Are news agencies going too far?

Quoting Kelly McBride, Katherine Lewis writes in the article Social media ethics for journalists: part 1, the dilemma that “social media is the biggest thing in journalism right now (…) you absolutely have to use social media as part of your reporting toolkit. It’s a great way to be in conversation with your audiences about the marketplace of ideas.” Social media has, in recent years, completely shook the industry. Lewis points to a study by George Washington University that found that 89 percent of journalists had blogs and more than half were on social networks. Naturally, newsrooms have adapted to the trend and have begun setting social media guidelines for their employees. But are some newsrooms going to far in controlling their journalists’ actions on the Internet?

On his blog, Steve Buttry harshly criticizes the Washington Post’s social media handbook for showing a lack of trust toward its employees. “The best guideline you could give journalists using social media would be to encourage good judgment. Give good journalists 600-plus words of warnings and you pretty much are telling them you don’t trust their judgment,” he writes. He continues by saying that media agencies should strive to be more transparent, and that unnecessary and over-the-top rulebooks like the one written by the Washington Post go against that principle through an “outdated culture of control”.

The Associated Press included in their social media handbook that their reporters must not “scoop the wire”. Mathew Ingram writes in his article Memo to AP: Twitter is the newswire now that “if Twitter is beating the wire then maybe the wire should speed up. And how can you expect your reporters not to post comments about what is happening to them during such an event? That’s the whole point of Twitter in the first place.” Journalism is such a competitive field and what is more rewarding for a reporter than being the first to break a story? I think this kind of rule goes to far by trying to control something that goes against the very essence of the job.

I think the kind of handbook on social media news agencies should be asking their employees to follow is in the style of Reuters’. The short handbook recognizes and encourages their reporters to use social media as a tool while being fully aware of the risks involved. The handbook provides simple guidelines such as rules on attribution, fairness and the importance of fact-checking before sharing information via social networks. The handbook is clear and transparent on its purpose: “Our wish is for people to benefit safely from social networks, not to muzzle anyone. Journalists are people too, with all the rights of citizens (…). One of the distinguishing features of Reuters is the trust invested in the judgment of its journalists – and we will continue to look to our journalists to use their common sense in dealing with these new challenges.”

The popularity of social network and their importance as digital tools for journalists will undoubtedly continue to grow in the years to come. It will be interesting to see what road news agencies will take in preventing Internet mishaps from happening. Controlling journalists’ opinions and thoughts would be going too far in trying to solve the issue – a more cooperative handbook like Reuters is the best solution in helping reporters use social media safely.

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