Journalists are quickly realizing that social media can endcareers just as fast as it can break news.
News anchors and print reporters alike have lost jobs forexpressing political views and opinions on the Internet, and major news outletshave responded with new usage guidelines.
The Associated Press established social media guidelines inJune 2009, The Washington Post in September 2009 and NPRin October 2009. The regulations mimic each other on everything from requiringemployees to identify themselves as members of their news organization tobanning the sharing of internal business matters.
With tools allowing journalists and editors to favor theunconfirmed scoop over verified fact, organizations also had to set ethicalboundaries. New policies instruct employees on how to conduct themselves onboth personal and business accounts.
Some of these social media policies came on the heels ofemployee missteps. For instance, the Post instituted its socialmedia policy one day after editor Raju Narisetti tweeted commentary on newstopics — like federal spending and a senator falling ill — despite hisinvolvement with the paper’s news coverage.
Falling prey to the ubiquity of social media isn’t specificto journalists. The direct-message slip-up of Rep. Anthony Weiner exposed aslew of online flirtations that forced him to leave Congress after lying onnational television.
The crippling effects of social media abuse also challengestudent media outlets, and staffs across the country are slowly confronting thepitfalls of unprofessional social media use – with the added issue of studentspeech rights on campus.
Experts are discovering that the collegiate media has beenfast to sign up and utilize social media, but rather slow to self-police.
Many college newsrooms across the nation have set up socialmedia accounts on Twitter, Facebook or both. However, Dan Reimold, professor atthe University of Tampa and adviser to the student newspaper TheMinaret, said much of the collegiate media hasn’t gone past theinitial setup phase.
Reimold maintains the “College Media Matters” blog, where hespends time researching and mapping the national collegiate press. Reimold’swork allows him to track the pulse of America’s college papers and identifystudent press trends. When it comes to social media, he’s observed that somepapers wholly embrace it while others maintain accounts on a more sporadicbasis.
“The student press is still fully ensconced in social media1.0 with very few exceptions,” he said. “A majority of college news outlets aresimply establishing their social media presence or working on building up thatpresence beyond a few followers and fans and defining what they want theirsocial media outlook to be.”
But as the impact of social media continues to grow, editorsmay need to put more focus on their own internal practices.
“However, I do think it is the time to start thinking aboutthis because we are at the point now that you are seeing student media onFacebook or Twitter and it is not Spartan pages or low follower counts you areseeing,” Reimold said. “The next step is establishing guidelines for thesetypes of things.”
Getting out of hand
Reimold said the college media is “reactionary” and a lackof clear usage guidelines means those guidelines are developed only after amajor upheaval.
“The student press has always been reactionary. The socialmedia guidelines will come en masse when a lot of crazy stuff startshappening,” he said.
The University of Northern Alabama campus paper TheFlor-Ala worked through the summer to develop social mediaguidelines after a rocky year.
Rebecca Walker, coordinator of student publications at theuniversity, worked with executive editor Lucy Berry to create new guidelines toencourage professionalism on social networks.
“We saw that students had a little bit of trouble separatingtheir online identity from how we expect them to behave publicly. They sharedopinions on things they were covering, used [foul] language and presentedthemselves unprofessionally online,” Walker said.
She said one student journalist used a mug shot taken foruse in the paper for his Twitter account on which he conducted himself“poorly.”
Walker and Berry turned to professional news organizationsfor 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 inconversations and we have discussed representing yourself professionally andhow employers will look at this and how [misuse] could hurt them,” Walker said.
Walker said she has heard students express praise anddisdain for social media regulation. She thinks students are wary of changesbecause use has been unrestricted for so long.
“Students have gotten so used to the environment online thatthey have not thought so much about an employer and it being regulatedelsewhere,” Walker said. “We are actually trying to ask the students to be justas participatory in this as we are in writing a media policy that hopefullythey would want to embrace.”
She said the paper’s policy will include a three-strikessystem that will require staff members who violate the new guidelines to meetwith the student publications board after three offenses.“We are not going to just kick someone off, but continuous actions are going tohave to be discussed,” Walker said.
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press LawCenter, said regulations that come from within student newspaper staffs are thebest avenues to protect both students’ rights and the integrity of the paper.
“If the reporter that is covering student government ishanging out every weekend and partying with the executive board, the editorialboard ought to be worried about that,” Goldstein said. “I think that it wouldbe possible to create ethical standards that the editorial board adheres to andthose could include how you use social media ethically.”
Policies that are enforced by state actors like journalismadvisers or administrators, however, could infringe on students’ FirstAmendment rights at a public school.
Clearly marked: Who’s who?
When Jim Killam, adviser to The Northern Starat the University of Northern Illinois, and then-editor Lauren Stott begancreating 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 sopervasive that people were not drawing lines between work and personalinformation,” Killam said.
“There were people posting and saying anything on behalf ofthe newspaper and that was becoming a mess. We had to decide who had thatpower.”
There was aversion to the policy initially, though Stottsaid it was widely followed by staffers in its inaugural year.
“It is hard because we can’t tell someone that ‘you can’t dothis or else you are fired.’ I think overall it creates a better environmentand everyone should be conscious of those guidelines,” Stott said. “No matterhow honest we are, we have to also appear honest. That goes a long way.”
The paper adopted a social media policy in 2010 for itsstudent journalists that details how personal accounts and the newspaper’saccounts are to be handled.
The Northern Star’s guidelines advise staffmembers to:
• Use the highest level of privacy allowed to keep unwantedvisitors out of your page
• Do not behave online any differently than you would inanother public forum.
• Do not express your support for political or other“polarizing issues.” This includes joiningonline groups in support of a cause or signifying a political affiliation in an Internet profile.
A disclaimer at the beginning advises students that whilethe policy is not mandatory, following the guidelines is strongly suggested.
“The Northern Star cannot dictate how its employees use social media websites on theirpersonal time. You have a First Amendment right to free expression,” the policyreads. “However, as an employee of a news media organization, you have someunique challenges. Like it or not, you represent the Northern Star at all times.”
Killam said three or four top editors have login informationfor the paper’s social media accounts. The protocol for sharing information isto always have content copyedited and fact checked prior to electronicpublication.
Stott said any information surrounding campus crime oremergencies is double-checked with campus or local police prior to sharing withthe paper’s online followers.
“Now that we are getting more used to [this policy] I amhoping it will create something for the reader to know we take our jobseriously; that we have someone checking over our shoulder for no glaringerrors, making sure the information is right,” Stott said.
Mastering the tools
In 2004, then-Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg establishedFacebook. Valued at more than $2 billion in 2010, the site is a flagship of theDigital Age. The microblogging site Twitter was established soon after, in2006, and now generates more than 200 million tweets a day, according to thecompany.
Media outlets have followed readers to these other socialnetworks, and social media now toes the line between marketing and actualcontent production, creating a hybrid.
Many news outlets actively encourage their journalists topromote content on both personal and professional social media accounts. InApril 2010, Facebook launched its Facebook for Journalists initiative to helpprofessional journalists capitalize on the site’s potential.
From content-rich posts to personalized surveys, the newprogram allows users to set up “journalist pages.” Readers can “like” the pageto 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 gettheir daily news — with the Internet surpassing print media as a primary sourceas of 2008 and trailing only television.
The center also found that 37 percent of Internet users havecontributed to the creation of news, commented about it or disseminated it viapostings on social media sites.
A reader is able to view, share and comment on a newsorganization or journalist’s content on social networks. These new capabilitieshave posed several dilemmas for news organizations as they try to engage withtheir audiences. Should a journalist comment back to an angry reader? Should apaper delete some comments that are offensive or crude?
“We are trying to figure out how to best interact withpeople on that level without overstepping our boundaries,” Stott said. “I thinkthere is definitely potential. The phones can now go online and there ismarketing potential there, and I am hopeful we can unlock that potential.”
Social media is a two-way street, extending the ability toengage with a news organization in the same way it allows journalists to reachout to readers.
Killam said The Northern Star uses thereach of its social media accounts to inform readers about pertinentinformation from multiple sources, not just its own site.
“It is thinking like a reader not like a loyal newspaperemployee 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 ajournalist sometimes. It is a friend-to-friend type of approach.”
The ability to share numerous chunks of content frommultiple news sources is a blessing for student media in particular, Reimoldsaid.
“I think the most interesting thing of all that is that thestudent media might be the most immune from that audience feeling overwhelmedin that if they do their job right they can be the principal media outlet fortheir readership base,” he said.
From Twitter’s retweets and embedded links to Facebook’sshare button, social networking has an interconnectivity capability not seen intraditional print media.
“[Student journalists] think promotion has to be allwink-wink in-house ads. They don’t realize that the point of social media isshare, share, share and to bring people in,” Reimold said. “Be a source wherepeople can turn to for all the news they could want and they are going to keepturning to you.”
Problems across the country are emerging as public figureslike politicians and news anchors are ousted for what they choose to makepublic using social media. Though the competition is heating up between newsorganizations to offer readers the most reader-friendly, cutting edge contentpossible, 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 TheFlor-Ala, the student press is gradually creating guidelines toshore up ethical standards.
“I think that truly social media should be outlined asbetween the lines. It should not be looked at as a definitive reporting tooland I don’t think it should necessarily be looked at as only an add-on to thewebsite,” Reimold said. “The lesson that we are all learning from how it isbeing used is that you can have 99 awesome tweets and it is the one tweet thatis too vulgar that gets you in trouble.”
By Nick Dean, SPLC staff writer