If you’re reading this post, please also read my accompanying post, Whoops! I forgot I was consulted by the Wall Street Journal about use of social media.
I commend the Wall Street Journal and parent company Dow Jones for providing guidance to its journalists in the use of social networks. I think, though, that some of the guidelines reflect a lack of understanding about social media.
In fact, I question whether the editor(s) who wrote and approved the rules have ever used Twitter, beyond that initial “trying out Twitter” tweet. Deputy Managing Editor Alix Freedman, who sent the rules to the staff using the imperial “we”, can’t be found under that name using Twitter’s “find people” search. (I have asked Freedman in an email if she uses Twitter and have offered her an opportunity to comment.)
Here are the guidelines, as reported by Editor and Publisher’s Joe Strupp, with my commentary provided in italics:
* Never misrepresent yourself using a false name when you’re acting on behalf of your Dow Jones publication or service. When soliciting information from readers and interview subjects you must identify yourself as a reporter for the Journal, Newswires or MarketWatch and be tonally neutral in your questions. Good guideline, but I would add that any journalist’s profile should specifically identify your role and affiliation.
* Base all comments posted in your role as a Dow Jones employee in the facts, drawing from and citing your reporting when appropriate. Sharing your personal opinions, as well as expressing partisan political views, whether on Dow Jones sites or on the larger Web, could open us to criticism that we have biases and could make a reporter ineligible to cover topics in the future for Dow Jones. You should address whether staff members should be able to express opinions about issues in the news media and social media. I think they should. As journalists, we benefit by vigorous discussion of such issues. That discussion is going on in the social media and WSJ voices should be heard.
* Don’t recruit friends or family to promote or defend your work. Absolutely.
* Consult your editor before “connecting” to or “friending” any reporting contacts who may need to be treated as confidential sources. Openly “friending” sources is akin to publicly publishing your Rolodex. A reporter’s Facebook profile might want to stipulate (if you are using Facebook professionally) that the connections there are personal and not really friends. You should have the same consultation with the source, too. And followers aren’t disciples. Just note somewhere in the WSJ policy that journalists should follow people on their beats and that it doesn’t imply any relationship any more complicated than watchdog. And oh yeah, we use confidential sources way too much. Talk them into going on the record.
* Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited. This is nonsense. Transparency is the way of the web and credibility is journalism’s most important asset. The more we let the public know about how we work (and how hard we strive for accuracy and fairness) the better. Unless you don’t.
* Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted. See above. Crowdsource. Tell followers what you’re doing and ask them to tell you what they know. You’ll improve your journalism, making it more accurate and more interactive.
* Don’t disparage the work of colleagues or competitors or aggressively promote your coverage. But tweet (or post) links when you have new content. And don’t back away from explaining differences if the public asks why you did or didn’t report something differently from colleagues or competitors.
* Don’t engage in any impolite dialogue with those who may challenge your work — no matter how rude or provocative they may seem. Good advice. But stand by your work (when you’re right).
* Avoid giving highly-tailored, specific advice to any individual on Dow Jones sites. Phrases such as “Travel agents are saying the best deals are X and Y…” are acceptable while counseling a reader “You should choose X…” is not. Giving generalized advice is the best approach. No problem here.
* All postings on Dow Jones sites that may be controversial or that deal with sensitive subjects need to be cleared with your editor before posting. The social media world is not the heavily edited print Wall Street Journal. I think a “use good judgment” advice here would be more appropriate than “all postings … need to be cleared with your editor.”
* Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter. Common sense should prevail, but if you are in doubt about the appropriateness of a Tweet or posting, discuss it with your editor before sending. This is an approach that ensures that you will never fully understand “services like Twitter” (as if there were other services like Twitter). Most of the Twitter world mixes business with pleasure. Building walls means you won’t understand how Twitter works. I’d say it’s better to encourage mixing business and personal content in Twitter, but admonish staff to keep in mind that you represent your publication and behave professionally at all times. For instance, I don’t see any problem with my whining about a flight delay as long as I’m not cursing or otherwise commenting inappropriately.
For a similar analysis of the rules, see Gina M. Chen’s Save the Media blog. Other comments:
- Owen Thomas on Gawker documented with screen shots of tweets how WSJ staffers have been breaking the rules (and the examples illustrate how ridiculous the rules are, because they are pretty mild tweets).
- Chris Cadelago calls the rules unreasonable, noting: “For most reporters, especially those dubbed ‘net natives’ by Journal owner Rupert Murdoch, it has become impossible not to mix our lives online with our lives off. Both take place in and out of the office.”
- Jeff Jarvis has a brief post, noting how badly the WSJ is missing the point.
- Mathew Ingram, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, agreed with Jarvis, noting that the WSJ failed to understand Twitter’s “inherently personal” nature.
- Tameka Kee in paidcontent doesn’t comment on the wisdom of the actual rules, but notes that their existence illustrates “how social media has reshaped the business of reporting news.”
For more discussion, see my previous post (and workshop handout) journalism ethics and social networks.