tool for community newspapers

Newsletters are one of the oldest forms of communication in journalism. They even pre-date newspapers, with the first newsletter coming out in 1538.  The first American newspaper to publish a second edition started its life as the Boston News-letter.

They have increased and decreased in popularity over the years, but everything that’s old is indeed new again.

Newsletters are hot.

And why should an old medium be experiencing such a resurgence in a digital age?  Perhaps because we’re inundated with news and information from every side. Newsletters can help make sense of all that because they digest what’s important and let us choose whether or not to read it. And they give us an email foot-in-the-door of busy readers.

In its current incarnation, a newspaper newsletter is like the menu screen on Netflix.  When you go to Netflix, you see movies categorized by genre and popularity.  Then you see thumbnail pictures and just a sentence of explanation telling what the movie is about.  You can surf through to something else, or, if you’re interested, click on that thumbnail to get the movie itself.

There’s no single type of newsletter used in newspapers.  The popular Washington Post newsletters give you a headline, a photo, and a teaser.  You can then click to go to the article on the Post website.  Actually, there’s not just one – the Post offers newsletters on news, opinions, the federal government, home and garden, education, lifestyle, business and tech, sports, science – there is even a newsletter called The Optimist with stories to inspire you. And there’s more that we didn’t list.

They’re right there in your inbox, waiting for you to scan them in the viewing pane, click on what you’re interested in, and head off to the WaPo site – even if all you had planned to do was to read your email.

And as you’d expect, The New York Times offers the same service.

Both papers sell ads in their newsletters, so the newsletters themselves are a revenue source.

Some community papers in Texas have effective daily newsletters:  For example, see the Texas Gatehouse newspapers, the Hood County News, the Wise County Messenger, Community Impact newspapers and the Fredericksburg Standard Radio Post.

Why are newsletters so popular for newspapers that already have print and online editions, websites and social media feeds? Because they meet readers where readers are sure to go every day:  their email in-box.  You don’t have to pick up a newspaper or go to a homepage.  All you do is check your email and there is the newsletter, viewable in your preview pane.  See something you are interested in?  Click, and it takes you to the paper’s website.

Publishers want to know, How can I monetize an email newsletter? Of course, this is another product you can sell ads for, and potentially a really attractive ad vehicle for businesses because it appears in the in-box of a wide variety of readers. But also, in an era when we’re all competing for attention and we want to establish ourselves as a go-to news source, newsletters are an in-your-face announcement every day or several times a week that our newspaper is the indispensable source of news for this county.

Once you get your template set up, newsletters don’t take that long to produce daily – after all, you’re just linking to the news you’ve already written.  And you can even use the same lead you have on the story, then link to the rest on your website.

As for the distribution, there are lots of mail management programs out there.  This site overviews what’s available.  If you’re looking for someplace to start with no initial investment, we recommend MailChimp.

Interested in looking into the world of newsletters?  Start out by finding a few (you can find links to some Texas community papers’ newsletters above).  Then subscribe.  They’re all free.  You’ll get newsletters in your inbox and just look them over to get a feel for what these papers are doing.  After a couple of weeks, you’ll have a vision for how you can reach new readers with newsletters and you can get yours started.

You can thank us later.