NPR’s new guidelines for using social networks: ‘Respect their cultures’

NPR today gave its journalists new ethics guidelines that include a refreshing set of social media policies other news organizations should take as a blueprint.

The Ethics Handbook thoroughly covers important standards like accuracy, fairness, honesty, impartiality and transparency in the course of 72 (!) pages. To save you some time, I’ve summarized the social media-related points.

What impresses me most about NPR’s policy is that it doesn’t treat the Internet as a land of savages to be colonized and civilized. Instead it explains the New World of social media so staff may join it fruitfully and safely. I’ve not seen a passage like this before in a news organization’s social media policy:

To get the most out of social media we need to understand those communities. So we respect their cultures and treat those we encounter online with the same courtesy and understanding as anyone we deal with in the offline world. We do not impose ourselves on such sites. We are guests and behave as such.

Here are seven additional key ways NPR gets it right.

Favor judgment over speed

In a breaking news situation, NPR advises:

Few in our audience will know or care which news organization was first to report a breaking news story. But if we get it wrong, we leave a lasting mark on our reputation. In rare moments, we might be late; we might not be perfect. But we will always be responsible and careful in exercising our best judgment -- the judgment that has earned our organization the respect and loyalty of its audience.

Don’t let your guard down

“Everything you say or do in a social media environment is effectively a public statement from an NPR journalist,” the ethics guidelines caution. Even with a protected Twitter account or a private Facebook profile, a journalist should assume anything posted could get out to anyone.

Rule of thumb: You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization. In other words, don’t behave any differently online than you would in any other public setting.

Don’t just “spread information”

NPR journalists are accountable for information they retweet or otherwise spread on social media, even if it originated from someone else. The ethics guidelines say that “reporting in social media spaces requires the same diligence we exercise when reporting in other environments.”

Here’s the elaboration:

We tell readers what has and hasn’t been confirmed. We challenge those putting information out on social media to provide evidence. We raise doubts and ask questions when we have concerns; sometimes “knocking down” rumors circulating on the Web is of enormous value to our readers. And we always ask an important question: am I about to spread a thinly-sourced rumor or am I passing on valuable and credible (even if unverified) information in a transparent manner with appropriate caveats?

… The general standard is simple: Tweet and retweet as if what you’re saying or passing along is information that you would put on the air or in a “traditional” news story. If it needs context, attribution, clarification or “knocking down,” provide it.

Take offline actions to follow up online leads

NPR journalists are encouraged to “clarify and confirm information collected online through phone and in-person interviews.” This can clarify the tone or context of an original message, and verify that the source actually posted it and is in a position to know what he claims.

Be honest about who you are

While the Internet accommodates anonymity and fictional profiles, journalists should not take that as license to abandon this bedrock principle of journalism:

Just as we do in the “real” world, we identify ourselves as NPR journalists when we are working online. So, if as part of our work we are posting comments, asking questions, tweeting, retweeting, blogging, Facebooking or doing anything on social media or other online forums, we clearly identify ourselves and that we work for NPR. We do not use pseudonyms when doing such work.

You can be “friends” with sources, but be balanced

This has been a tricky issue for many news organizations: Can a journalist be a “friend” to their sources or subjects if that’s the only way to gain access to what they are saying on social networks? NPR says yes.

NPR journalists may, in the course of their work, “follow” or “friend” Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and other social media sites created by political parties and advocacy groups. But we do so to monitor their news feeds, not to become participants, and we follow and friend sites created by advocates from all sides of the issues. It’s as basic a tool as signing up to be on mailing lists used to be.

Talk to someone

Often social media policies fall short by printing a bunch of rules in black-and-white and leaving it there. Black-and-white rules are good, but the bigger challenge is knowing what to do with the gray areas in between -- the unique real-life conundrum with competing ethical interests.

NPR’s policy acknowledges that “it’s not always obvious how to apply journalistic principles to the social media arena,” and wisely encourages staff to either email or (emphasis theirs) “actually talk” to the social media team for guidance.

Additional reading:'s Mallary Tenore wrote an overview of the handbook and how it came about. Craig Silverman wrote a summary of what the handbook says about accuracy.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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