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.