The Limits of Control: With Journalists and Their Employers Increasingly Active on Social Media Sites like Facebook and Twitter, News Organizations Are Struggling to Respond to a Host of New Ethics Challenges

By Podger, Pamela J. | American Journalism Review, August-September 2009 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Control: With Journalists and Their Employers Increasingly Active on Social Media Sites like Facebook and Twitter, News Organizations Are Struggling to Respond to a Host of New Ethics Challenges


Podger, Pamela J., American Journalism Review


As a journalist, is it okay to describe your politics as "kind of a Commie" on Facebook?

Do you stop friends from posting pictures of you on their MySpace pages?

How about that video of you at the tailgate party going up on YouTube?

For journalists today, social networking sites are increasingly blurring the line between the personal and professional, creating a host of ethics and etiquette questions for news outlets.

In the past, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn were mined mainly for research and background, but these days more and more journalists are players in these cyber sandboxes. Age is no limit, with journalists in their 20s to their 90s exploring social networking tools.

News organizations--dealing with a flood of unedited, unfiltered remarks appearing digitally--are busily crafting ethics guidelines for the growing number of staffers using social networks. These documents aim to be malleable and adapt to changes in the new technology--be it using Twitter material from Iran with all the advantages and disadvantages of eyewitness tweets to hunting on Facebook for relatives and friends of a skier lost in the mountains.

Traditional newspapers are eager to harness the power of social networks to find and distribute information, but they also want to do it in a way that fosters responsible use. The goals are to identify the tripwires of social networks, avoid any appearance of impropriety and ensure the information can't be used to impugn the integrity of their reporters, photographers and editors.

In recent months, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Associated Press, Roanoke Times and others have hammered out ethics guidelines for social networking. These range from restrictive uses to common sense approaches. Other papers, including the Seattle Times, Sacramento Bee, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Spokane's Spokesman-Review, are in the process of doing so.

Mary Hartney, director of audience engagement at the Baltimore Sun, says reporters, editors, managers and others will help shape the new guidelines. "The technology is changing, so I hope the ethics policy is a living document," says Hartney, who estimates about half the Sun's newsroom actively uses social networks. "All of this stuff is changing very rapidly. So, anything you write down in an ethics policy or as a best practice is liable to change next week."

On social networks, you should identify yourself as a journalist, tell recipients if you're using social networks in a professional capacity and remain mindful that people will regard you as a representative of your newsroom, says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute.

"For journalists, transparency is one of the most important values," she says. "That doesn't mean you don't act as an individual, but there should be a caution gate if there's anything that might embarrass your newsroom."

Already, news managers have faced some unexpected behavior in connection with social networking, such as young staffers at the New York Times tweeting tidbits from an internal meeting where Executive Editor Bill Keller spoke of generating new revenue from the Web. "The older generation understood that these were internal meetings, but to the younger generation, who enjoy being wired in with the outside world, this was news and they wanted to share," says Times Standards Editor Craig Whitney, who estimates about 30 percent of the Times staff uses social networks. "No one was reprimanded. They didn't intend anything malicious nor did they tip off the competition, but it was behavior we hadn't expected."

Whitney says the paper responded by asking staffers to turn off their cell phones in meetings and managers now remind people when information is proprietary. "At Bill's next meeting," he says, staffers should "bear in mind this is a meeting for us."

As journalism evolves, some old-school conventions remain intact: Don't march in protests, don't contribute to a political campaign, don't stick a political placard in your front lawn. …

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