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Print-Era Shackles for a Twitter World?

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, October 4, 2009

A newspaper typically gets applause when it tightens its ethics policies. But there were some loud boos when The Post recently implemented newsroom guidelines governing the use of social media.

The guidelines cover popular social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, where participants often impart impulsive thoughts on whatever pops into their heads. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli summarized the guidelines in an accompanying staff note: "Reporters and editors should not express views that can be construed as political, nor should they take sides in public debates."

"What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account," the guidelines warn. "If you don't want something to be found online, don't put it there."

There are prohibitions against "writing, tweeting or posting anything -- including photographs or video -- that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility." The guidelines "apply to all Post journalists, without limitation to the subject matter of their assignments."

To Brauchli, the policies speak to neutrality, which he told me is "essential to maintaining our credibility."

But to many who see social media as a key to the survival of "legacy" news outlets such as The Post, that's old thinking. They view the guidelines as preachy and overly restrictive, arguing that they will deter staffers from participating in audience-building social media.

Social networks are "central to the future of journalism. You have absolutely no alternative but to participate," said Dan Gillmor, a new-media expert at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "The human voice is at the heart of online social interaction. Strip it out, and there's not much point in joining the conversation."

Some social media advocates believe journalists will gain credibility by revealing more about themselves. A religion reporter might tell readers about her faith. A military writer might share his views on war.

But even seemingly innocuous revelations can invite trouble, as one of The Post's two managing editors learned recently. "We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not," Raju Narisetti wrote on his Twitter feed. "But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad." And when 91-year-old West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd was hospitalized after a fall, Narisetti tweeted: "How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail."

After questions were raised in The Post's newsroom, Narisetti closed his Twitter account. He acknowledged creating a "perception problem" because his personal views might be seen as influencing Post coverage of debates over health-care funding or term limits.

Brauchli thinks The Post is more believable if it is seen as impartial. "It's been consistently shown in our readership [surveys] that people value us for our independence," he said. "We shouldn't lean in one direction or another direction. Our central tenet is that we don't let our personal views influence or guide our presentation of information or coverage of the issues."

I agree. Of the roughly 30,000 e-mails and calls to the ombudsman this year, the largest percentage has been from readers complaining about bias. They often measure partiality against their own point of view, of course. Still, they typically demand coverage that is unfailingly neutral.

Post staffers are encouraged to embrace social media, which connect them with more readers. But some privately say the guidelines have made them reticent to use Twitter or Facebook because of uncertainty over what they permit. Can a reporter who doesn't cover sports tweet that a team's owner is a tyrant? Should an editor in the Business section post a comment on her Facebook page that gun owners are paranoid? At least one reporter told me she thought Narisetti's tweets "crossed the line," but his decision to close his Twitter account "made me think twice about whether I should be doing it at all."

"If the result of this policy is less use of Twitter by Post editors and staff, rather than more, I am quite sure it will harm, rather than help, the Post's journalism," wrote blogger Steve Buttry, innovations coach for Gazette Communications, which owns newspaper and broadcast outlets in Iowa.

He said extensive newsroom dialogue is critical to establishing a comfort level for participation by Post journalists. That's coming. Senior editor Milton Coleman, who took the leading in crafting the guidelines, promised "many, many discussions" on how to apply them.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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