College newsrooms revisiting ethics policies for the Twitter generation
Journalists are quickly realizing that social media can end careers just as fast as it can break news.
News anchors and print reporters alike have lost jobs for expressing political views and opinions on the Internet, and major news outlets have responded with new usage guidelines.
The Associated Press established social media guidelines in June 2009, The Washington Post in September 2009 and NPR in October 2009. The regulations mimic each other on everything from requiring employees to identify themselves as members of their news organization to banning the sharing of internal business matters.
With tools allowing journalists and editors to favor the unconfirmed scoop over verified fact, organizations also had to set ethical boundaries. New policies instruct employees on how to conduct themselves on both personal and business accounts.
Some of these social media policies came on the heels of employee missteps. For instance, the Post instituted its social media policy one day after editor Raju Narisetti tweeted commentary on news topics — like federal spending and a senator falling ill — despite his involvement with the paper’s news coverage.
Falling prey to the ubiquity of social media isn’t specific to journalists. The direct-message slip-up of Rep. Anthony Weiner exposed a slew of online flirtations that forced him to leave Congress after lying on national television.
The crippling effects of social media abuse also challenge student media outlets, and staffs across the country are slowly confronting the pitfalls of unprofessional social media use – with the added issue of student speech rights on campus.
Experts are discovering that the collegiate media has been fast to sign up and utilize social media, but rather slow to self-police.
Many college newsrooms across the nation have set up social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook or both. However, Dan Reimold, professor at the University of Tampa and adviser to the student newspaper The Minaret, said much of the collegiate media hasn’t gone past the initial setup phase.
Reimold maintains the “College Media Matters” blog, where he spends time researching and mapping the national collegiate press. Reimold’s work allows him to track the pulse of America’s college papers and identify student press trends. When it comes to social media, he’s observed that some papers wholly embrace it while others maintain accounts on a more sporadic basis.
“The student press is still fully ensconced in social media 1.0 with very few exceptions,” he said. “A majority of college news outlets are simply establishing their social media presence or working on building up that presence beyond a few followers and fans and defining what they want their social media outlook to be.”
But as the impact of social media continues to grow, editors may need to put more focus on their own internal practices.
“However, I do think it is the time to start thinking about this because we are at the point now that you are seeing student media on Facebook or Twitter and it is not Spartan pages or low follower counts you are seeing,” Reimold said. “The next step is establishing guidelines for these types of things.”
Getting out of hand
Reimold said the college media is “reactionary” and a lack of clear usage guidelines means those guidelines are developed only after a major upheaval.
“The student press has always been reactionary. The social media guidelines will come en masse when a lot of crazy stuff starts happening,” he said.
The University of Northern Alabama campus paper The Flor-Ala worked through the summer to develop social media guidelines after a rocky year.
Rebecca Walker, coordinator of student publications at the university, worked with executive editor Lucy Berry to create new guidelines to encourage professionalism on social networks.
“We saw that students had a little bit of trouble separating their online identity from how we expect them to behave publicly. They shared opinions on things they were covering, used [foul] language and presented themselves unprofessionally online,” Walker said.
She said one student journalist used a mug shot taken for use in the paper for his Twitter account on which he conducted himself “poorly.”
Walker and Berry turned to professional news organizations for a starting point in writing guidelines tailored for the Flor-Ala.
The paper’s final guidelines will be student produced, student approved and instituted at the start of the academic year, Walker said.
“We are not just dropping the hammer on them. They are in conversations and we have discussed representing yourself professionally and how employers will look at this and how [misuse] could hurt them,” Walker said.
Walker said she has heard students express praise and disdain for social media regulation. She thinks students are wary of changes because use has been unrestricted for so long.
“Students have gotten so used to the environment online that they have not thought so much about an employer and it being regulated elsewhere,” Walker said. “We are actually trying to ask the students to be just as participatory in this as we are in writing a media policy that hopefully they would want to embrace.”
She said the paper’s policy will include a three-strikes system that will require staff members who violate the new guidelines to meet with the student publications board after three offenses. “We are not going to just kick someone off, but continuous actions are going to have to be discussed,” Walker said.
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, said regulations that come from within student newspaper staffs are the best avenues to protect both students’ rights and the integrity of the paper.
“If the reporter that is covering student government is hanging out every weekend and partying with the executive board, the editorial board ought to be worried about that,” Goldstein said. “I think that it would be possible to create ethical standards that the editorial board adheres to and those could include how you use social media ethically.”
Policies that are enforced by state actors like journalism advisers or administrators, however, could infringe on students’ First Amendment rights at a public school.
Clearly marked: Who’s who?
When Jim Killam, adviser to The Northern Star at the University of Northern Illinois, and then-editor Lauren Stott began creating a social media policy for their staff, they had one group in mind: readers.
“There were a lot of questions coming up and Facebook is so pervasive that people were not drawing lines between work and personal information,” Killam said.
“There were people posting and saying anything on behalf of the newspaper and that was becoming a mess. We had to decide who had that power.”
There was aversion to the policy initially, though Stott said it was widely followed by staffers in its inaugural year.
“It is hard because we can’t tell someone that ‘you can’t do this or else you are fired.’ I think overall it creates a better environment and everyone should be conscious of those guidelines,” Stott said. “No matter how honest we are, we have to also appear honest. That goes a long way.”
The paper adopted a social media policy in 2010 for its student journalists that details how personal accounts and the newspaper’s accounts are to be handled.
The Northern Star’s guidelines advise staff members to:
• Use the highest level of privacy allowed to keep unwanted visitors out of your page
• Do not behave online any differently than you would in another public forum.
• Do not express your support for political or other “polarizing issues.” This includes joining online groups in support of a cause or signifying a political affiliation in an Internet profile.
A disclaimer at the beginning advises students that while the policy is not mandatory, following the guidelines is strongly suggested.
“The Northern Star cannot dictate how its employees use social media websites on their personal time. You have a First Amendment right to free expression,” the policy reads. “However, as an employee of a news media organization, you have some unique challenges. Like it or not, you represent the Northern Star at all times.”
Killam said three or four top editors have login information for the paper’s social media accounts. The protocol for sharing information is to always have content copyedited and fact checked prior to electronic publication.
Stott said any information surrounding campus crime or emergencies is double-checked with campus or local police prior to sharing with the paper’s online followers.
“Now that we are getting more used to [this policy] I am hoping it will create something for the reader to know we take our job seriously; that we have someone checking over our shoulder for no glaring errors, making sure the information is right,” Stott said.
Mastering the tools
In 2004, then-Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg established Facebook. Valued at more than $2 billion in 2010, the site is a flagship of the Digital Age. The microblogging site Twitter was established soon after, in 2006, and now generates more than 200 million tweets a day, according to the company.
Media outlets have followed readers to these other social networks, and social media now toes the line between marketing and actual content production, creating a hybrid.
Many news outlets actively encourage their journalists to promote content on both personal and professional social media accounts. In April 2010, Facebook launched its Facebook for Journalists initiative to help professional journalists capitalize on the site’s potential.
From content-rich posts to personalized surveys, the new program allows users to set up “journalist pages.” Readers can “like” the page to stay up to date with a journalist’s work.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life project, 92 percent of Americans use multiple platforms to get their daily news — with the Internet surpassing print media as a primary source as of 2008 and trailing only television.
The center also found that 37 percent of Internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it or disseminated it via postings on social media sites.
A reader is able to view, share and comment on a news organization or journalist’s content on social networks. These new capabilities have posed several dilemmas for news organizations as they try to engage with their audiences. Should a journalist comment back to an angry reader? Should a paper delete some comments that are offensive or crude?
“We are trying to figure out how to best interact with people on that level without overstepping our boundaries,” Stott said. “I think there is definitely potential. The phones can now go online and there is marketing potential there, and I am hopeful we can unlock that potential.”
Social media is a two-way street, extending the ability to engage with a news organization in the same way it allows journalists to reach out to readers.
Killam said The Northern Star uses the reach of its social media accounts to inform readers about pertinent information from multiple sources, not just its own site.
“It is thinking like a reader not like a loyal newspaper employee and it is a ‘Hey, this might affect you or impact you’ way to engage,” Killam said. “You should look at [sharing capabilities] more as a reader than a journalist sometimes. It is a friend-to-friend type of approach.”
The ability to share numerous chunks of content from multiple news sources is a blessing for student media in particular, Reimold said.
“I think the most interesting thing of all that is that the student media might be the most immune from that audience feeling overwhelmed in that if they do their job right they can be the principal media outlet for their readership base,” he said.
From Twitter’s retweets and embedded links to Facebook’s share button, social networking has an interconnectivity capability not seen in traditional print media.
“[Student journalists] think promotion has to be all wink-wink in-house ads. They don’t realize that the point of social media is share, share, share and to bring people in,” Reimold said. “Be a source where people can turn to for all the news they could want and they are going to keep turning to you.”
Problems across the country are emerging as public figures like politicians and news anchors are ousted for what they choose to make public using social media. Though the competition is heating up between news organizations to offer readers the most reader-friendly, cutting edge content possible, etiquette, ethics and propriety are not solidly defined.
As student news organizations confront ethical dilemmas, safety nets in the form of well-established guidelines that maintain students’ speech rights will be developed. Much like The Northern Star and The Flor-Ala, the student press is gradually creating guidelines to shore up ethical standards.
“I think that truly social media should be outlined as between the lines. It should not be looked at as a definitive reporting tool and I don’t think it should necessarily be looked at as only an add-on to the website,” Reimold said. “The lesson that we are all learning from how it is being used is that you can have 99 awesome tweets and it is the one tweet that is too vulgar that gets you in trouble.”
By Nick Dean, SPLC staff writer
Fall 2011, reports