On Tuesday, the Associated Press released an update to its social media guidelines. Obviously a response to the Boston Marathon bombing, the updates were intended to focus mostly on the newsgathering and dissemination process around breaking news events -- called “sensitive situations.” And they did a decent job.
If some of this advice doesn’t sound very concrete, there’s a good reason -- a lot of these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, and they require you to call on your journalistic instincts. Many of you have a lot of experience applying these instincts in person or on the phone -- you know how to talk to someone who’s dealing with something serious, in a way that makes them more comfortable with you, more likely to share their story, and happier that they decided to do so. You also know the appropriate time to do this.
With a number of social media policies designed to place restrictions on reporters, implicitly assuming they don’t know what they’re doing and they need to have their accounts hand-held, a policy that understands that journalists need guidance but generally know what they’re doing is a refreshing change.
I’m also a big fan of the “instead of asking, offer” advice. Instead of asking for a quote, suggest they can contact you if they have something to say. Dealing with the sensitive aspects of communicating on social media has always been a tough problem to deal with, and Newtown highlighted the difficulty of doing so (via Poynter):
As Poynter explained, it’s really hard to be sensitive and empathetic in your approach on social media. Offering yourself, saying, “I’m here if you want to talk,” is far less demanding than asking: “Can you talk to me?” It also comes off as far more empathetic and understanding.
Unfortunately, AP’s overall social media guidelines still limits what can be said:
AP staffers must be aware that opinions they express may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news. AP employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum and must not take part in organized action in support of causes or movements.
As I’ve discussed previously, aiming for objectivity as a journalist is a fool’s errand, and these types of gag orders on social media make it very difficult to actually examine the implicit assumptions and biases that exist and why.
The New Yorks Times’ Jerusalem Bureau Chief got herself in hot water for a couple of posts on her Facebook page and Twitter account, and the Times responded by having her Facebook posts edited before they go live. Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian highlighted why this is such a huge mistake:
Whatever one thinks of Rudoren's comments -- and I personally don't think they were malicious as much as they revealed unexamined though still ugly biases about the Palestinians -- the process which ensued after the controversy arose was a healthy one. She engaged and responded to the criticism -- a vital process for anyone with a significant platform, as she surely has. She was forced to confront her assumptions. Readers were able to get a glimpse of her worldview. And ultimately, as the Times superb Public Editor Margaret Sullivan reported today, Rudoren concluded she had made at least some mistakes in what she wrote.
These are the types of conversations that make social media so valuable, not only as a tool for newsgathering but as a place for discussing stories, their impact, and the possible assumptions and biases behind them. The problem is that you really can’t be objective. Instead, what you can do is try to present the information available in as useful and informative a way as possible. Having those conversations and moments of self-reflection are far more difficult when your policies prevent them from happening.