Guidelines For Personal Activity Online

This report is also available as a PDF file.

Report of the Ethics Advisory Committee of The Canadian Association of Journalists

February 4, 2011

PANEL MEMBERS | TIM CURRIE, CHAIR; BERT BRUSER, ELLEN VAN WAGENINGEN

The Ethics Committee of the CAJ asked its Social Media Panel to propose guidelines for personal activity online. To study this issue, the panel looked at social media policies at major news organizations, the opinions of leading commentators and working reporters.

THE ISSUE

If you’re a reporter over 35, an employer likely told you not to post campaign signs on your lawn, attend public rallies or sport bumper stickers. The advice was meant to portray you — and your employer — as independent and without bias.

Reporters are expected to set aside their biases in order to report fairly and impartially. But the perception of impartiality can be difficult to maintain as we use more social media in our personal and professional lives. Bumper stickers and rallies now take the form of Foursquare participation badges and Facebook allegiances. The Internet captures our participation in groups, advocacy of causes and connections to people.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A city hall reporter covering budget deliberations uses a personal Facebook account to “like” a page calling for a new city-funded playground
  • A reporter using a personal Twitter account follows only two of three candidates running in her riding
  • A business reporter has become the Foursquare “mayor” of a neighbourhood Starbucks (as a result of frequent virtual “check-ins”)

There is considerable debate as to the extent — or existence — of an ethical issue for the reporter in these situations.

Can she report with impartiality? Most would agree she can. Reporters, as citizens, have personal opinions, political leanings and family interests. However, like judges or doctors, they should put those aside and pursue evidence-based conclusions.

The greater issue is whether they are seen by the public to be impartial. Some social media advocates say the new standard for credibility online is a record of transparency in declaring one’s personal interests — not a “veil” of impartiality. Many traditional news organizations argue that a perception of complete independence is crucial to one’s journalistic reputation.

Experts acknowledge that while users can maintain separate profiles online, the public sees only one. The issue, then, is how, or if, reporters should reconcile their personal Internet use with their professional use — and what guidelines they can follow.

BACKGROUND

Social media can be a powerful asset to reporters in their newsgathering. They can speed the process and broaden a reporter’s network of sources.

In April 2007, Washington Post reporter Meg Smith used her personal Facebook account to join Facebook communities that connected her with Virginia Tech students immediately following the campus shootings. The connections she made using social media gave her access to sources close to the victims that no other news organization had.

Using social media effectively often involves creating publicly visible connections. The nature and strength of these connections — people you “friend” or follow, for example — can mean different things to different people. Reuters, for example, states in its guidelines: “A determined critic can soon build up a picture of your preferences by analysing your links, those that you follow, your ‘friends’, blogroll and endless other indicators.”

Steven Mendoza cited the dilemma faced by Sacramento Bee columnist Stuart Leavenworth in the American Journalism Review. A “friend request” from California’s secretary of state caused him to ask whether the public could interpret such a relationship as being stronger than it was.

He opted to ignore the request, stating, “I really wanted to keep a little bit of distance from public officials and other sources I deal with on a regular basis.”

However, New York Times standards editor Craig Whitney stated the Times worries little about these perceptions. “We believe that being a friend on Facebook … is essentially meaningless, and everybody knows that,” he stated. “So it’s hard to imagine any real conflict of interest that could arise from your being a friend of somebody on Facebook and writing about that person.”

The growth of social media in recent years has prompted news organizations to address the issue of their employees expressing personal preferences online. The L.A. Times issued social media guidelines in November 2009 that stated: “Just as political bumper stickers and lawn signs are to be avoided in the offline world, so too are partisan expressions online.”

Social media advocates, however, were quick to criticize policies they deemed too conservative and contrary to the nature of social media. Some argued many of these guidelines framed social media as a source of harm, failing to acknowledge their value and potential. They said reporters can reap immense rewards from participating in social media and doing so is difficult without being partisan.

“The notion that journalists don’t have personal lives or opinions, that they shouldn’t reveal political preferences or engage in civic causes regardless of their beat, that they should be shielded from direct interaction with the public for fear of disclosing a compromising point of view — this is sheer lunacy,” argued journalist and social media consultant J.D. Lasica in response to some news organizations’ policies.

Criticism was particularly strong in reaction to the Wall Street Journal’s social media guidelines issued in May 2009 (initially posted by Editor and Publisher and later unavailable, but reproduced here): The WSJ’s recommendation that “Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter” became a focal point for criticism.

“How can you not mix business and pleasure on Twitter?” argued journalist and social media advocate Gina Chen. “It’s a conversation. People follow you because they like you or they’re interested in your topic area. If you want to connect with people on Twitter you need to come across as a human being, who jokes around, who tweets a favorite song, who complains about the weather. Nobody wants to follow a robot. And that’s not connecting; that’s broadcasting.”

Journalist and community engagement advocate Steve Buttry agreed, arguing, “Most of the Twitter world mixes business with pleasure. Building walls means you won’t understand how Twitter works.”

Mathew Ingram, the communities editor at the Globe and Mail at the time, stated: “The idea that you can maintain a strict division between the personal and professional just doesn’t jibe with the way social networks (or human beings) operate. Naturally, a newspaper like the Journal doesn’t want its reporters discussing every detail of their personal lives on Twitter, and no one would argue with that. A little taste of the personal can have a tremendous impact, however, and can build loyalty with readers. Media outlets like the Journal ignore that at their peril.”

Mandy Jenkins, a social media editor at Washington’s TBD.com, has similar thoughts: “Friending, liking and following may sound like chummy words, but these are things you need to do to get info from sources on social media. If you think it might make you look biased, put a notation on your page/bio that says why you do it.”

News organizations issuing social media guidelines have come to the near-unanimous conclusion that the public will connect a reporter’s different online identities, no matter how hard that person might try to keep them separate.

NPR’s guidelines, for example, state: “Regardless of how careful you are in trying to keep them separate, in your online activity, your professional life and your personal life overlap.”

Consequently, their guidelines focus on helping the reporter create an online profile that doesn’t hinder their work as a professional reporter.

OVERVIEW OF NEWSROOM GUIDELINES

All of the social media guidelines acknowledge the basic principle of guarding against conduct that could harm the reputation of the news organization. They are, at their core, corporate guidelines for employees that aim to protect the institution’s credibility. But they also provide solid guidance to reporters generally.

Reuters’ guidelines summarize the issue acknowledged by most: “Whether we think it is fair or not, other media will use your social media output as [our] comment on topical stories.” They state further that “you should do nothing that would damage our reputation for impartiality and independence.”

Beyond these generally agreed-upon statements, news organizations differ in how they attempt to influence reporters’ personal activity online.

If the Wall Street Journal was at one end of the spectrum, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC are at the other end. The former’s entire social media guidelines consist of only four points; two of which apply to personal activity online:

  • Do not mix the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute.
  • Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views.

Similarly, the BBC asks only that personal posts “not bring the BBC into disrepute,” while instructing that “editorial staff should not indicate their political allegiance” in social media.

The news organizations that provide detailed guidelines address personal activity online in two subject areas:

1. Commenting

Most news organizations caution against creating a perception the reporter is advocating for causes or taking sides on other polarizing issues. Many acknowledge that reporters will have private lives and caution them only against making statements that appear to endorse issues — especially ones they cover.

The New York Times advised in a 2009 draft of its Policy on Facebook and Other Social Networking Sites: “Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times — don’t editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department. …That includes things you recommend on TimesPeople or articles you post to Facebook and Digg.”

In contrast, the U.K. Guardian invites its staff to “participate in conversations about our content, and take responsibility for the conversations you start.” Further, it asks that they: “Declare personal interest when applicable. Be transparent about your affiliations, perspectives or previous coverage.”

Reuters advises employees to “think carefully about what personal content would be appropriate,” stating: “Micro-blogging and use of social media tend to blur the distinction between professional and personal lives: when using Twitter or social media in a professional capacity you should aim to be personable but not to include irrelevant material about your personal life.”

NPR’s guidelines state simply: “You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online.”

2. Friending or Following others, Joining Groups Or Accepting ‘Badges’

Many news organizations address the issue of reporters creating connections in social media that can lead readers to perceive bias. This can take the form of following people on Twitter or friending them on Facebook. It can also take the form of joining groups on Facebook or accepting tokens or “badges” for participation.

NPR states: “[Our guidelines warning against advocating political causes] extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog) to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on NPR.org.”

A number of news organizations suggest that reporters need to balance the groups they join to minimize a perception of bias. NPR for example, states further that “if you ‘friend’ or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for a group representing the competing viewpoint, when reasonable to do so.” The L.A. Times has a similar statement.

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times agrees, but further advocates an all-or-nothing approach. Concerning groups, it advises: “Either avoid them entirely, or sign up for lots of groups.” Concerning friends, it states: “Accept no sources or people you cover as friends, or welcome them all.”

Indeed, many guidelines stress the need for transparency. Both Reuters and NPR ask their employees always to declare their relationship to their employer and the personal nature of their opinions.

The New York Times advises reporters on Facebook to “leave blank the section that asks about your political views.” Similarly, the Radio Television Digital News Association advises thinking hard about “Facebook information that describes your relationship status, age, sexual preference and political or religious views,” saying “these descriptors can hold loaded meanings and affect viewer perception.”

RECOMMENDED BEST PRACTICES

The panel believes the Internet, by its nature, encourages personal interaction. The panel sees social relationships online as key to gathering news and building engagement. As a result, it advises reporters, generally, to embrace this aspect of the medium.

Being social means showing one’s personality. The panel recommends reporters build a social media profile that is both personable and professional. It recommends that they create connections by following or friending — but remain mindful of the perceptions these social relationships can create.

The panel believes that expressing opinions about certain matters and making light-hearted jokes can humanize one’s profile in social media and build engagement. But the standard of acceptable partisanship shown in social media can depend on many factors.

Columnists, for example, might not hold themselves to the standard of independence and impartiality that a daily reporter might. Municipal government reporters might ordinarily refrain from expressing strong opinions on issues they cover.

The panel concludes that reporters using social media should at all times aim for transparency in their activities online.

The panel recommends reporters use the following guidelines:

  • Stay as impartial as possible on public issues.
  • Be prepared to acknowledge publicly anything you post online — even if you think it’s private. It probably isn’t.
  • Be transparent about your identity and your intent. Reporters should not normally conduct their work under a social media account that skirts journalistic obligations to transparency.
  • Monitor the names in your social media community frequently. Mind the image that list conveys with the friends you accept, the people you choose to follow, the groups you join and the tokens you receive. Consider joining a wide variety of groups and accepting a range of followers — instead of choosing only a few.
  • Take care in crafting biographical details in the personal profile section of social media services. For example, take special caution in filling out the “Political Views” template in Facebook.
  • State explicitly on your blog or social media site that the opinions are your own.

 


The Canadian Association of Journalists | www.caj.ca | 1106 Wellington St. Box 36030, Ottawa, ON, K1Y 4V3

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