A policy for social media

Newsrooms wrestle with how to be social in forums like Facebook and Twitter, while retaining a reputation to objectivity.

We tie ourselves in knots trying to figure how to be chatty and social, and still professional.

I wonder why we can’t treat social media as simply as that.

Today, the Associated Press unveiled an update to its social media guidelines.

They were immediately attacked in the Twittersphere, particularly on this update, on how to Retweet.

The goal, the guidelines stated, was that AP reporters keep their opinions to themselves:


Retweets, like tweets, should not be written in a way that looks like you’re expressing a personal opinion on the issues of the day. A retweet with no comment of your own can easily be seen as a sign of approval of what you’re relaying. For instance:

RT @jonescampaign smith’s policies would destroy our schools

RT @dailyeuropean at last, a euro plan that works bit.ly/xxxxx.

These kinds of unadorned retweets must be avoided.

However, we can judiciously retweet opinionated material if we make clear we’re simply reporting it, much as we would quote it in a story. Colons and quote marks help make the distinction:

RT Jones campaign now denouncing smith on education: @jonescampaign smith’s policies would destroy our schools

RT big European paper praises euro plan: @dailyeuropean “at last, a euro plan that works” bit.ly/xxxxx.

These cautions apply even if you say on your Twitter profile that retweets do not constitute endorsements.

There are conflicting views on whether news organizations need a policy for newsrooms.

John Paton, CEO of the Digital First Media Inc. in the U.S., which operates the Journal Register Company, was asked by his employees about the company’s social media policy.  He posted it on his blog:

Some of you have asked what are JRC’s Employee Rules For Using Social Media. To keep it simple I have reduced them to three:




Until next time, John.

I started examining social media policies a couple of years ago. One person I called was a communities editor at a major news operation (I won’t name him, lest I reveal any company secrets). I asked him if he had a policy for journalists he was introducing to Twitter.

His answer: “Ah, no. I don’t really see the need.”

“Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I have to tap people on the shoulder and remind them that they are professionals. If you wouldn’t say it in public, don’t say it on Twitter.”

Another editor I’ve spoken to boils it down to this: Treat others with respect. Don’t be a jerk.

When I was working at the CBC in television, we were told about the company’s Journalistic standards and practices . I soon learned that the lawyers hated it – to them  it’s just a way for someone to haul you into court, ‘hold up the book, and slap you across the face with it when you don’t follow your own standards.’ (his words)

I’m not saying we should have policies to avoid litigation.

But I think we have an obligation to remind journalists how they should  be using social media like Twitter, Facebook and Google+. It’s not just creating an account and setting Tweetdeck on your desktop.

One editor told me he tells his reporters: No fart jokes, and no links to porn. “You are professionals,” he reminds them.

And there will be some slips, as when a reporter Tweeted that two Ottawa shooting victims were “bad guys” at the scene (we later reported their connections to organized crime).

Best to admit it was a mistake (as this reporter did), and accept the criticism (and there were heaps of it from our readers).

The Washington Post was the first to publicly tackle journalism and Twitter in September 2009. Its ombudsman, Andy Alexander, waded into the debate after one of the news org’s Managing Editors, Raju Narisetti, Tweeted about U.S. healthcare reform.

The Post subsequently released social media guidelines, and Narisetti dumped his Twitter account.

Like the AP today, the Post’s guidelines came under attack.

This September, two years later, the company released its revised guidelines. The current ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, posted links to social media guidelines at other media organizations.

Apparently ‘no fart jokes’ and ‘don’t be a jerk’ isn’t enough.




8 thoughts on “A policy for social media

  1. This is a very interesting post; I have had discussions with many professionals regarding Twitter “etiquette” and when it boils down to it, we always come to the same conclusion: Nothing you say will ever be 100% inoffensive to every person reading it. Just another reason why social media is a necessary evil in some cases.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s