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.

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.