Newspapers and Social Media: Still Not Really Getting It

Updated: Many traditional media entities have embraced social-media services like Twitter and Facebook and blogs — at least to some extent — as tools for reporting and journalism, using them to publish and curate news reports. But newspapers in particular seem to have a hard time accepting the “social” part of these tools, at least when it comes to letting their journalists engage with readers as human beings. A case in point is the new social-media policy introduced at a major newspaper in Canada, which tells its staff not to express personal opinions — even on their personal accounts or pages — and not to engage with readers in the comments.
The policy, which I received from a source close to The Toronto Star (the full version is embedded below), has a number of sensible things to say about using social media, including the fact that these tools “can be valuable sources for story ideas and contacts for journalists, and as a means of connecting directly with the communities we cover.” The paper also says that it “encourages journalists – reporters, columnists, photographers and editors – to take advantage of social media tools in their daily work.” But it warns that any comments posted using such tools “can be circulated beyond their intended audience.”
This all makes perfect sense. Social media is useful for journalism, and it does connect reporters to the communities they cover — better than just about anything else does. And yes, it is wise to be aware of the unintended consequences of even offhand remarks.
No talking about what you do
Then comes the part about being impartial and objective, and that’s when the trouble starts. The policy says staff should “never post information on social media that could undermine your credibility with the public or damage the Star’s reputation in any way, including as an impartial source of news.” And that’s not all — the document goes on to say that:

Anything published on social media – whether on Star sites or personal platforms – cannot reveal information about content in development, newsroom issues or Star sources. Negative commentary about your colleagues or workplace will not be tolerated.

In other words, no posting about stories that are being worked on, no comments on newsroom-related topics, no talking about people who might be used or are being used as sources for Star reporting. And this prohibition doesn’t just apply to Star accounts or services under the newspaper’s name — it applies to any comments that a reporter or editor might make on their own personal accounts as well. Obviously the paper doesn’t want staffers bad-mouthing each other or talking about sensitive internal issues (something the New York Times also confronted last year in 2009), but a blanket ban on anything related to content seems unnecessarily harsh, not to mention completely unrealistic. Of course, the Star is far from alone in this.
Never talk to your readers
It gets worse. The policy goes on to say that journalists who report for the Star “should not editorialize on the topics they cover,” because readers could construe this as evidence that their news reporting is biased — and then tells reporters and editors that they shouldn’t respond to reader comments either. It says:

As well, journalists should refrain from debating issues within the Star’s online comments forum to avoid any suggestion that they may be biased in their reporting.

This last prohibition is a classic case of missing the point completely. According to the Star, apparently, comments on news stories are something that exists to allow readers to talk amongst themselves, not something that a reporter or editor should get involved in. That’s just wrong. As someone who was intimately involved in social-media strategy for another major metropolitan newspaper in Canada (full disclosure: the paper in question competes with The Toronto Star to some extent), one of the main features of having comments is the ability for readers to interact with writers and editors at the paper.
Treating the comments section as something that journalists shouldn’t get involved in turns it into a ghetto, and also contributes to the problems that many newspapers have with flaming and trolls and other issues — why should anyone behave properly in a comment forum if none of the staff at the paper are going to bother getting involved?
Never express an opinion on anything
The Star is not the only media outlet making these kinds of errors — while they are happy to use social media to push their content, most major newspapers have failed to take advantage of these tools when it comes to building relationships with their readers. The biggest single factor holding them back seems to be fear — namely, a fear that they will no longer be seen as objective, something NYT executive editor Bill Keller reinforced in a recent column, in which he suggested that the paper was one of the few remaining holdouts in a world where everyone feels free to state their opinion.
Here’s a news flash for Bill, and for the rest of the newspaper world: that particular genie is already out of the bottle and has been for some time now. As journalism professor Jay Rosen has argued, the “view from nowhere” that mainstream media continues to defend is not only dying, but arguably does readers a disservice — since it often distorts the news in order to maintain a perfectly balanced view of events. Although some journalists have started to admit they have personal interests and causes, that remains rare.
But the main point being missed is that social media is powerful precisely because it is personal. If you remove the personal aspect, all you have is a glorified news release wire or RSS feed. The best way to make social media work is to allow reporters and editors to be themselves, to be human, and to engage with readers through Twitter and Facebook and comments and blogs. Is there a risk that someone might say something wrong? Of course there is. But without that human touch, there is no point in doing it at all.
Update: Toronto Star spokesman Bob Hepburn got back to me and said that the paper’s policy was “well in line with what mainstream media organizations have always done. We’ve always placed some limitations on journalists in terms of them expressing their opinions, either in the newspaper or outside of the newspaper.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Hans Gerwitz and Zarko Drincic