UPDATE: Breaking down Washington Post’s social media guidelines

The much-debated social media guidelines from the Washington Post have now been published online at paidcontent.org.

Now that we have the full document, let’s dissect it to see what’s good, what’s bad and what needs revision.

Here’s the opening graf:

Social networks are communications media, and a part of our everyday lives. They can be valuable tools in gathering and disseminating news and information. They also create some potential hazards we need to recognize. When using social networking tools for reporting or for our personal lives, we must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists.  The following guidelines apply to all Post journalists, without limitation to the subject matter of their assignments.

The emphasis in that graf comes from the Post, but I agree wholeheartedly with it. My last blog post, which one friend constructively criticized as being long on passion, may have given the impression that journalists should be able to say anything they want to say on social networks. I don’t believe that at all. Journalists should still behave as professionals at all time, not get into petty arguments a la Perez Hilton.

Using Social Networking Tools for Reporting

When using social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, My Space or Twitter for reporting, we must protect our professional integrity.  Washington Post journalists should identify themselves as such. We must be accurate in our reporting and transparent about our intentions when participating.  We must be concise yet clear when describing who we are and what information we seek.

When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment.  We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism.

Our online data trails reflect on our professional reputations and those of The Washington Post.  Be sure that your pattern of use does not suggest, for example, that you are interested only in people with one particular view of a topic or issue.

Nothing here really stands out as a problem. Social media outlets are a wonderful resource for story ideas, sources, crowdsourcing, etc. etc. As for the line about “impartiality of our news judgments,” that could be taken a number of ways, but I take it as this: Be fair to all sides, and let all viable voices be heard. That doesn’t equal objectivity, it equals fair and balanced (which, despite my disdain for Fox News, is a slogan the entire media should adopt).

Before we move on with this analysis, let’s take a moment to discuss objectivity. For one, it’s an ideal, not a hittable target. In traditional newspaper journalism, we teach our reporters starting out to write in an inverted pyramid style: Most important stuff first, then trail off with what’s less important. But isn’t the process of determining what is most important and what isn’t subjective?

Rather than pay lip service to this impossible ideal, which the journalism community has done for decades, social media has given us, the journalists, an opportunity to be real people again. We have the ability to interact with our readers and share insights. That’s not something you can do with a two-dimensional hunk of newsprint. Making those personal connections will go a long way toward keeping professional journalists in business. After all, would you rather have a news discussion, or would you rather have someone on high telling you that’s the way it is? The industry’s circulation numbers are the best answer to that question.

Back to the analysis …

Using Social Networking Tools for Personal Reasons

All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens.  Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.

What appears on Twitter and what appears in the pages of the Washington Post are totally different animals. One is endorsed by a journalistic institute — the other lends insight into how the journalist framed a story. The public is absolutely smart enough to get that. The partisan critics out there will argue the opposite, and that’s fine. The partisan critics are going to argue anyway. Let ’em.

Here’s the thing about journalists: They all have opinions. It’s called being human. If a journalist spends hours and hours researching a particular subject, talks to all the players, sits through meetings, and otherwise takes in tons of information, OF COURSE he or she is going to form an opinion. Remember the idea that opinions are kind of like belly buttons? So why are we pretending that these opinions can be shoved aside long enough for the news to be framed?

To paraphrase the late, great George Carlin, I want my bullshit front and center where I can get a good whiff of it. In other words, I want to know right away what bias is sneaking into my news. Example: I can watch and trust Fox News if it’s covering something non-political, like a bank robbery or a wildfire. But once that discussion turns to the political party that make it possible for that bank to be robbed or that wildfire to spread, I know I’ll need to hear from a few other sources to make up my own mind.

What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account.  It is possible to use privacy controls online to limit access to sensitive information. But such controls are only a deterrent, not an absolute insulator. Reality is simple: If you don’t want something to be found online, don’t put it there.

This is just good advice for everyone. Privacy controls fail. So keep your most personal stuff offline.

Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.  Post journalists should not be involved in any social networks related to advocacy or a special interest regarding topics they cover, unless specifically permitted by a supervising editor for reporting and so long as other standards of transparency are maintained while doing any such reporting.

What exactly is meant by “involved”? If I’m following a special interest group on Twitter, does it mean I support those views, or am I keeping an eye on it in case I can find a story idea? Again, the key here is transparency. I’m fine with a certain amount of bias in a report on two conditions: 1) It’s transparent; 2) The alternative arguments are given fair representation. As I argued in my last blog, objectivity as a business model is something newsrooms have preached for years. And how’s that working for us now?

Post journalists should not accept or place tokens, badges or virtual gifts from political or partisan causes on pages or sites, and should monitor information posted on your own personal profile sites by those with whom you are associated online for appropriateness.

No argument here.

Personal pages online are no place for the discussion of internal newsroom issues such as sourcing, reporting of stories, decisions to publish or not to publish, personnel matters and untoward personal or professional matters involving our colleagues. The same is true for opinions or information regarding any business activities of The Washington Post Company. Such pages and sites also should not be used to criticize competitors or those who take issue with our journalism or our journalists.

Now, I think personal pages are a wonderful place to discuss sourcing, reporting decisions and the like. It is not the place to air office politics and other dirty newsroom laundry (Full disclosure: I went down this road once myself, complaining about a manager I had a following out with. And although everything I said in that blog I had already said to his face, I should have kept it between him and I. It didn’t effect any stories or coverage decisions, and thus I should have found a less public way to vent).

Newspapers, by and large, are so good about explaining the decisions that go into a news report. Heck, the Post has been a major leader in that over the years (the Angler series on Dick Cheney comes to mind). We do this through ombud columns, live chats, Q&A’s, etc. etc. So why does this need to be confined to the Post’s site? Why can’t this discussion happen elsewhere, too?

Conclusion

The Post and other newsrooms that will no doubt embrace these guidelines are embracing and applying traditional values to nontraditional media. And until those journalists realize that the technology of Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, et al is changing the way we can and should cover the news, they will continue to see readership shrink and their institutional place among journalism’s elite erode.

And this is coming from a guy who used to pitch huge, emotional fits in the newsroom about the importance of adhereing to objectivity. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I often learned the most about a subject through several filters as opposed to a single, sterilized filter. Objectivity takes the voice out of the news, and that voice is what makes news matter to people. It’s what helps us understand and relate. It’s what shows us that there are people who think similarly and that others can have a different take.

The best thing we can do as an industry is give up this ideal of objectivity, continue covering the news with the same enthusiasm for a fair and balanced report as we have for objectivity, and let readers get their two cents in.

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