Last Friday, the Washington Post internally released a social media policy for its staff that has had the news world buzzing. While it isn’t big news to release such a policy (many other papers have them too), for a paper with a reputation like that of the WaPo, you’d expect something a little less down on social networking. The policy applies to personal and professional accounts and has more than enough eyebrow-raising ‘dont’s’ that are sure to scare any staffer away from the social web. It already has.
To be fair, a great deal of the policy does focus on ethical issues most news staffs should have cleared up, such as remembering you’re always a journalist online and must follow the ethics of the profession even in social media and that anything online is public, even if you think it isn’t. The problem is, it also features a lot of warnings that seem to go against the very reason most journalists sign up in the first place.
Take the following gem:
Post journalists should not be involved in any social networks related to advocacy or a special interest regarding topics they cover, unless specifically permitted by a supervising editor for reporting and so long as other standards of transparency are maintained while doing any such reporting.
The very first thing I ever encourage reporters to do when they join Facebook or Twitter is to follow or friend the groups and individual sources they cover. They should be seeing what their sources are putting out there and use that medium to further interact as reporters. That’s the whole point – conversation, right? The policy does say they can do this with special permission and all that, but if WaPo reporters are anything like the nice people I work with every day, they’re going to drop all of their sourcing associations online immediately.
Another scary point of the policy is that it specifically says staff should tweet or otherwise communicate about internal newsroom issues or its company’s business decisions and they are forbidden from addressing any criticism of the organization. As Paid Content points out, that sort of policy would have prevented the mini-scandal over the WaPo’s paid schmooze events proposed by its publisher earlier this year – and it essentially makes transparency of the organization a punishable offense.
It’s transparency that is really what has been outlawed here – and that should concern journalists and consumers alike. In the age of social media, transparency is the new objectivity in a lot of ways (maybe eventually in entirety) – so why shut down the main avenue reporters have to show their work?
As the Posts’s tech writer Rob Pegoraro notes, reporters don’t just use Twitter to look cool, they use it as a public notebook to benefit readers and the organization at large. Without social media, he can’t easily answer a reader’s question in a public manner, provide links to related content or give readers a sense of who he is as a reporter in order to earn their trust.
I hope the WaPo eases up on this policy in the wake of the internal and external backlash. It’s really for the good of the entire industry following their lead that they sit down and consider how much they stand to lose from closing their doors to the outside world.