Widespread use of social media has made news more interesting and has drawn people into stories they may have otherwise skipped over. News publishers have enjoyed many benefits from the use of social media by their journalists, including wider exposure, an increase in valuable contacts, and some “crowd sourcing” benefits when major newsworthy events occur.
News organizations also know the risks of social media. What should be done when a journalist engages in a war of words with other social media users? What happens when a journalist leaves an organization and takes his or her followers along? These issues are new, and are being figured out on the fly, because social media plows ahead whether journalists are on-board or not. Here are some of the general themes emerging as social media in news gathering efforts continues to gain importance.
General Policies: The Short Leash and the Long Leash
Some organizations, such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, give their journalists plenty of freedom with their social media accounts. The overarching social media policy at both publications is basically, “Don’t do anything stupid.” These organizations know how much social media benefits them, and they don’t want to have to squelch journalist engagement with readers. Bloomberg, on the other hand, keeps their journalists on a tighter leash, warning against Tweeting stories that are in progress and breaking news over Twitter. Bloomberg’s standard is more akin to, “Ask questions and get answers first. You can Tweet later.”
Social Media Controversies Involving Journalists
Journalists have brought controversy over their employers’ transoms by using social media in ways that make readers question their judgment or objectivity. For example:
NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren was heavily criticized for a Facebook post that many interpreted as disparaging and condescending to Palestinians.
NYT Freelancer Andrew Goldman was put on hiatus after a Twitter skirmish with author Jennifer Weiner, who pointed out Goldman’s questioning of more than one powerful woman about trading sex for career gain.
CNN Senior Editor of Mideast Affairs Octavia Nasr was fired in 2010 after Tweeting praise for a Hezbollah leader after his death.
CBS Adam Jacobi was fired in 2012 after prematurely Tweeting about the death of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno a day before he actually died.
Emerging Standards in General
Most emerging social media standards in newsrooms are variations on the “Don’t be stupid” theme adopted by The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Two reasons news organizations are reluctant to have formal written rules for social media use are the constantly changing nature of social media, and the fear that violation of specific written policies could expose news organizations to legal liability, including negligence, if a journalist were sued for remarks made on social media.
Ensuring Standards Don’t Violate the National Labor Relations Act
Another issue that news organizations have to consider, even if they’re not a union shop, is potentially running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act. Employees, unionized or not, have the right under Section 7 of the NLRA to not only organize and bargain collectively, but also to discuss or criticize employer policies and treatment of employees provided those discussions are not maliciously false. The bottom line is that companies may be on thin ice legally if they have a policy that doesn’t allow employees to gripe publicly about work.
Social media can be an excellent set of tools for audience development with online news publishers. Stories can reach further, and social media can be great for brand building. It isn’t always easy to know when a Facebook post or Tweet crosses a line into irresponsible behavior, but companies can help prevent these incidents by discussing responsible use of social media with employees regularly. Social media standards will probably always be fluid due to the changing social media landscape, but overarching policies that allow a freedom for journalists to engage with audiences while curbing irresponsible behavior are what your organization should aim for.
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