When I blogged last night about the Washington Post’s guidelines on staff use of social media, I expressed some hesitation because I had not read the full guidelines.
- The Post’s top editors need to start using Twitter and other social media more, so they can lead on these issues from a position of understanding, rather than ignorance.
- The guidelines mostly raise valid issues that journalists should consider when using social media. On some of those issues, such as stating opinions, journalists will have vigorous disagreements that they should discuss thoughtfully.
- The best way for top editors of any news organization to address social media use is through thoughtful discussions with staff that elevate everyone’s understanding. If written guidelines are needed, they should be drafted collaboratively with the staff, not imposed imperially from editors who don’t even understand what they are addressing.
- Beyond a passing reference that social networks “can be valuable tools in gathering and disseminating news and information,” nothing in the policy encourages use of social media. In fact, reading the guidelines, you can see how co-managing editor Raju Narisetti decided he might as well stop using Twitter. Any social media guidelines that don’t encourage journalists to use social networks are bad guidelines. And these are bad.
A lively discussion about the issue of journalists stating opinions is going on in the Twitterverse now, sparked by the Post guidelines. I have written about this issue before and won’t elaborate at length now. But I will make these points: I watched the Post’s most famous journalist, Bob Woodward, on “This Week” this morning. He stated opinions. For decades, David Broder has stated opinions in his column and written straight news stories for the Post and he’s widely respected as one of the best and fairest political reporters. The mixing of opinion with factual reporting on social media should not be handled more restrictively than how the Post handles opinion in other media.
Perhaps the most disturbing passage in the actual guidelines to me was this one:
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.
Certainly journalists should exercise good judgment about discussions of internal newsroom issues — in conversations as well as in social media, by the way, and external conversations about internal matters have been going on forever. But the blanket statement that “personal pages online are no place” for such discussions is ludicrous. It is an explicit statement that the Post management doesn’t trust the judgments of its journalists. And if you don’t trust their judgments in social networks, how in the world can you trust their judgments with front-page stories?
In fact, the best guideline you could give journalists using social media would be to encourage good judgment. Give good journalists 600-plus words of warnings and you pretty much are telling them you don’t trust their judgment.
The truth is, social media are excellent places for discussion of some internal newsroom issues, specifically including sourcing and reporting of stories. No, you shouldn’t reveal a source on Twitter if you have decided to protect that source in your news stories. But if someone on Twitter refers to your story as based on a “White House source,” you can and should note on Twitter that your story said “administration source,” which could include the White House but is broader.
Someone on Facebook or Twitter could ask a question about a story. A reporter who has the answer should provide it unless you specifically decided not to answer for reasons such as taste, libel, protecting sources, etc. If the reporter can amplify or clarify on social media, that builds your credibility. Maybe the reporter forgot to put that fact in the story. Maybe you didn’t have room in the print edition (many online stories are identical, even though space is less of an issue), so the reporter just left that fact out or an editor cut it simply for space.
The attempt to control such discussions reflects an outdated culture of control, rather than the social media culture of transparency. Some aspects of social media culture (retweeting purported facts without verifying them) clash with journalism values, so those things should be discussed (again, good judgment should protect your values). But transparency doesn’t clash with the culture of journalism. In fact, we demand transparency of public officials and agencies, but resist transparency in our own organizations. The Post should discuss what internal processes and decisions need to be private and use this controversy to push for greater transparency.
And gagging employees from discussing business activities of the Washington Post? The Post’s reputation would have been saved some damage if some staff members had tweeted earlier their opinions about the ill-advised salon plan. Maybe that debacle would have been headed off earlier. The Post should have a thicker skin about criticism by staff members.
As for criticism of competitors or Post critics, again good judgment should prevail. Sniping and feuding on Twitter or Facebook should be discouraged and avoided. But what if you and a competitor wrote stories with conflicting figures and someone asks on Twitter about the numbers? If you know the competitor used an outdated figure, shouldn’t you resolve the confusion?
The basic fundamentals of journalism ethics — seek the truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable — remain good guidelines for journalists using social media. The Post should restate those principles, encourage transparency and trust its staff to use good judgment. Address lapses as they occur, but don’t tell your whole staff you don’t trust their judgment.