According to a new study, the vast majority of American companies–almost 70 percent–have no “formal policy regarding employee use of social networking sites.” The number could be even higher among news organizations, says KOMU-TV news director Stacey Woelfel, given how loath newsrooms are to put policies in writing. But that may be changing.
This week, RTDNA published social media guidelines covering the use of material from sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as what journalists should and should not do on social media sites. Among them:
You should not write anonymously or use an avatar or username that cloaks your real identity on newsroom or personal websites.
Be especially careful when you are writing, Tweeting or blogging about a topic that you or your newsroom covers. Editorializing about a topic or person can reveal your personal feelings.
Avoid posting photos or any other content on any website, blog, social network or video/photo sharing website that might embarrass you or undermine your journalistic credibility.
One station’s experience
At KUSA-TV in Denver, news director Patti Dennis issued her own newsroom guidelines last month. ” It was simply time to encourage our staff to dig deep into the social media tools to advance our distribution of information,” she said in an email. “BUT so many are also playing in social media dangerously with their information, photos and careers that I decided to have a staff discussion in our January meeting and follow up with the guidelines.”
Among other things, the KUSA policy urges employees to “use the highest level of privacy tools available to control access to your personal activity when appropriate,” but also warns, “don’t let that make you complacent.” The guidelines also are unequivocal about some online behavior:
Remember the same ethics rules as apply offline also apply to information gathered online.
You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online.
Coming up with a policy everyone can agree on is no easy task. At KUSA, one guideline was countermanded almost immediately. The original version ordered employees not to “discuss stories that haven’t aired or been posted, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted.” Employees complained that the policy would prohibit them from teasing stories, and within hours Dennis ordered that guideline stricken. “Proceed with posting and tweeting stories as you gather new, interesting tidbits of information or interviews,” she told the staff in an email.
Developing a policy
If you haven’t established a social media policy yet, RTDNA recommends checking its new guidelines as well as the policies posted at Socialmediagovernance.com from news organizations like the BBC, CBC, Roanoke Times and others. “Don’t leave people guessing about what’s right and what’s not,” says RTDNA digital media editor Ryan Murphy.
Some newspapers took a lot of heat when their social media guidelines became public, but I’d argue that’s no reason to avoid coming up with your own. And it may be even more important for newsrooms with a lot of younger journalists to spell out a social media policy. Yes, they already know their way around social media, but they likely had Facebook profiles before becoming journalists. If they think they can keep their personal life separate from their work life, Woelfel says, they need to think again. “Your real life and online persona merge. You have no choice in that. They just do.”
KUSA reporter Kevin Torres recently decided to set up a Facebook “fan” page in addition to his personal page. “I think it’s more user-friendly,” he says. “If one of our viewers wants to follow me, he or she can without having to ask me.” But he’s still careful about what he posts on his personal page, where Torres notes his relationship status (“single”) but makes no mention of his political or religious views.
It’s always been tricky for journalists to balance the personal and professional. Just because you’re in the news business doesn’t mean you can’t have a life. But you do have to watch what you say in person and online. And as the KUSA policy notes, “Recognize that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public.”