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NPR Gets in News Staff's Facebook

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For those keenly watching the ever-increasing overlap of journalism and new media, and what it means for both, National Public Radio's newly-released "News Social Media Guidelines" are of obvious interest.

They provide an important insight into how the prestigious national network considers its news staff in this age of "media is everywhere," and where it draws the lines regarding its employees' personal and professional use of such social media web sites like Facebook and Twitter. 

NPR's new guidelines, released October 15, come at a time when social media web sites like Facebook and Twitter are increasingly becoming a first-line source of news and information for millions of Americans, particularly with regard to breaking news stories, and commentary (e.g. I first learned of the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy through a post on Facebook, and these days I am more likely to watch a Jon Stewart Daily Show commentary on Facebook than on cable TV).

According to NPR president and CEO Vivian Schiller, who emailed her staff last week about the network's new social media guidelines, the rules are mandatory for those working at NPR in news, programming, digital media, communications, and legal divisions, as well as corporate officers.  "But even if you fall outside those boundaries," wrote Schiller "you'd be smart to review the guidelines and follow them. NPR is first and foremost a news organization, which means staffers from Finance to Facilities represent the face of NPR's journalistic integrity."

Among the new NPR social media guidelines that have left some staff members puzzled and unhappy about the network's reach into their personal self-expression are:

  • "You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This 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";

  • "Your simple participation in some online groups could be seen to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by just observing a group's activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, be clear that you've done so to seek information or story ideas. And 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."; and 

  • "You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization." 

NPR's guidelines, including the limits on NPR staff joining social media groups and asking that social networking conduct be based on whether NPR could defend it, seem to be a bit skittish, and appear to demonstrate a modest naïveté about how people are actually using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which are increasingly becoming a locus for people to share and discuss critical current events and matters of social importance.  This while NPR has been publicly proclaiming its interest in expanding from radio into the area of social media, which inherently involves often freewheeling and open discussions and comment.  

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, Raju Narisetti, one of the newspaper's two managing editors, closed his Twitter account in September after being criticized for his posts about the health care debate. ("We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not," read one Narisetti Twitter post. "But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.")  

On September 25, the Washington Post announced that Narisetti would be closing his Twitter account after he "chatted" with Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli.  At the same time, the newspaper released its new social media guidelines, which state, in part: "Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility."

Almost immediately, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz offered this tongue-in-cheek response via his Twitter account, while seeming to stay within the paper's new guidelines: 

“Under new WP guidelines on tweeting, I will now hold forth only on the weather and dessert recipes,” Kurtz wrote, adding in a subsequent Twitter posting, “Actually, I always assumed you shouldn’t tweet anything you wouldn't say in print or on the air. Diff betw having thoughts and being biased.”  [sic]

Perhaps not surprisingly, theNew York Times, which has demonstrated a broad interest in merging traditional journalism with new media, and has even created its own Facebook-like social media site, "TimesPeople,"  has voiced what seems like a more measured and insightful position with regard to the use of social media by the newspaper's staff, with guidelines that include practical advice about using social media sites as part of the reporting process and detailed specifics regarding personal and professional conduct on-line. 

The year-old internal New York Times social media guidelines, provided to Poynter.com earlier this year, begins with the the use of social media sites for reporting: "Facebook and other social networking sites --  MySpace, LinkedIn, even Twitter -- can be remarkably useful reporting tools, as the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 proved."   The New York Times guidelines continue, "As we've discovered from the experts on our staff, Facebook pages often tell a lot about a person's work, interests, friends, and thoughts, and, as one page leads or links to another, Facebook can help reporters do triangulation on difficult-to-research subjects." 

With regard to the posting of material on social media sites, the New York Times guidelines suggest that employees, "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."  

The New York Times guidelines also differentiate between activities in the real and virtual worlds by addressing whether a reporter can ethically write about someone who is a "friend" on a social networking site, saying "In general, being a 'friend' of someone on Facebook is almost meaningless and does not signify the kind of relationship that could pose a conflict of interest for a reporter or editor writing about that person. But if a 'friend' is really a personal friend, it would."   

Additionally, the New York Times guidelines address whether there is a problem if their reporters becoming an on-line, virtual "friend," on a social networking site like Facebook, with someone they cover.  ("Mostly no" say the New York Times guidelines, unless disclosure could embarrass the reporter, such as an on-line "friending" between a political reporter and a campaign manager.)  And, the New York Times guidelines allow for reporters to contact someone through a social media site like Facebook, but note "Ethical Journalism says, 'We do not inquire pointlessly into someone's personal life.' "

There are hardly clear ethical "rights and wrongs" in the emerging world of social media as it relates to journalism, and, as with the evolution of TV news coverage over the past six decades, there are many practical and ethical questions that will need to be addressed by news organizations about the uses of this new social medium.  

At the same time, in the "new media world" that has evolved on the internet, with sites like Facebook and Twitter, it seems hopelessly outdated to think that news readers, viewers and listeners can, or even should, be kept in the dark about a journalist's interests, activities and even personal views.  Perhaps this sort of transparency could be good for journalism?  At the same time, journalism has to deal with the fact that the evolving world of social media further blurs the line between personal and professional for those working in what is already a very public profession.  

Likely Howard Kurtz has it right, and Facebook, Twitter and social media sites are just virtual extensions of the real world, so the same rules should apply.  For example, it would seem to make sense that if reporters at a newspaper are prohibited from wearing campaign buttons, they likely shouldn't be identified with a particular candidate's social networking group.  

Interestingly, NPR's recent broad social media mandates were coupled with this caveat to news staff about posting on social media sites: "And a final caution - when in doubt, consult with your editor."  

One has to wonder just what the editors at NPR will say if they are asked "is it OK to post a link to last night's Jon Stewart rant or to Frank Rich's recent editorial on my Facebook page?"

Welcome to Journalism 2.0.  The water seems fine.  It may just be a matter of jumping in. 

 
According to NPR, these guidelines are mandatory for everyone working in news, programming, digital media, communications, legal divisions and officers of NPR . . . and anyone using NPR-issued equipment or writing from their NPR email address (or providing that address for response) must also adhere to them," according to an email NPR president Vivian Schiller wrote to staff.
 
Among the new guidelines that have left some NPR staff members grumbling about the networks intrusion into their personal life are new rules that:
 
"You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This 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."
 
and
 
"You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization."
 
NPR's guidelines, including the limits on expressing personal views about political issues on social media sites, demonstrates a modest naïveté about how people actually use Facebook, which is surprising given NPR's President Schiller's oft stated goal of pioneering the uses of new media for journalism.
 
Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, one of the paper's two managing editors, Raju Narisetti, caught heat for Twittering about the health care debate. ("“We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not,” read a recent one. “But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad," wrote Narisetti on Twitter), which led to a ban on Washington Post journalists expressing themselves on social network sites like Facebook or Twitter.  On September 25, 2009, Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli released new social media guidelines, which state, in part: “Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ombudsman-blog/2009/09/post_editor_ends_tweets_as_new.html
 
Almost immediately, Washington Post media critic
 
It’s enough to give any MSM tweeter pause, or at least a bit of writer’s block. Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz still found a way to crack-wise within the guidelines, tweeting in response to the new mandates.
 
“Under new WP guidelines on tweeting, I will now hold forth only on the weather and dessert recipes,” he wrote, and then added, more seriously, “Actually, I always assumed you shouldn’t tweet anything you wouldn’t say in print or on the air. Diff betw having thoughts and being biased.”  http://twitter.com/HowardKurtz/status/4401785751
 
Perhaps not surprisingly, The New York Times, which has demonstrated its broad interest in merging traditional journalism and new media, and has even created its own Facebook-like social media site, "TimesPeople," http://timespeople.nytimes.com has voiced a more measured position with regard to the use of social media by staff with guidelines that also offer practical advice about using social networking sites as part of reporting.
 
Earlier this year the New York Times' policy on Facebook and social networking sites was provided to Poynter.com by Craig Whitney, The New York Times' assistant managing editor who oversees journalistic standards.  The guidelines first and foremost focused on the use of social networking sites for reporting, beginning with, "Facebook and other social networking sites --  MySpace, LinkedIn, even Twitter -- can be remarkably useful reporting tools, as the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 proved."  With regard to postings, the New York Times guidelines ask news staff to "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."  It also differentiates between virtual and real worlds by addresses whether a reporter can ethically write about someone who is a "Friend" on a social networking site, saying "In general, being a "friend" of someone on Facebook is almost meaningless and does not signify the kind of relationship that could pose a conflict of interest for a reporter or editor writing about that person. But if a "friend" is really a personal friend, it would."  Also, should a New York Times reporter refrain from being a "Friend" on a social networking site with someone they cover? ("Mostly no" unless disclosure of the friend could embarrass the reporter, such as a political reporter and a campaign manager.) Finally, the New York Times guidelines allow for reporters to ask questions by e-mail through on Facebook, and notes "Ethical Journalism says.”We do not inquire pointlessly into someone's personal life."
 
There is hardly "right and wrong" in this emerging area, but, as with the development of TV News coverage, there are lots of ethical and practical questions about this new media, in need of specific answers.  NPR's broad brush approach was coupled with this caveat to news staff: "And a final caution - when in doubt, consult with your editor." What will the editors say when asked, "Is it OK to post last night's Jon Stewart rant on my Facebook page?"  Welcome to Journalism 2.0.