Update: I’ve added a response from Pam Fine, co-chair of the ASNE Ethics Committee at the end.
Editors are starting to accept social tools and understand their importance. But they remain afraid of social media. Their need to control remains an impediment to innovation.
That’s my quick take on the American Society of News Editors’ “10 Best Practices for Social Media.”
The report is a PDF, which indicates the group’s continuing print orientation. It would be much better as a blog, starting a conversation by inviting comments on each section. The structure is thoughtful, providing some discussion, a “teachable moment” and sample policies for each of the 10 points. An appendix of social media policies is helpful, even if the policies are far more fearful and restrictive than they should be.
For instance, this sentence wanders in entirely irrelevantly (it’s the first sentence in a discussion about whether to break news on Twitter):
Social media can become a gigantic time suck, distracting reporters from conducting traditional reporting or executing their job duties.
Insert “telephones,” “the Internet,” “your computer,” “your co-workers,” “your children,” “your spouse,” “your editor” or “most newsroom meetings” for “social media” and that sentence would still be true. But no editor would write it. But fear of social media is strong in newsrooms, especially among top leaders, so this document is loaded with unnecessary warnings and discouragement. The fact is that social media can also be excellent tools that help you beat journalists who are stuck in traditional reporting. And social media are essential now to executing your job duties (yes, for the top editors, too). Social media can also save you time. Someone needed to take a very traditional red pen to that sentence.
Still, some of the “best practices” make good sense. I like that the document in several places encourages smart use of social media (it feels at time in conflict with itself, kind of reflecting a lot of the ASNE members, I suspect), though I wish it had spelled out what journalists should do as clearly as Mathew Ingram did. I like that the guidance is presented as best practices, rather than rules (though some have the thou-shalt-not tone of rules). I’ve already noted my preference for simple rules. As I’ve noted frequently in my many posts about newsroom social media policies, too many newsroom leaders are too fearful and suspicious of social media (the sentence above underscores that).
I’ll detail my criticism of the “best practices” shortly. But a lot of thought went into this, and I do appreciate the effort and the attention to an important issue. So first I’ll applaud what I like. I fully endorse five of the 10 as general principles (though I don’t necessarily agree with all of the discussion that followed them):
1. Traditional ethics rules still apply online.
2. Assume everything you write online will become public.
3. Use social media to engage with readers, but professionally. (I’ll quibble with the use of “readers” here; YouTube is as important as any social platform. Journalists need to start thinking more about the community, a multi-directional relationship, than readers, a one-way relationship. But I fully support this principle. I also don’t like the “but” construction, as if engagement implies unprofessional behavior. But I do agree that newsrooms should encourage staff to use social media to engage professionally with their communities, so I’m in agreement here, with a little editing.)
7. Always identify yourself as a journalist.
9. Be transparent and admit when you’re wrong online.
These are the five points where I think the ASNE guidance is off-track:
4. Break news on your website, not on Twitter.
5. Beware of perceptions.
6. Independently authenticate anything found on a social networking site.
8. Social networks are tools not toys.
10. Keep internal deliberations confidential.
Yes, you should break news on Twitter. Here’s what the ASNE guidelines say on this matter, with my commentary inserted in italics:
In a news climate that values speed, there are great temptations (I love the choice of the word “temptations,” casting social media as this alluring serpent, enticing you to taste that breaking-news apple) and added incentives to break news on Twitter or Facebook instead of waiting for it to move through the editorial pipeline. This undercuts one of the main values of social media for news organizations, which is to drive traffic and increase the reach of high-quality journalism. No, driving traffic is not one of the main values of social media, any more than selling newspapers is one of the main values of any traditional journalism tool. Social media can drive traffic and can increase the reach of high-quality (or low-quality) journalism. That’s a nice benefit. But if you’re going to mention it as one of the main values, let’s also mention that it’s a great tool for connecting with the community, crowdsourcing, gathering feedback, finding sources, doing better journalism and, yes, breaking news. Competitors have been known to snap up scoops first hinted at on Twitter or to accelerate the publication of a story if it becomes clear on Twitter that someone at another outlet is moving forward with a similar story. This notion of controlling the flow of the news stands in the way of innovation at news organizations. If you break the news on Twitter, you got the scoop. Period.
The operative word is balance. There are times when it is advisable to post on Twitter before a story posts on your website. When tweeting about press releases or from a press conference that’s being televised, for instance, precision reporting is not compromised. On breaking news stories, there are instances when getting the information out takes precedence over waiting for a story to move through the editorial pipeline. Wait, I thought this would undermine the value of social media. As I said earlier, this document is at times in conflict with itself. To use press releases or press conferences being televised as exceptions is puzzling.
It’s a good policy to tell employees they should include links whenever possible to a story on their employer’s site. This way it goes through an editor and increases traffic. No disagreement here.
The need to stay competitive puts the onus on web developers and managers to reduce the amount of time it takes to get material online. Agreed.
Journalists who see news break or confirm an important fact in a developing story can report the news with a tweet quicker than they can post a story. Say you’ll be posting a story shortly and post a link when you get it. But an organization that prohibits tweeting before you post online is as foolish as the silly old newspaper fear of “scooping ourselves” by publishing stories online before they have been in print. I’ll repeat: If you have the news first, you scooped everyone, not yourself.
Beware of perceptions. That’s probably good advice in journalism and in life. But in this context, it’s kind of like saying: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” The resulting discussion actually raises some valid points to consider about what you retweet and about what it means or doesn’t to “friend” sources. But the tone of fear and restriction here and in the lengthy discussion of “friends” is unnecessary. This is an industry whose luminaries party annually with the politically powerful at the White House Correspondents Dinner. I don’t think journalists need more here than simple advice to consider appearances when sharing links and using social media to connect with sources.
Independently authenticate anything found on a social networking site. Again, the underlying advice is sound. And this is an area where journalists have made some serious mistakes, a couple of which were pointed out in the “teachable moments.” But journalism’s social media star now is NPR’s Andy Carvin, who does an outstanding job of sharing social media content he has not yet verified while raising questions openly and asking his social media following to help verify and refute. Andy’s success here shows that you can use social media to help authenticate (faster than you can on your own). The “best practice” here oversimplifies, rather than pointing out the acknowledged best practitioner.
Social networks are tools, not toys. Please. Social media can be fun. Journalists can and should have fun with social media to make the connections that will help us use the tools effectively. The example cited — the Washington Post’s Mike Wise planting a bogus story — was simply bad journalism, as publishing false information would be in any format. The first point — about traditional ethics applying — certainly covers the need to be truthful, without telling journalists they should not be fun and engaging in their social media use. The oh-so-serious admonition that these are tools makes it sound like we’re wielding hammers here.
That said, I applaud this passage in the toy section (though I have no idea why it’s there; linking and credit should have been a separate best-practice): “When something appears to be authenticated, it’s important to make clear where it came from when passing it along. Part of the ethos of social networking is crediting the original source. Reporters should always give credit to bloggers or citizen journalists or reporters from other mainstream news organizations, when warranted, because it’s the right thing to do and it offers important cover.” (OK, I’ll temper my applause: This should say credit and linking, not just credit. And, if it’s the right thing to do, why do you need cover?)
Keep internal deliberations confidential. Interestingly, this passage follows the one about transparency. OK, some things should be kept confidential, but this should not be elevated to a best practice. In fact, I encourage more openness in processes and in sharing internal deliberations. You can maintain the confidentiality you need without treating this as some sort of ethical issue. And again, it has little to do uniquely with social media. Newsroom staff members were blabbing about internal deliberations in barroom chatter and furtive phone calls to the competition long before they started tweeting Bill Keller’s staff meetings.
Even where I agree with a general point, the amplification got carried away at times. The “traditional ethics rules apply online” discussion included an admonition that reporters “shouldn’t say anything they wouldn’t want to see on the front page of their newspaper, and they shouldn’t post anything that would embarrass them personally or professionally or their organization.” I’m fine with advice not to post anything embarrassing, but nothing you wouldn’t want to see on the front page? No, journalists should feel free to post wit and interesting things that happen in their lives that don’t belong on the front page. There’s a huge space between the front page and embarrassment, and journalists should explore that area aggressively in using social media. (In addition, this language underscores that ASNE is still really an organization of newspaper editors, despite the change of the N in 2009 to “News.”)
Despite my criticism of the best-practices report, I appreciate that ASNE is addressing this issue. I hope the resulting discussion will advance consideration of these issues among top editors and in newsrooms.
I may sometime offer my own list of best practices. (Update: Here’s my list of best practices.) But here I’ll just link (again) to Mandy Jenkins’ social media guidelines and to Joy Mayer’s post about the ASNE rules (she was faster than I was). And I’ll add two more best practices for editors:
- Be gentle with staff members who make honest mistakes in their use of social media.
- Top editors should use social media aggressively and openly themselves. (I may sometime revisit the issue of how much ASNE leaders actually use Twitter.)
Pam Fine, ASNE Ethics Committee co-chair, responds:
Steve, I think some of your edits are valuable but I strongly disagree with the spirit of your opening salvo. I believe rather than being guided by fear, editors want to use professional practices they believe give them competitive advantage and are compatible with their mission and goals. That is typical with the adoption of any innovation. What you describe as “fear,” “control” and “restrictiveness” may be seen by others as having standards.
I also sought responses from James Hohman of Politico, author of the report, as well as ASNE President Ken Paulson, ASNE Executive Director Richard Karpel and Ethics Committee Co-Chair John Harris. I will add any responses they send me. Karpel responded briefly on Twitter (to some tweets about this post, not to the post itself, which he had not been able to read yet). I presume he will respond at more length later. If not, I will add his tweets here, rather than just linking to them.