It is a common wisdom by now that any journalist needs to have an active presence in social media. But explicitly defining that presence has proved difficult: on the one hand, it can be argued that journalists should be able to express their opinions freely in social media, for example, without having to consider if they correspond with their employer's views; on the other,
social media can be seen as another form of publishing, and journalists are representatives of their media companies when they post.
The issue came up recently when the Associated Press instructed its staff about the use of social media, Poynter reported. AP's memo was a reaction to its journalists' tweets about the Casey Anthony trial and gay marriage vote in New York. "These posts undermine the credibility of our colleagues who have been working so hard to assure balanced and unbiased coverage of these issues," said Tom Kent, AP's Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production, in the memo. "AP staffers should not make postings there that amount to personal opinions on contentious public issues."
The Guardian reported earlier this week that the BBC is intending to tighten its control over its actors', writers' and other talent's use of social media. A group of the broadcasting company's executives were told to campaign for a ban that would forbid talent from disclosing details of their involvement in BBC productions. The news followed a series of unofficial revelations on Twitter that prematurely exposed details about upcoming BBC shows.
The BBC clarified later that it wasn't banning the use of Twitter but instead encouraged its staff to use social media, provided they follow BBC's social media policies. Unlike many news organizations, the BBC has guidelines for both professional and personal use of social media.
It should be noted that at the same time, media companies are embracing social media more forcefully than ever: yesterday, for instance, it was reported that Reuters had appointed a social media editor to boost its efforts with social networks.
As social media is becoming a ubiquitous part of people's lives in general, more and more companies - also outside the media field - find that they have to address the way their employers use it. Roy Snell, a compliance specialist, said in an interview with GovInfoSecurity.com that 42 percent of organisations across different industries that took part in a recent survey had disciplined an employee for their behaviour on social media. Three years ago, the number was at 24 percent.
Organisations in general are educating their staffs about social media, but media organisations have a particularly tough task in defining how their employees should use social networks. Posting information about the organisation's internal matters is clearly out of bounds, but drawing the line on commenting contemporary issues is a less straightforward matter. According to AP's social media policy (via Socialmedia.biz), its employees should "steer clear of making any postings that express political views or take stands on contentious issues". According to BBC's guidelines for personal use, employers should have a clear distinction between their "BBC" pages and "personal" ones.
While this separation might work with less well-known journalists, it is unlikely that famous reporters would be able to comment on current events as "laymen", without being regarded as reporters and, as an extension, representatives of the news outlets they work for. Making clear-cut guidelines may be difficult, but recognising that social media is a form of public communication is surely a good starting point for a discussion about the boundaries that should outline its use.