June 13, 2022

There isn’t a senior newsroom leader who doesn’t fear the next social media blow-up. One of your top reporters might tweet out a crass comment. A rising star might get into a fight with a troll. Or like we saw last week at The Washington Post, your journalists might start fighting with each other.

Every time one of these stories makes news, a spokesperson for the news organization concedes that social media policies are due for an update.

And yet, it’s no surprise why that doesn’t happen. Updating policies, especially social media policies, can be tedious, tense, time-consuming and tricky. It requires dedicating a manager (or a team of them), with the clout and journalism leadership skills to facilitate difficult conversations among those with diverse beliefs and perspectives. “Social media” is not a monolithic thing and the endeavor to come up with a fresh “policy” will undoubtedly include making some calls that will not be popular with everyone. It requires committing time and including many voices.

I know because as a trainer and consultant I’ve guided this process for dozens of newsrooms either as a stand-alone social media policy or as a revision of broader ethics policies. So here’s a four-step framework for revising your newsroom social media policy. For each of these steps, it’s helpful to seek input from a diverse group of advisers or a small committee.

1. Start with the why. Why do we want our staff to be on social media?

State (in words that can be shared company-wide) the newsroom’s goals for having any social media presence. Use specific examples, even platform-specific examples. Are you there to establish and expand your brand? Is it critical to acquire audience? Or perhaps it’s another way to connect with subscribers. Is it a useful path for engagement and interaction with your readers/viewers/listeners? Do you seek to be at the center of conversation among the communities that you serve? Think of all the reasons and prioritize their value.

And be specific. Almost every newsroom policy skips this basic step of articulating what the promise is. Some guides will offer a vague hint by saying, “We need to go where the audience is.” And yet most guides never say why. What kinds of things does the news organization want to happen as a result of institutional or individual participation on social media?

There are likely several answers to this question that will be rooted in your relationship to your audience and your business model. By stating this at the beginning, you set the tone for your staff and tell them what they should be doing before you start telling them what not to do.

Here’s an example: The Scoop is on many different social platforms to introduce our work to new audiences, to participate in the important conversations of the day and to hear from those that we serve. Each of our institutional accounts are carefully designed to achieve specific goals. Many of our individual staff members make use of social media to establish their own brands, stay up to date on trends, search for stories and sources and share their work. 

2. Establish a process and articulate how social media strategies should develop.

Start with institutional accounts. Who can create them? Who manages the passwords? Who determines the goals and the voice of the accounts? How are accounts retired? Where is all of this knowledge archived?

Then move on to how individuals should consider their professional presence on social media. New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet recently suggested that his journalists should not feel obligated to spend so much energy on Twitter, explicitly saying their participation is optional. Yet, many newsrooms send overt or mixed messages on this topic, rewarding journalists (sometimes specifically hiring them) who amass large followings and make a lot of noise.

A good social media policy should specifically address whether journalists or any other staff members are expected to be on social media and, if so, why and what platforms.

Here’s an example: Many of our reporters are known as experts on their beats. In order to establish and maintain that expertise, journalists should discuss with their editor what social media platforms they should participate in and why. For instance, a political reporter may find Twitter a good place to solicit tips and pick up on new debates. An education reporter may decide to develop a presence on Tiktok to gather ideas from students and teachers. Our outdoors reporter might find Instagram a valuable tool for sharing stories about exciting recreation opportunities. If social media is part of your job description, then the details are discussed with your manager and your goals are reviewed during your annual evaluation.

3. After you’ve arrived at a draft, start testing it to explore the boundaries.

Delineate who on staff should be considered a publicly identifiable representative of the company (usually folks with bylines, those who supervise people with bylines and the senior management), and what the expectations are as they represent the company. Is it permissible to share a personal experience with political implications (like your abortion, your immigration journey or an experience with discrimination)? Can you advocate for equality and human rights?

This is where you remind people that social media is a public space, even when accounts are set to private, and certain behaviors like name-calling will always be worthy of reprimand. It’s also the part of this process where someone has to make the call about what’s in and out. It’s rarely a total consensus.

Here’s an example: Representatives of the newsroom are expected to keep their political views private, so that the newsroom can maintain a perception of neutrality. Do not endorse candidates or weigh in on public policy debates. Always comport yourself as if you are representing this company. Do not call people names, openly attack anyone including your colleagues or engage in racist, misogynistic or other reprehensible speech that undermines the values of this company. 

Here’s another example: Public facing journalists and senior leaders are considered representatives of the newsroom. To that end, they should refrain from publicly endorsing political candidates or expressing views on public policy debates. However, as a company we fully support human rights and we have no problem endorsing causes like marriage equality, Black Lives Matter and other human rights issues. The thorniest topic in this category is abortion, where staff members see human rights on many sides of the debate. Rather than issue a blanket prohibition, it is best that you discuss with your manager and colleagues how your personal expressions on social media or in any other space might impact the newsroom. 

4. Create a small committee with representatives from key areas in place to review and update regularly.

This group should have a clear chairperson in charge of convening at least quarterly to consider whether the policy is adequate. And the group should be convened for advice whenever urgent questions arise about trends (not individual cases, that’s for a supervisor or human resources) that need addressing.

Follow through

Once you get the policy this far, the follow-through is crucial. Many people will have participated in meetings or offered feedback and it’s disheartening to have a draft policy get stuck at this stage.

In my experience working with newsrooms, many policies get stuck here because the news executive is not accountable to his direct reports, or because of dysfunction at the administrative level. Often the senior news executive now must get the buy-in of a publisher or board of directors. Also, the new language must be reviewed by the HR department and the legal team. Either stage can be a black hole unless there is an influential advocate to move things along.

Once the policy is formally adopted, it needs to be introduced to the entire staff (usually by memo) and reviewed and discussed either in targeted workshops or department meetings. People don’t embrace new standards without a chance to discuss them. Finally, managers need to be familiar enough with the standards that they can effectively onboard new employees.

When you skip these final steps, you run the risk of enacting a policy and having it ignored or widely violated. That creates a dangerous ethical climate, because it sends the message that complying with policies is voluntary. And that’s worse than having no policy at all.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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  • I’m glad that you begin with “leadership”! And your suggestions seem spot on. Much of the discussion, though is full of ” management” language. All too often, the black hole results from the top person(s) discomfort with initiative, not to mention wilful ignorance. Lower level leaders can be dangerous. I wonder how much of the WP brouhaha was the result of someone(s) putting off the “managing” of a noxious colleague in favor of trying to “manage” the risk?