News Editors Still Don’t Want Journalists to Be Human

The American Society of News Editors has come out with an overview of social-media policies at news organizations across the U.S. — including Bloomberg, which we wrote about recently as an example of a company that still doesn’t really understand what social media is for — and some “best practices” that it has arrived at by studying those policies. While there are some positive elements to the report, the focus is still far too much on the bad things that can happen, and the lesson seems to be: Don’t allow your journalists to be human, under any circumstances.

As most social-media policies do, the ASNE review starts off well, saying, “social media platforms continue to emerge as essential newsgathering tools [and] offer exciting opportunities for reporters to collect information and for news organizations to expand their reach.” It even notes, “enforcing draconian rules hampers creativity and discourages the spirit of openness that flourishes on social networks.” But then out comes the stick:

But allowing an uncontrolled free-for-all opens the floodgates to potential problems and leaves news organizations vulnerable for the comments of employees who tweet before they think.

There’s the typical media-industry bogeyman that lies behind most of these policies: the staffer who types things into Twitter without thinking, maybe even (gasp!) breaking news on the social network before his organization has a chance to craft a story. And what happens then? Chaos! The very foundations of the media industry crumbling, dogs and cats living together — mass hysteria. None of that actually happens, of course, but most traditional media policies seem to harbor the fear that it might.

Much of the positive parts of the report are relatively straightforward. For example, it recommends that journalists always be up front about who they are (no investigative undercover stuff, apparently, although that is pretty common in the regular media). It also advises reporters and editors to assume that everything they write will become public, and to behave accordingly. In other words, to quote John Robinson of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C.: “Don’t be stupid” (Journal-Register Co. CEO John Paton has an even simpler policy, which is completely blank).

But when the ASNE report gets into other areas — and particularly when it talks about reporters and editors expressing their opinions on social networks and belonging to groups and otherwise being normal human beings — it goes off the rails. It describes a number of what it calls “teachable moments,” which involve actual situations that journalists have found themselves in. But many of the conclusions it comes to are wrong, and in some cases these examples could (and should) be used to teach the exact opposite lesson.

To take just one example, the report mentions the case of Octavia Nasr, a senior editor at CNN (s twx) with decades of experience in the Middle East, who posted something on Twitter expressing regret that a Hezbollah leader had died. Although he was known as a terrorist, Nasr said he was also a force for tolerance toward women in the region, and that’s why she said what she did. Defensible? Totally, as I wrote at the time. But CNN fired her. The ASNE report uses this as an example of why people should be careful what they say, but I think it’s an example of why organizations like CNN are dinosaurs.

Do people express themselves on social networks? Of course they do. Should they avoid being stupid or offensive? Yes. But to expect them to have no opinions — and then to fire or sanction them when they do — is naive in the extreme.

Another example used is Washington Post (s wpo) senior editor Raju Narisetti, who posted some of his thoughts about various national issues to Twitter. When he was found out, he cancelled his Twitter account and then helped draft a typically draconian social-media policy forbidding anyone from doing the same. Was this the correct response? Again, the ASNE report seems to suggest that it was. But the Washington Post should have used this as an opportunity to become more open and transparent, not less.

The report also states that breaking news on Twitter is not advisable — those kinds of reports should be saved for the newspaper, it says, because the purpose of social media is to “drive traffic” to the reporter or editor’s website. So presumably that means New York Times¬†(s nyt) media reporter Brian Stelter shouldn’t have re-tweeted the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed, and shouldn’t have pointed out how credible the report was because it came from the former Secretary of Defense’s chief of staff.

All that would have meant, of course, is that someone else would have done so — and no one would have mentioned or re-tweeted Stelter, as thousands did, and the New York Times would have been robbed of the benefit of all that traffic and awareness and brand-building.

But the biggest flaw in the report by far is the continued focus on preventing journalists from being human, or from showing that they have opinions. This is a holdover from the days when “objectivity” was the highest goal that a journalist could aspire to — days that editors like New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller apparently still cling to — but there is an argument to be made that transparency and accountability to one’s readers is far more important than maintaining some theoretical Potemkin village of objectivity. And it might just produce better journalism too.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz and Yan Arief Purwanto