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Summary:

The American Society of News Editors has come out with a report looking at social-media policies at major media organizations, and while there is some positive advice, the report continues to tell media outlets that journalists should not be human beings when they are online.

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The American Society of News Editors has come out with an overview of social-media policies at news organizations across the U.S. — including Bloomberg, which we wrote about recently as an example of a company that still doesn’t really understand what social media is for — and some “best practices” that it has arrived at by studying those policies. While there are some positive elements to the report, the focus is still far too much on the bad things that can happen, and the lesson seems to be: Don’t allow your journalists to be human, under any circumstances.

As most social-media policies do, the ASNE review starts off well, saying, “social media platforms continue to emerge as essential newsgathering tools [and] offer exciting opportunities for reporters to collect information and for news organizations to expand their reach.” It even notes, “enforcing draconian rules hampers creativity and discourages the spirit of openness that flourishes on social networks.” But then out comes the stick:

But allowing an uncontrolled free-for-all opens the floodgates to potential problems and leaves news organizations vulnerable for the comments of employees who tweet before they think.

There’s the typical media-industry bogeyman that lies behind most of these policies: the staffer who types things into Twitter without thinking, maybe even (gasp!) breaking news on the social network before his organization has a chance to craft a story. And what happens then? Chaos! The very foundations of the media industry crumbling, dogs and cats living together — mass hysteria. None of that actually happens, of course, but most traditional media policies seem to harbor the fear that it might.

Much of the positive parts of the report are relatively straightforward. For example, it recommends that journalists always be up front about who they are (no investigative undercover stuff, apparently, although that is pretty common in the regular media). It also advises reporters and editors to assume that everything they write will become public, and to behave accordingly. In other words, to quote John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C.: “Don’t be stupid” (Journal-Register Co. CEO John Paton has an even simpler policy, which is completely blank).

But when the ASNE report gets into other areas — and particularly when it talks about reporters and editors expressing their opinions on social networks and belonging to groups and otherwise being normal human beings — it goes off the rails. It describes a number of what it calls “teachable moments,” which involve actual situations that journalists have found themselves in. But many of the conclusions it comes to are wrong, and in some cases these examples could (and should) be used to teach the exact opposite lesson.

To take just one example, the report mentions the case of Octavia Nasr, a senior editor at CNN with decades of experience in the Middle East, who posted something on Twitter expressing regret that a Hezbollah leader had died. Although he was known as a terrorist, Nasr said he was also a force for tolerance toward women in the region, and that’s why she said what she did. Defensible? Totally, as I wrote at the time. But CNN fired her. The ASNE report uses this as an example of why people should be careful what they say, but I think it’s an example of why organizations like CNN are dinosaurs.

Do people express themselves on social networks? Of course they do. Should they avoid being stupid or offensive? Yes. But to expect them to have no opinions — and then to fire or sanction them when they do — is naive in the extreme.

Another example used is Washington Post senior editor Raju Narisetti, who posted some of his thoughts about various national issues to Twitter. When he was found out, he cancelled his Twitter account and then helped draft a typically draconian social-media policy forbidding anyone from doing the same. Was this the correct response? Again, the ASNE report seems to suggest that it was. But the Washington Post should have used this as an opportunity to become more open and transparent, not less.

The report also states that breaking news on Twitter is not advisable — those kinds of reports should be saved for the newspaper, it says, because the purpose of social media is to “drive traffic” to the reporter or editor’s website. So presumably that means New York Times  media reporter Brian Stelter shouldn’t have re-tweeted the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed, and shouldn’t have pointed out how credible the report was because it came from the former Secretary of Defense’s chief of staff.

All that would have meant, of course, is that someone else would have done so — and no one would have mentioned or re-tweeted Stelter, as thousands did, and the New York Times would have been robbed of the benefit of all that traffic and awareness and brand-building.

But the biggest flaw in the report by far is the continued focus on preventing journalists from being human, or from showing that they have opinions. This is a holdover from the days when “objectivity” was the highest goal that a journalist could aspire to — days that editors like New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller apparently still cling to — but there is an argument to be made that transparency and accountability to one’s readers is far more important than maintaining some theoretical Potemkin village of objectivity. And it might just produce better journalism too.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz and Yan Arief Purwanto

  1. Kevin Morgan Thursday, May 12, 2011

    Today I learned that there’s not only a new boogeyman, but there’s also an alternative spelling. Excellent story as always.

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    1. Ha! Yes indeed — in fact, there are four or five different spellings, I think. Not saying mine is the right one by any means though :-) thanks for the comment, Kevin — and for the compliment.

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  2. There’s a difference between “social media” and “social marketing.” The ASNE clearly wants newspapers to use Twitter and Facebook as a social marketing platform, which is fine as long as the overall priority is to use it for social means, not solely for marketing purposes. The ASNE seems a little out of touch with the true purpose for these platforms.

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  3. Anyone else still expecting, courage, honesty, leadership from the 4th Estate in America. All the way back to McCarthyism – and up through the discovery of news as entertainment – the exception proves the rule of cowards.

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  4. Some of us don’t get our news from twits or farcebook. We prefer to have thorough, complete, well written stories a day or two later after all of the hysteria and speculation has died down. You will change your opinion the first time it is confirmed that someone was killed due to a piece of misinformation that went viral.

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    1. Thanks for the comment — I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. I think news and journalism have become much more of a process rather than a finished product. That doesn’t mean you have to consume your news via Twitter or Facebook — but plenty of people are choosing to do this.

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  5. “This is a holdover from the days when ‘objectivity’ was the highest goal that a journalist could aspire to — days that editors like New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller apparently still cling to — but there is an argument to be made that transparency and accountability to one’s readers is far more important than maintaining some theoretical Potemkin village of objectivity. ”

    Wha??? “Transparency and accountability to one’s readers is far more important?”

    That’s how we ended up with all of these articles about Charlie Sheen in the first place.

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  6. Perhaps the report doesn’t articulate well what I think they’re after: Establishing credibility. As a trained journalist, credibility is important to me. In the age of newsertainment, it’s hard to find. For me, I want reporters to report without editorializing.

    This is one of the reasons that I find blog media (GigaOm included) to be at a level of value I can’t easily quantify. On one hand, I want to get the news about current events, but it’s so colored with opinion that I’m not sure what to do with it. CNet’s News.com, with news in the name, does this more and more as well, and it ends up being 10% news and 90% editorial.

    The lack of clear lines is annoying for me as a consumer. Newspapers and TV networks would blur them from time to time, say, 20 years ago, but now it’s a mess. That Americans seem willing to just repeat anything on TV or the Internet as the gospel makes it even more annoying, though I’m not sure I’d blame “the media” on that one.

    Interestingly enough, I took a class in college where we talked about the right place to draw lines, and when it was OK. Non-fiction narrative in this realm is certainly not new. Hunter S. Thompson made a career of being part of the story. But at least Gonzo Journalism made no claims of objective fact reporting the way that Fox and CNN do.

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  7. “The ASNE report uses this as an example of why people should be careful what they say, but I think it’s an example of why organizations like CNN are dinosaurs.”

    Amen to that.

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  8. David Olive Sunday, May 15, 2011

    I think “boogeyman” is a superb addition to the language. A disco habitue we wrongly fear?
    As to the column, superb as always, it’s going viral, as you can imagine.
    Cheers, David

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  9. This is a good article, but it also demonstrates the need for traditional journalism today in and of itself. This is well-written and you express your thoughts/opinions well, but it’s an editorial written completely from the “social media” side of the argument. Again, that doesn’t make it a bad article or invalid in any way, but it fails to capture the other side of the equation here — i.e. WHY journalists/editors have this feeling toward social media.

    The goal of true journalism is to report the news in a way that captures the closest essence of truth by covering all sides of a story as completely as possible. That’s where objectivity comes into play, and why it is such an important component of quality journalism. No matter how well written a story is, if the reader knows the author has an agenda, the story will be tainted by it. That’s why it is such a slippery slope for journalists to use Twitter and other social media formats professionally. It’s part of their job NOT to have a public opinion!

    Of course, that doesn’t mean this kind of thing isn’t happening all the time. The world is changing like you say, as is the way people consume information. But if you ask me, I think that’s all the reason where there SHOULD be a few people out there holding on to those ethical traits of traditional journalism. Should we really be mocking them?

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  10. Yes. I think this is very well said. The time for pure objectivity at all costs has passed in the news world and accountability and transparency must be brought in as counterbalances. The increasing complexity and interconnectedness of our information systems necessitate a broader understanding of news as process not polished, proven product.

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