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La Presse’s social media policy: Is it realistic?

La Presse has set new rules on how reporters can use Facebook and other social media

Patrick Lagacé has published on his blog a new policy on the use of social media by journalists at La Presse and Cyberpresse.

Having such a policy is a really good idea and I wish more media organizations would develop their own (or adapt those used by other organizations) and have frank, constructive conversations with their staff about using social media as part of their jobs.

But while Lagacé describes his employer’s policy as “le gros bon sens”, I wonder how seriously it can be taken and how rigidly it can be enforced in real-life situations.

Let’s explore it point by point:

  • Don’t republish (or “retweet”) unverified information. As Lagacé says, this is the “Pat Burns” clause, and it just makes sense. Some social media experts argue that journalists should republish unverified rumours and explain that they’re unverified, but I think even retweeting incorrect information can be damaging to your reputation. That said, how far should we take this rule? If a competitor has a major scoop, should it not be mentioned or even linked to on social media until the journalist has independently confirmed it? What about reports from so-called citizen journalists? Or celebrity gossip?
  • Journalists (except columnists and editorialists) should avoid publishing their political or religious opinions or taking sides in societal debates. I’m guessing this refers more to taking sides on, say, the euthanasia debate than the latest episode of Mad Men. I like the idea behind this, but I think journalists suppressing their opinions gives a false impression to news consumers that they have none. I’d rather have a journalist who expresses their point of view and keeps an open mind than one who keeps it bottled up and lets biases show up in print.
  • Journalists (except columnists and critics) should avoid giving their opinion on an event they’re covering. This one is more straight-forward. If you’re at a press conference given by Pierre-Karl Péladeau, don’t tweet “QUEBECOR SUCKS”. But would this mean, for example, that Fabrice de Pierrebourg couldn’t comment about politics?
  • Unless an agreement has been reached beforehand, journalists should report breaking news to Cyberpresse before publishing it through social media. This one bothers me a bit. Beat writers constantly have little bits of news that they publish on Twitter. Waiting for Cyberpresse editors to create a story and publish it online can waste valuable minutes and give competitors a speed advantage (looking at Cyberpresse’s Twitter feed, I don’t see a single breaking news tweet over the past two weeks that doesn’t link to an already-published story). Besides, why encourage people to follow journalists if you don’t want them to publish important news? I can understand wanting to make sure breaking news is on Cyberpresse’s website as soon as possible, but I think both should try to publish information as fast as possible, without one waiting for the other.
  • Journalists should indicate in social media profiles their employment for La Presse. Agreed. It’s something a bunch of people forget to do, but it’s important for the sake of disclosure. (Of course, context is everything – I’d expect this information on a beat writer’s Twitter account, but is it necessary for an online dating site?)
  • Profile pictures should be “professional” and not carry any campaign material (like those “twibbons”). I’m not entirely sure what “professional” means (no party pictures on Facebook, or just no pictures of drunken debauchery?), but it makes sense, provided the profile on the social media site is being used in a professional context. As for the “twibbons” (those little flags in the corner of profile pictures that show support for a cause, whether it’s supporting Haiti or bringing the Nordiques to Quebec), I’ve seen quite a few on journalist profile pictures and I wonder if a blanket ban is realistic here.
  • Journalists should inform their employer in writing if they have a personal blog outside of Cyberpresse. Having it in writing seems a bit much, but ok. But does this include, say, a LiveJournal account that’s restricted to friends? Does it include anonymous blogs? (Can you be disciplined if they find out you run an anonymous blog and didn’t tell them about it?)
  • Journalists should avoid publishing photos, videos or commentaries about meetings or other private events at the office. This sort of goes to one of the rules that many people overlook but is one of the most important: Don’t publish information meant for internal use only. Sometimes it can be something that seems innocent but turns out to be damaging, like inadvertently disclosing a colleague’s secret source or tweeting about office gossip. It may seem odd that media organizations would want to be anything but fully transparent (and I certainly believe in having as much transparency as possible), but there are things that are kept from the public for good reason.

I think my biggest issue with these new rules is that their goal is to dehumanize journalists, to present them as if they’re infallible beacons of objectivity and have no views of their own, even on society’s most polarizing issues. It encourages journalists to go underground with their personal feelings, either through locked-down personal social media profiles or by using pseudonyms to express themselves. It goes in the opposite direction of recent moves by La Presse and Cyberpresse to put their journalists in the spotlight, putting their photos with their stories on Cyberpresse and encouraging them to start blogs.

Of course, few of these rules apply to columnists, of which there are an increasing number. So Patrick Lagacé can be as irreverent as he wants on Les Francs-Tireurs, and Hugo Dumas can still say what he wants about Tout le monde en parle. Becoming a columnist now becomes a way of gaining freedom of personal expression, even if a columnist’s role is mainly journalistic in nature.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that my blog probably goes against the letter of about half of these rules. I wonder how much of what I do here would be considered inappropriate by the authors of this policy.

A good first step

Despite my concerns, I think this is a step in the right direction. News organizations need to have discussions with journalists about social media, and this policy was the result of such discussions. It might need a few tweaks to consider various contexts, but the fundamentals are sound. Journalists shouldn’t be advocating on one side or another of the debates they cover, and social media doesn’t change that. Nor does it provide a way to escape being as a journalist, because people will judge you as much for what you write as your Facebook status update as what you write in the lead of your next news story.

Even those journalists without formal policies should look at the above and consider following these rules (or at least understanding why they exist and thinking hard before breaking them, like I do regularly).

Because when it comes to journalists using social media, the most important rule to follow is to use common sense.

UPDATE: NPR has sent out a memo to employees warning them about attending rallies organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The memo has some common-sense rules about journalists engaging in political activity.

UPDATE (Oct. 20): The Washington Post is the latest to weigh in with warnings, saying that reader engagement is important in social media, but that journalists shouldn’t actually, you know, engage with readers.

UPDATE (Nov. 14): A piece in Trente calls for honesty if not absolute objectivity.

UPDATE (April 5): Mathew Ingram, formerly of the Globe and Mail, criticizes a similar social media policy at the Toronto Star that suggests reporters shouldn’t discuss articles in progress or engage with readers in online forums.

18 thoughts on “La Presse’s social media policy: Is it realistic?

    1. Jim J.

      I would say that the answer to your question is, “yes,” provided that we (as in, the news consuming public) agree to alter our own behaviour such that the 24-hour news cycle and its associated business model become obsolete.

      Reply
  1. AlexH

    These sorts of rules are the backlash that comes when people start to consider these various internet routes of obtaining information to be as valid as “trusted news sources”.

    Much of it is straight forward. You cannot show personal support for a cause, an event, or a political standpoint and then be taken seriously as a neutral journalist covering a story. Yes, I know everyone does have a personal opinion, but I don’t need to know it. I want to at least be able to maintain the illusion that they people writing complex stories about politics, religion, activist movements, or whatever are writing from an relatively neutral standpoint. It is very much in the media companies interested to attempt to keep their staff in that neutral frame of mind, to avoid putting their biases into the stories (we have enough of that already).

    To make an extreme point, if every journalist was a Bill O’Reilly or a Rush Limbaugh, would you honestly think they can cover a story without bias?

    There is no simple way to separate our online lives from our working lives anymore. We are all “on” 24 hours a day because we have each chosen to be that way.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Much of it is straight forward. You cannot show personal support for a cause, an event, or a political standpoint and then be taken seriously as a neutral journalist covering a story.

      That makes sense. But I think there’s a difference between showing support for a cause and expressing an opinion. For example, I see a difference between a political reporter saying he supports the Parti Québécois and saying a particular politician’s statement is pure BS.

      Yes, I know everyone does have a personal opinion, but I don’t need to know it. I want to at least be able to maintain the illusion that they people writing complex stories about politics, religion, activist movements, or whatever are writing from an relatively neutral standpoint.

      You want to “maintain” an “illusion” about the news industry?

      Reply
      1. Blork

        Journalistic neutrality — or more specifically, “objectivity” — is an illusion. Journalists are human beings, after all, not robots. But it’s a necessary illusion, and thinking people understand that it is so. The more reasonable thing to strive for is simply “fairness.” That means ensuring that both sides of the story are told and the wording is such that the journalists’ opinion doesn’t color the perception of events for the reader. That’s why words like “alleged” and “suspect” are used.

        Steve, I’m not sure I see the difference between a political reporter saying he supports a particular party and him saying a statement is BS. Both are bad, journalistically, although the second is worse than the first.

        If a political journo wears his “colours” openly, it calls into question how he covers the opposition. If the journo keeps his allegiances to himself, it at least tells me that he is putting his journalistic integrity ahead of his public persona, which is a position I respect.

        If a political journo says a politician’s statement is BS, then as far as I’m concerned he has just resigned as a journalist and has become a pundit. Big diff. (However, if the statement IS BS, the he can use his journo skills to research and deconstruct thw BS, which is what a journalist should do.)

        (Please forgive typos; iPad in training)

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Steve, I’m not sure I see the difference between a political reporter saying he supports a particular party and him saying a statement is BS. Both are bad, journalistically, although the second is worse than the first.

          Really? I’m thinking of something like Politifact, that rates statements on their veracity and isn’t afraid to use terms like “pants on fire”. So many people I hear complain that journalists are just stenographers and are too afraid to call a spade a spade. And yet we also want them to keep their opinions to themselves.

          Reply
          1. AlexH

            You can “call a spade a spade” without putting personal opinion on the table. If a politician is lying or using wiggle words to avoid telling the truth, a reporter can be both neutral and still point out the crap.

            However, if the reporter spends his off hours writing a blog that is heavily critical of a given politician, it might be harder to accept them as a “neutral” reporter on the subject. If someone runs a “Charest is an a–hole” blog, do you really think they can report on Charest without bringing that significant bias into play? Now, if the was writing an automotive column or reporting on car accidents and fires only, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue, would it?

            We all have opinions, every reporter, every writer, every blogger. The illusion that we try to work from is that the reports either don’t have a strong opinion, or are able to keep that opinion out of their reporting. That most often happens by never really knowing their opinions to start with. When we know, that illusion is broken, the trust is broken, and the results are no longer what we really want from neutral reporters.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              If someone runs a “Charest is an a–hole” blog, do you really think they can report on Charest without bringing that significant bias into play?

              No, but that’s an obvious extreme case and it demonstrates closed-mindedness. I’d like to see a policy that targets stuff like that but doesn’t punish a reporter for saying she dislikes a particular TV series.

              Reply
          2. Jim J.

            If a politician is lying or using wiggle words to avoid telling the truth, a reporter can be both neutral and still point out the crap.

            This happens far too infrequently. Journalists (especially those that cover our elected institutions), I’ll admit, have pretty well-honed bullshit detectors, since they’re around it so much.

            However, they have a trade-off between maintaining access and pointing out the crap. If they push a politician too far, say, for refusing to give a straight answer to a simple questions, they risk being shut out by that official altogether in the future.

            And journalists, unfortunately, need access, or else they miss out on the good stuff.

            I recognize that for what it is – symbiosis between the politician and the media who cover them. The journalists get access, and the minister or prime minister or mayor or whoever – doesn’t see themselves portrayed in the media as waffling or evasive or stonewalling. (At least not as much as they should.)

            However, you’ll never hear a journalist admit this in public. They like to hold themselves up as the public’s watchdog, but they (very, very) rarely push politicians as hard as they really could. Or should, for that matter.

            Reply
        2. Jim J.

          That’s why words like “alleged” and “suspect” are used.

          This is, in my opinion, something that news outlets use when trying to point out how unbiased and fair they are. I also imagine that they are also probably forced to by their attorneys. However, it is unmitigated garbage and intellectually insulting.

          You could stand naked in the middle of the intersection of Ste-Catherine and McGill College at noon on a Wednesday, firing an assault rifle into the air, and in the ensuing press coverage, they would refer to you as “allegedly” having disturbed the peace and “allegedly” having unlawfully discharging a firearm and “allegedly” possessing an unregistered firearm.

          It’s stupid, and it treats the consumers of news like children. I understand that it’s done in the interests of preventing libel issues if the person happens to be acquitted in a court of law, but it doesn’t contribute one iota to fostering a sense that the reporter is unbiased or fair.

          Reply
          1. Fagstein Post author

            This is, in my opinion, something that news outlets use when trying to point out how unbiased and fair they are. I also imagine that they are also probably forced to by their attorneys. However, it is unmitigated garbage and intellectually insulting.

            Call it that if you want, but it’s the law. Even if things may seem obvious, the media can’t simply assert that someone is guilty of a crime until they are convicted in a court of law. Perhaps you think they should, in which case I encourage you to lobby the government to change libel laws and allow the media to convict people based on journalists’ opinions.

            You could stand naked in the middle of the intersection of Ste-Catherine and McGill College at noon on a Wednesday, firing an assault rifle into the air, and in the ensuing press coverage, they would refer to you as “allegedly” having disturbed the peace and “allegedly” having unlawfully discharging a firearm and “allegedly” possessing an unregistered firearm.

            How would the press know that the discharging of the firearm was unlawful or that the firearm was unregistered?

            Reply
          2. Jim J.

            How would the press know that the discharging of the firearm was unlawful or that the firearm was unregistered?

            My hypothesis could be admittedly strengthened. Let’s assume that an intrepid reporter for The Gazette happened to be standing there. Or, a camera crew or videojournalist from CBC or Radio-Canada was filming a stand-up in that location when this happened. The media would still refer to it as “alleged.”

            Part 86 of the Criminal Code reads, in relevant part:

            <blockquoteEvery person commits an offence who, without lawful excuse, uses, carries, handles, ships, transports or stores a firearm, a prohibited weapon, a restricted weapon, a prohibited device or any ammunition or prohibited ammunition in a careless manner or without reasonable precautions for the safety of other persons.

            I’ll concede your point on the unregistered part, with the caveat that I’m sure the intrepid reporter would learn from the inevitable police briefing whether the firearm was registered or not.

            I will furthermore answer your specific questions with a question of my own. Let’s assume that a reporter for The Gazette was sexually assaulted. Either (a) it happened, or (b) it didn’t happen. Do you think it might be a bit silly for said reporter to read about this “alleged” assault in the very media outlet that s/he works for?

            I’m sure that your angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument (“how could we know?”) is of wonderful comfort to crime victims. (e.g., “Hey, look in the newspaper! I’ve been ‘allegedly’ raped!” or “Wow, I was ‘allegedly’ mugged in the metro and had my iPod stolen!”)

            But hey, you folks are just doing your job.

            If it’s your lawyers telling you to do that, that’s fine. Just say so, and leave it at that. But I find it personally insulting, intellectually speaking, when journalists assert that it is a noble practice.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              Let’s assume that an intrepid reporter for The Gazette happened to be standing there. Or, a camera crew or videojournalist from CBC or Radio-Canada was filming a stand-up in that location when this happened. The media would still refer to it as “alleged.”

              Journalists can report what they see with their own eyes. That’s not the problem. It’s when they start using words like “unlawful”, “criminal”, “murder”, etc. that we start getting into the realm of legal judgments. In your example, the journalist has no way of knowing first hand that the action was done “without lawful excuse”, and whether it was “in a careless manner” could be a matter of opinion.

              I’ll concede your point on the unregistered part, with the caveat that I’m sure the intrepid reporter would learn from the inevitable police briefing whether the firearm was registered or not.

              Then it becomes “police say”. Attributing allegations to police is also a way of getting around libel law (because whether or not the criminal act occurred, the fact that the police said it occurred is still true).

              Let’s assume that a reporter for The Gazette was sexually assaulted. Either (a) it happened, or (b) it didn’t happen. Do you think it might be a bit silly for said reporter to read about this “alleged” assault in the very media outlet that s/he works for?

              I certainly hope such a thing would never happen, but I don’t see why the paper would report an assault on one of its reporters any different than one on anyone else. Nor do I see why a news outlet should declare someone guilty simply because it makes the alleged victim feel better.

              If it’s your lawyers telling you to do that, that’s fine. Just say so, and leave it at that. But I find it personally insulting, intellectually speaking, when journalists assert that it is a noble practice.

              I don’t know how “noble” it is, but these words are used because not all allegations are true. False accusations are sometimes made. Police can get things wrong. That’s why journalists attribute accusations – particularly those of a criminal nature – to those making the accusations. Yes, extra care is made in writing these pieces because of the potential legal ramifications, but these actions make stories more accurate, not less.

              Reply
          3. Kevin

            If it’s your lawyers telling you to do that, that’s fine. Just say so, and leave it at that. But I find it personally insulting, intellectually speaking, when journalists assert that it is a noble practice.

            Are reporters supposed to say in every crime story that “Canada’s Criminal Code prevents us from telling you what really happened, but allegedy…”
            Please be realistic. Writers have to use careful language, even if they spot something right in front of them. Part of it is avoiding libel and slander, but part of it is avoiding contempt of court, and part of it is our system is based upon being innocent until proven guilty.

            Don’t like that? Go back to pre-revolution France where you had to hire witnesses to prove your innocence, because in the eyes of the law only the guilty were arrested.

            Reply
  2. Kate M.

    I can see most of this, except point 2. Why is a journalist even spending time doing a blog instead of writing straight-up journalism except to give us some quasi-unofficial sidelights on their job, including some of their opinions on the issues?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Why is a journalist even spending time doing a blog instead of writing straight-up journalism except to give us some quasi-unofficial sidelights on their job, including some of their opinions on the issues?

      No comment ;)

      Reply
  3. Katelyn

    It’s funny because many journalist from La Presse or other social medias like alain gravel, fabrice de pierrebourg and André Noêl (but they’re not the only…) do the perfect opposite of this new policy…

    http://journalismincanada.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/who-owns-andre-noel-the-smear-leader/

    http://journalismincanada.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/incompetent-journalist-continues-to-misinform-the-public/

    http://journalismincanada.wordpress.com/2010/09/23/alain-gravel-get-off-my-boat/

    Reply
    1. Heather H

      Oh really? They do the opposite? Based on the links you provided, it sounds like a couple of people are angry at La Presse and Radio-Canada’s elite investigative reporters, and pursue a smear campaign against them to make YOU believe they’re slanted, dishonest and incompetent. After all, read these blog entries. They question the people, not the facts they reported!

      Before you take this blog’s information at face value, you may want to ask about its author’s own agenda. Something tells me the answer can be found in the very important news stories they broke out in recent months.

      The fact you don’t like a reporter’s story, because he/she targets shenanigans you’re involved with, doesn’t make them bias and incompetent.

      Reply

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