What The NYT’s Social Media Guidelines Get Right and Wrong

Last week The New York Times spawned a wave of analysis and thought when it released new social media guidelines for its staff. While it’s commendable that NYT management not only has these but is updating existing guidelines to reflect changing environments and realities. That being said, there’s a mix of good and bad in the new protocols.

The Good: That There are Rules

It’s no less true now than it was in 2005 that companies should have guidelines in place regarding social media use by employees and staff. Having produced or contributed to a few of these in my career, they’re important documents for everyone. Management can reference them when there’s an issue and staff can do likewise and have a set of barriers to stay within to make sure they don’t run the risk of being let go for something they said online.

The rules are also right in pointing out that whenever you do anything online, you are by default appearing as a representative of your employer and should conduct yourself as such. I once had someone say “Assume when you’re out that you’re wearing a jacket with the company’s name on it.” The implication is that your behavior will impact your employer’s reputation by virtue of association. Just as you should be careful what you say out loud, you should be careful what you say online.

The Bad: Literally Everything Else

Let’s take a moment to appreciate how well designed these guidelines are, assuming the goal is to make journalists as ineffectual as possible.

By forbidding staff to promote political views or express partisan opinions and encouraging them to link to diverse viewpoints and perspectives, the rules only reinforce the same mentality that led to the media over-indexing on coverage of email servers in the last election cycle. It’s the mindset that equates “hearing both sides” with “responsible journalism.”

It’s agreed that the same standards that apply to what’s put in print should be applied to what’s tweeted or posted by staff. But the guiding principle there should be “truth and accuracy,” not forced diversity or inclusiveness. That puts reporters who should be dealing in facts in the position of having to disseminate untruths in addition to those facts to maintain the “balance” that’s sought to shield the paper from charges of partisanship.

Middle Ground = Fire From All Sides

By seeking to maintain what Jay Rosen has termed the “view from nowhere,” possible only if you assume at the outset the absence of objective truth, these policies only exacerbate the problem of an uneducated public. Reporters should be able to counter untruths and misrepresentations – either in print or online – because they’ve done the work to know where that truth lies.

Asking them to stake out a middle ground exposes them to fire from both sides in a war they should instead by working to extinguish. Advocates on one side will claim the liberal media is operating with an agenda. Advocates on the other will blare that the same media has abdicated its responsibility to inform the electorate and is seeking false balance.

Whatever the industry, the social media policies in place should serve the primary purpose of protecting everyone. But it can’t do that at the expense of hindering their efforts to achieve the most important goal of the organization. In this case, that goal is the sharing of accurate, well-reported information that educates the public.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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