Media companies of every stripe appear to be struggling with how to "guide" their employees in the use of social media. The core issue is management in a world that demands leadership, two very different approaches to running the show.
The world of personal media is exploding, and we seem unable to release our employees to compete, tying their hands in an effort to protect the sanctity of the stage that represents our business. This is a self-destructive move, because people follow people, not institutions, and institutions can't compete in the world of personal media.
Therefore, I've prepared this policy paper to help guide media companies in this tricky area. It is my hope that this paper — or portions thereof — will be adopted by media companies everywhere and used for discussion by those who observe and report on matters of media in the postmodern age.
Social networking sites have become an important point of contact for millions of people worldwide. Prior to sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and many others, our contact with our audience was from us to them, as a mass. Social networking, however, connects everybody to each other, including us, and our future relevance as a news organization rests in how we respond. Not only can people we once considered our audience talk back to us, but they can also talk to each other at the same time.
This is changing the very nature of journalism and the journalist, for the creation of a detached and objective "first draft of history" that was the sole work of professional journalists is now competing with an on-going chronicle of events as written by all. We find it necessary to participate in both at this point, and we strongly question whether participation in the latter can be done following only the mandates of the former.
Let us begin by stating that any guidelines we publish will have to be flexible and adaptable, for this is a world that is evolving rapidly. What seems right today may be completely wrong tomorrow, so bear that in mind as we proceed.
Traditional media and social media may appear to be different sides of the same coin, but a closer examination reveals a more complex reality. If we were to assume, for example, that social networking was merely an extension of our roles and duties as journalists, we would be completely justified in considering the publication of anything on any website by an employee to be an extension of our own publication, whether it was print or broadcast. Moreover, if we were to assume that social networking was merely an extension of our personal lives, then we would be justified in bringing the same rules to bear that have applied to the private lives of journalists historically. As professional journalists, we've always given up certain rights to maintain the appearance of impartiality in our work. We don't work for political candidates; we don't march in social issue parades; and so forth.
Social networking is indeed both an extension of our work and our personal lives, but it is also a key component in the creation and maintenance of this new, on-going chronicle. We want and need to be a part of that, for the chronicle builds the first draft of history at the end of the day. To be sure, we could simply sit back, observe and write, but we also believe that journalism and journalists have a significant place in defining the agenda of what is or isn't to be included in that first draft. In order to be a part of that in the social networking world, we must participate in the process and not simply observe from a distance.
Another factor contributing to this document is our acknowledgement that social networking and social media are personal, not institutional. As much as we want and need for people to connect with us as an organization, the reality is that people connect with people on a different, more personal level than they do with institutions. This personal connection is a necessary part of participation in the daily chronicle of which we speak here.
We must further consider and acknowledge the growth of the independent voice in the contemporary evolution of journalism and that these voices represent constituencies but not necessarily traditional media organizations. They have the ability to be nimble, fleet of foot, adaptive and flexible in the pursuit of their work, and they move in and out of the social networking world with ease. While no one can be certain of the role these people will play in journalism's future, it's clear they currently have an advantage over those bound by traditional rules. We have two choices: We can let this growth continue unchecked or we can free our employees to join the competitive fray.
Finally, at certain points in the management of organizations, it is necessary to lead rather than manage, for the end is a moving target in this new world, and frankly, we have insufficient knowledge to create the necessary processional steps to get us from here to there at this time. Leading demands a degree of risk-taking and a willingness to get out of the way rather than oversee every step in the development process. That is what this document is intended to accomplish.
Therefore, the following guidelines are offered for the use of social networking and social media by employees of this news organization:
The integrity of the newsroom must be protected. The matter of integrity is currently being debated at the highest levels of journalism, but until any new values or codes of conduct are determined, we must rely on traditional rules in the defense of the tenets of ethical journalism, whether that be with the public or in a court of law. We do the best we can with regards to fairly and impartially reporting the news, and whenever and wherever you speak - as a representative of this newsroom - you must do so as representing those rules and traditions.
At the same time, however, we recognize that simply because you are an employee of this newsroom, it does not necessarily follow that every time and everywhere you speak, you do so as a representative of the newsroom. If, however, you choose this defense as justification for reaching beyond the accepted practices and tenets of contemporary ethical journalism in your interaction with people via social networking, you do so without the protection that accompanies living within those rules. In other words, you are on your own and cannot later try to represent that you were acting in accordance with the actual or implied approval of the newsroom.
We reject the suggestion that arguments and positions expressed by professional journalists disqualify them from fairly and impartially reporting the news. We believe that our audience not only understands but accepts this, and we will not allow special interests to exploit the artificial rigidity of the matter of objectivity to interpret for us what we mean. Fair means fair and impartial means impartial. We do our very best, but we make no pretense of perfection, and neither do we permit those with clear biases to call into question our effort simply because it furthers their position.
In the pursuit of truth, the concepts of fairness and impartially have been falsely twisted to assume that truth somehow always lies between two positions. We reject this as only benefiting those who wish to have their position considered equal to any other. We will vigorously defend this belief, regardless of its controversial nature, for we trust the public - our audience - to judge whether our reporting adequately considers the beliefs of the minority voice in matters of controversy.
Journalists answer to no one other than their readers. They will decide whether we are living up to the standards they expect, not a panel of experts, fellow journalists or the government through its courts. Our pledge to them is fair and impartial coverage of the news, not strict adherence to rigid beliefs imposed by special interests. Our voice is authentic and our methods are transparent.
You are all smart people. Use common sense when making friends or interacting with them, for what may seem innocent today could return to harm you or this newsroom in the future. If you discover an association that you believe might become compromising, simply end the relationship and move along. If such an association is brought to our attention, we will investigate and make recommendations, but it is not our goal to control with whom you have relationships; our strong preference is that you police yourselves and make smart decisions.
Criticize your employer or your co-workers at your own risk. Likewise, publicly display untoward behavior or otherwise embarrass yourself and your employer at your own risk. The Web is only private up to a point, and our organization is no different than others who will by any means disassociate themselves from public embarrassments caused by employees.
Use social networking and social media to develop and nurture your personal brands. You are encouraged to link back to us wherever possible, for that strengthens our brand, but we accept that your use of social networking and social media potentially benefits you far more than it does us. However, we think that strong personal brands make for a strong traditional media brand. The success of publications such as The Huffington Post suggest an audience for people following the individual brands that make up the whole, and we would be foolish to stifle that without careful consideration of its potential long term benefits first.
In closing, let us reiterate the opaque nature of social networking’s future as it relates to journalism and our belief that we need most of all to remain adaptive and flexible at this time. Social networking and the personal media revolution have already altered journalism forever, and regardless of where it’s all going, our wish is to be relevant in the end. We need your help and cooperation to do that.