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Summary:

Newspapers seem to have a hard time accepting the “social” part of social media — a case in being the new policy introduced at a major Canadian newspaper, which tells its staff not to express personal opinions and not to respond to reader comments.

Updated: Many traditional media entities have embraced social-media services like Twitter and Facebook and blogs — at least to some extent — as tools for reporting and journalism, using them to publish and curate news reports. But newspapers in particular seem to have a hard time accepting the “social” part of these tools, at least when it comes to letting their journalists engage with readers as human beings. A case in point is the new social-media policy introduced at a major newspaper in Canada, which tells its staff not to express personal opinions — even on their personal accounts or pages — and not to engage with readers in the comments.

The policy, which I received from a source close to The Toronto Star (the full version is embedded below), has a number of sensible things to say about using social media, including the fact that these tools “can be valuable sources for story ideas and contacts for journalists, and as a means of connecting directly with the communities we cover.” The paper also says that it “encourages journalists – reporters, columnists, photographers and editors – to take advantage of social media tools in their daily work.” But it warns that any comments posted using such tools “can be circulated beyond their intended audience.”

This all makes perfect sense. Social media is useful for journalism, and it does connect reporters to the communities they cover — better than just about anything else does. And yes, it is wise to be aware of the unintended consequences of even offhand remarks.

No talking about what you do

Then comes the part about being impartial and objective, and that’s when the trouble starts. The policy says staff should “never post information on social media that could undermine your credibility with the public or damage the Star’s reputation in any way, including as an impartial source of news.” And that’s not all — the document goes on to say that:

Anything published on social media – whether on Star sites or personal platforms – cannot reveal information about content in development, newsroom issues or Star sources. Negative commentary about your colleagues or workplace will not be tolerated.

In other words, no posting about stories that are being worked on, no comments on newsroom-related topics, no talking about people who might be used or are being used as sources for Star reporting. And this prohibition doesn’t just apply to Star accounts or services under the newspaper’s name — it applies to any comments that a reporter or editor might make on their own personal accounts as well. Obviously the paper doesn’t want staffers bad-mouthing each other or talking about sensitive internal issues (something the New York Times also confronted last year in 2009), but a blanket ban on anything related to content seems unnecessarily harsh, not to mention completely unrealistic. Of course, the Star is far from alone in this.

Never talk to your readers

It gets worse. The policy goes on to say that journalists who report for the Star “should not editorialize on the topics they cover,” because readers could construe this as evidence that their news reporting is biased — and then tells reporters and editors that they shouldn’t respond to reader comments either. It says:

As well, journalists should refrain from debating issues within the Star’s online comments forum to avoid any suggestion that they may be biased in their reporting.

This last prohibition is a classic case of missing the point completely. According to the Star, apparently, comments on news stories are something that exists to allow readers to talk amongst themselves, not something that a reporter or editor should get involved in. That’s just wrong. As someone who was intimately involved in social-media strategy for another major metropolitan newspaper in Canada (full disclosure: the paper in question competes with The Toronto Star to some extent), one of the main features of having comments is the ability for readers to interact with writers and editors at the paper.

Treating the comments section as something that journalists shouldn’t get involved in turns it into a ghetto, and also contributes to the problems that many newspapers have with flaming and trolls and other issues — why should anyone behave properly in a comment forum if none of the staff at the paper are going to bother getting involved?

Never express an opinion on anything

The Star is not the only media outlet making these kinds of errors — while they are happy to use social media to push their content, most major newspapers have failed to take advantage of these tools when it comes to building relationships with their readers. The biggest single factor holding them back seems to be fear — namely, a fear that they will no longer be seen as objective, something NYT executive editor Bill Keller reinforced in a recent column, in which he suggested that the paper was one of the few remaining holdouts in a world where everyone feels free to state their opinion.

Here’s a news flash for Bill, and for the rest of the newspaper world: that particular genie is already out of the bottle and has been for some time now. As journalism professor Jay Rosen has argued, the “view from nowhere” that mainstream media continues to defend is not only dying, but arguably does readers a disservice — since it often distorts the news in order to maintain a perfectly balanced view of events. Although some journalists have started to admit they have personal interests and causes, that remains rare.

But the main point being missed is that social media is powerful precisely because it is personal. If you remove the personal aspect, all you have is a glorified news release wire or RSS feed. The best way to make social media work is to allow reporters and editors to be themselves, to be human, and to engage with readers through Twitter and Facebook and comments and blogs. Is there a risk that someone might say something wrong? Of course there is. But without that human touch, there is no point in doing it at all.

Update: Toronto Star spokesman Bob Hepburn got back to me and said that the paper’s policy was “well in line with what mainstream media organizations have always done. We’ve always placed some limitations on journalists in terms of them expressing their opinions, either in the newspaper or outside of the newspaper.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Hans Gerwitz and Zarko Drincic

  1. Another salient point is that readers feedback to genuine opinions might actually be valuable!

    In my experience running media companies, one of the most difficult aspects is to ensure that the editorial teams stay in touch with reader zeitgeist and not simply reinforcing each other’s views. There are some conventional ways to do that, such as quantitative research and readers circles, but social media opens up a whole new channel and does it in real time.

    As I wrote in my blog (http://wp.me/pDw3s-TO): “As some skills decline, others are coming to the fore.”

    – Greg

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    1. Great point, Greg — one of the things that many media companies miss by focusing only on the possible downsides of social media is that these tools can actually make it easier for journalists to do their jobs, not harder.

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  2. Social Media is the Medium: Greater than the sum of its parts.
    http://slimviews.blogspot.com/2011/03/social-media-is-medium-greater-than-sum.html

    For those interested in academics (read grammar school) there is always,
    Quill Pens and Powdered Wigs in today’s Classrooms
    http://slimviews.blogspot.com/2011/03/quill-pens-and-powdered-wigs-in-todays.html

    For those who don’t like blogs there are always the SlideShare docs on http://slideshare.net/slimfairview

    Regards,

    Slim

    ps. You know, I think this whole internet thing is really going to catch on. — Slim

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  3. And this is why most news blogs/sites will never be like ‘Huffington Post’- the level of user interaction on that site is just too much hence its success. We are living in the ‘Second Internet’ and successful companies in this era are built on that basis. PERIOD! So the Star has to bite its fingers …

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    1. But the huffpo has successfully shut down an entire side of the debate by getting involved in the discussion. (see @AndrewBreitbart). Huffpo isn’t news, it’s a forum where writers start bashing and the lemmings hem and haw.

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    2. I’m glad someone brought up the Huffington Post — a keen example of a simple content farm, despite what it was when it was created. Google “What time does the Superbowl Start?” and see what shows up, and understand that that “Article” was tripled in size after they were called out and in expectation of a major Google Algorithm change.

      I’m not sure on the argument in this post, though it’s for sure one to chew on. I read WWL’s comments on facebook; look at the nola.com comments on their site (Times-Picayune) — 99.99% of comments only show that the internet is not real life, nor should it be treated as such. By that I mean that the users interacting would NEVER have said those things in a public forum; and probably (hopefully?) misrepresenting themselves and their views to the point that it’s meaningless to even begin to “debate” with them.

      It would just lower the quality of journalism to stoop to that level, and take too much time away from being journalists to prune through over 100 comments just to find the “good” ones.

      On the other hand, my day job is in SEO and social media — I feel like spamming so many sites with “UR DOIN IT RONG!” Maybe this can be implemented for editorials and other opinion pieces, allowing the author to back up, retract, correct, or clarify things he’s written? Like I said, stuff to chew on….

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  4. Steve Farnsworth Tuesday, April 5, 2011

    Glad you wrote on this topic! While not a new issue, it is one that is very concerning since it seems that those news organizations fail to see their self-enlighten interests regarding social media. News organization do seem to be negatively reacting to the open nature of social media by stealing-up instead of leading. Sadly, their actions do have that smell of a dying giant’s final throws. Large news organizations are still an integral part of the news process, mainly for their legal teams that give them a greater ability to report on powerful organization, and then fight off attempts by those organizations to use the law to control and squelch reporting on important issues.

    Also, it seems to me that their notion of impartiality is deeply outdated. We have all known that reporters have opinions. While serious news reporting should be impartial unless otherwise disclosed, a false pretense that reporters have no opinion is, well, stupid.

    Wouldn’t keeping the two facets separate for on-going discussion make more sense? By that I mean, keeping the discussion of impartiality focused on the reporting itself, while allowing reporters to openly voice their opinions in clearly identified venues. To me, that would allow for greater transparency on both accounts.

    With media organizations effectively passing off opinion as impartial news, this seems needed more now than ever.

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  5. This may be the old journalism practice that drives me crazy the most “”””Never express an opinion on anything””””

    So you want your readers to believe, the day you became a “journalist” you also became a machine or you are a complete idiot who had no opinion about any subject?

    It is ridiculous. While the latter may be too often true. We all know it is complete nonsense.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Rick. Totally agree. Most of these policies seem determined to try and enforce a state of affairs that never actually existed.

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  6. akismet-b189724537848daf29a237832068471d Tuesday, April 5, 2011

    Thanks for the article, Mathew. Some good points in here, but I wonder: Do you think social media policies for news organizations in general are pointless? I’d disagree. I think some sort of guidance is important. And if you think there are cases when they’re necessary, do you have any examples of good ones?

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    1. I don’t think they are pointless, I just think most of them spend too long talking about and trying to prevent any potential harm, and too little time talking about the benefits and how to use these tools properly. The Guardian has struck a pretty good balance — or at least it has made a good start: http://www.guardian.co.uk/info/2010/oct/19/journalist-blogging-commenting-guidelines

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      1. Daniel Petty Tuesday, April 5, 2011

        Thank you for the response and link, Mathew.

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  7. In the UK there are plenty of newspapers so it is OK for most of them to be biased in their coverage because there are plenty of alternate points of view. In No. America where one major newspper dominates a geagraphy, I think it is the fair thing to do and to take pains not to show bias. And as for interacting with readers, also, it’s nice to do but journalists are interacting with their communities constantly anyway but in less public ways. It takes time, I’d rather have the journalists working on great stories than sparring with readers.

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    1. but that’s the point Tom. Everyone has a point of view and their own bias’. Newspapers in the US don’t forget them, they may try to overcome them or pretend not to have them, but it doesn’t make them go away.

      It is blatantly dishonest and insulting to their readers.

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    2. This is a great point. Instead of catering to the small amount of readers who want to argue with the editors and reporters, it is far better to remember the silent majority. And if nothing else, they want the pretense that their news organization isn’t picking sides in every story.

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    3. Sometimes you will find the reader’s comments hit the mark more so than the author’s. This leads to intelligent back and forth discourse, as you have right here.

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  8. So, how do you crowdsource anything if you “cannot reveal information about content in development”?

    You don’t.

    EPIC FAIL.

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    1. Exactly, Ivan. Newspapers give up a lot when they refuse to talk about what they are writing.

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  9. As a former AP reporter (17 years) I get objectivity. No problem in the new “social media.”

    Suggest ya might wanna consider that such revered organizations as tax-payer (in part) supported orgs as NPR have wiccans, racists, and sexist staffers regularly reporting the news to those eager to have their ears tickled.

    Listen to a NPR report on the Vatican by Sylvia P. Or
    To Scott’s tickling of the ears on any given Sat. and you’ll see what I mean. Even better, compare Scott’s commentary on any Saturday involving men and women and you’ll see. remnants of Hargie Senge, et al.

    God bless.

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  10. Jana Schilder Tuesday, April 5, 2011

    While it is interesting to read other readers’ viewpoints (I always learn something), I find that in today’s over-communicated world, even sending direct e-mail to reporters, editors, and producers sometimes produces no reaction.

    I find reader/user comments, as well as Twitter, to be highly useful to break through the clutter. Frequently, I am able to point the reporter to a source–even though s/he may not be a client.

    One thing I think is improving: “anonymous” comments by …who knows? Reporters sign their work; so should those commenting on it. Only fair.

    I wish we would have had social media when I got into the PR business 25 years ago!

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    1. oneheartonemind Wednesday, April 6, 2011

      Jana:

      I think you have really nailed a very real challenge with dealing with members of the media today.

      I was taught an “email” is to be thought of as a conversation.

      More times than not when you contact an editor, photographer or reporter you receive no reply…end of conversation.

      Social media does not require a conversation just a burst of information. The challenge may be weeding through the over saturation of information now on the web to find what is of value for individual needs.

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    2. I wish they’d had social media 11 years ago when I became a free-lance website designer and consultant. I set up a Webex office but no one I knew could use it. I sold websites to business owners who did not own computers. Some of my clients never saw their websites. Today, awesome. Blogs, SlideShare, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and the comment portion of sites like this one are some of the most potent communication tools going. (Op Cit Egypt)

      Regards,

      Slim

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