Swimming in the roiling sea of online journalism, increasing numbers of newsrooms have decided to take up the challenge of articulating editorial policies for social media.

Over the past year, news organizations from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to the BBC have issued protocols for staff on Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs and websites.

Recently, the Washington Post came under fire for formulating “restrictive” guidelines, after managing editor Raju Narisetti expressed on his Twitter page strong views about war spending and term limits for politicians.

Reading the guidelines and the opinions of their critics is instructive. It shows how to construct a social media ethics for mainstream journalism. Here are some lessons I’ve learned.

Guidelines Have a Place in Journalism

The first step is to understand the place of guideline writing in journalism ethics.

The guidelines should be applications of general ethical principles. The issue is not only about giving individual journalists the freedom to participate in new media. It is not about how, since everyone is on Twitter, we have to let journalists tweet away, unrestrained.

It’s about something bigger.

It’s about how social media should be used to contribute to responsible, democratic journalism. Guidelines should not be ad hoc “fixes” to a particular problem. We need sober, nuanced, ethical thinking that takes the long view, not emotional arguments from social media enthusiasts.

The task is to articulate rules with two features:

  • Flexible rules that encourage new media** — In this developing area of ethics, guideline writing should be experimental in spirit, viewed as a work in progress. Avoid a hectoring or absolute tone.
  • Rules that are consistent with a plurality of ethical principles** — Guidelines should be evaluated according to how well they honor or violate the principles of journalism as a whole. A common mistake is to argue from only one principle. For example, critics who reject the very idea of social media guidelines often invoke free speech rights. They don’t mention that journalism ethics also recognizes the principle of journalistic independence, which insists on the avoidance of conflicts of interests and perceived conflicts.

Guideline writing, like journalism ethics as a whole, must weigh the conflicting principles of freedom, independence, minimizing harm, and being accountable.

Taking the Right Approach

The policy of the New York Times contains guidelines that follow this approach.

The policy stresses the “remarkably useful reporting tools” of social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Then the Times policy warns:

1. People will use what journalists write, and the online groups they join, to undermine their credibility. Journalists should, for example, leave blank the Facebook section that asks for the user’s political views.

2. Be careful not to write on a blog or a personal Web page what “you could not write in The Times – don’t editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department.”

3. Be careful about your Facebook “friends.” Journalist could show impartiality in the areas that they report on. For example, a political reporter could have “friends” in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

The Times’ approach is open to social media, yet suggests reasonable restraints consistent with journalistic principles. It warns about pitfalls. This is the right strategy.

The wrong approach

Do I have an example of the incorrect approach? I do. Consider the rigid guidelines on social media established in May by the Wall Street Journal. One rule stated: “Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited.” Another guideline was: “Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meeting you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted.”

This guideline writing ignores both (a) and (b) above. The idea that journalists not comment in any manner on stories or their news organization is too sweeping. It runs against the grain of social media and its love of collaboration and transparency. However, since all organizations need to keep some information confidential, what is needed is a more specific set of protocols that lists the situations that demand confidentiality, such as the protection of sources.

The BBC’s approach to blogs and confidentiality is better that that of the Journal’s.

The BBC acknowledges that reporters use blogging to discuss their BBC work in ways that benefit the BBC and add to the “industry conversation.”

Its editorial policies are “not intended to restrict this, as long as confidential information is not revealed. Blogs or websites which do not identify the blogger as a BBC employee, do not discuss the BBC and are purely about personal matters would normally fall outside this guidance.”

If a blog makes it clear that the author works for the BBC, it should include a simple and visible disclaimer such as, “these are my personal views and not those of the BBC.”

The Times, the BBC and other newsrooms are pioneering social media ethics for mainstream media. Their efforts, while not perfect, show that it is possible to develop norms for responsible online journalism.

The development of reasonable guidelines should be sustained against the libertarians on the Internet who reject any rules and hidebound conservatives who accept only traditional norms.

Journalists who take on the often thankless task of developing guidelines should ignore the skeptics and push on with this remarkable reinvention of journalism ethics.

The future of responsible journalism depends on it.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess professor of journalism ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is director of the school’s Center for Journalism Ethics. Ward is the author of The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond, and is associate editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. He also writes Ward’s Words, a bi-weekly column on ethics for www.j-source.ca, Canada’s main portal for the discussion of journalism issues.

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This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

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