WaPo’s Social Media Guidelines Paint Staff Into Virtual Corner; Full Text of Guidelines

Late Friday afternoon, Washington Post (NYSE: WPO) Senior Editor Milton Coleman sent a memo to the staff with a social media policy — effectively immediately — aimed at staffers’ use of “individual accounts on online social networks, when used for reporting and for personal use.” The new policy was translated externally by WaPo ombudsman Andy Alexander on his blog, along with a worst-case illustration: the decision by Managing Editor Raju Narisetti, responsible for features and the web, to shut down what appears to have been a small Twitter account intended for a private audience of friends and associates (as private as something that goes to 90-ish people can be) after some of his comments were called into question. Most of the online conversation that ensued was among people who had not yet seen the guidelines, which the paper, in a major transparency failure, didn’t make public. paidContent has obtained the full text, posted below. Some of the guidelines are important ethical points about identification and transparency that I and others have encouraged since journalists started using the internet; some go to the kind of extreme that led newsrooms to exclude outbound links.

While the instant reaction was mostly negative or caustic (active tweeter Howard Kurtz said he’d be sticking to weather or recipes), one staffer, Book World‘s Ron Charles, responded to my Twitter query with relief that at least a policy had been spelled out: “Provides clarification we’ve needed for a while. If 2 restrictive, we can adjust later.” Unfortunately, now that I’ve seen the full policy, that response would seem not to meet the guidelines: the long list of things a WaPo staffer shouldn’t do online includes talking about newsroom or the paper’s business activities (say, for instance, criticizing plans to sell access to reporters in the publishers’ living room?), and or criticizing “competitors or those who take issue with our journalism or our journalists.”

Instead of finding ways to encourage engagement, it’s easy to see how these guidelines could drive it the other way. I’m not sure I would do anything in social networking with this as a framework. Steve Buttry explains why journalism orgs need conversations, not restrictions. This should be the beginning of an important conversation within the WaPo newsroom.


The following are effective immediately:
Newsroom Guidelines for Use of Facebook, Twitter and Other Online Social Networks (emphasis added)

Social networks are communications media, and a part of our everyday lives. They can be valuable tools in gathering and disseminating news and information. They also create some potential hazards we need to recognize. When using social networking tools for reporting or for our personal lives, we must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists. The following guidelines apply to all Post journalists, without limitation to the subject matter of their assignments.

Using Social Networking Tools for Reporting

When using social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, My Space or Twitter for reporting, we must protect our professional integrity. Washington Post journalists should identify themselves as such. We must be accurate in our reporting and transparent about our intentions when participating. We must be concise yet clear when describing who we are and what information we seek.

When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment. We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism.

Our online data trails reflect on our professional reputations and those of The Washington Post. Be sure that your pattern of use does not suggest, for example, that you are interested only in people with one particular view of a topic or issue.

Using Social Networking Tools for Personal Reasons

All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.

What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account. It is possible to use privacy controls online to limit access to sensitive information. But such controls are only a deterrent, not an absolute insulator. Reality is simple: If you don