If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of how much social media has affected our lives. Whether your poison of choice is a blog, Twitter, Facebook, or even YouTube, chances are you spend quite a bit of time on these platforms, writing, reading, and watching what other people have said. Journalists use social media as much as the next person, yet unlike the general public are being policed and censored as to what they can and cannot write.
As a response to the emergence of social media, most news organizations have created their own policies telling employees guidelines as to how to use these new tools. Social media policies, while necessary, tend to be written in a negative light. According to Mathew Ingram from GigaOM, news organizations “spend so much time talking about how bad social media is for the profession, and so little time talking about what makes it useful”. Policies tend to tell you what you can’t do, rather than what you can, rather than how you can engage with people and get an audience interested in you and your organization.
While this is somewhat understandable – if you’re working as a journalist, there’s a good chance that you’re working with sensitive knowledge that shouldn’t be released to the public. This is the same no matter what job one has; you wouldn’t post sales figures from your retail job online, either.
The Washington Post, among other news outlets, has made their social media policy available online. The policy itself is a laundry list of dos and don’ts. Among other things, they require their journalists to “refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything […] that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism”. Essentially, the policy is restricting journalists from having an opinion. Tweets and Facebook posts with opinions must be attributed to another party.
Most of the policy seems to talk down to journalists, treating them as if they leave their judgment and ethics at the door as soon as they log in to their computers. Steve Buttry, a long-time journalist, commented on the policy: “give good journalists 600-plus words of warnings and you pretty much are telling them you don’t trust their judgment”. This is true of not only the Washington Post’s policy, but those of many other news organizations as well.
According to Paul Balcerak, “creating a policy for Twitter that’s separate from the general conduct policy […] is stupid because it establishes different rules where only one set are needed”. He makes a good point; if the social media policy is basically reiterating what your code of conduct states. Journalists already know that they aren’t to talk about sources and sensitive information off the clock – whether this information is shared in person or on Twitter doesn’t matter.
The fact is that journalists are in the public eye, much like athletes, actors, and singers. Their fans – and yes, journalists can have fans – want to see a human side to the person they’re following. Anderson Cooper, a reporter for CNN, has over 4 million followers on Twitter. On this page, he posts a mix of personal tweets (such as photos) and tweets about events he reports on. These tweets follow CNN’s social media guidelines; however, Cooper has established himself as a sort of brand, and the tweets also give some more insight as to who he is as a person. If Cooper did nothing but post links to his own stories, he would likely not have as many followers as he does today.
While social media policies will continue to exist, organizations should take a cue from The Guardian, whose policy list includes only 10 sentences, which encourages reporters to acknowledge readers, and declare personal interest where applicable.
This is how social media should be done. Facebook and Twitter give journalists a unique opportunity to engage with their audience in a way they never have before, and establishing so many guidelines and rules is taking away from that. New media allows news to be collaborative, and journalists need to be allowed more freedom to use social media in a way that will benefit both themselves and their news organization.