October 21, 2016

Facebook seems to have heard publishers who complained that it was censoring the news.

In a blog post Friday, two executives at Facebook announced that the social network intends to relax its policies regulating content that is “newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards.”

Joel Kaplan, vice president for global public policy, and Justin Osofsky, vice president for global operations and media partnerships, explained the coming change:

In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards. We will work with our community and partners to explore exactly how to do this, both through new tools and approaches to enforcement. Our intent is to allow more images and stories without posing safety risks or showing graphic images to minors and others who do not want to see them.

Although the blog post doesn’t specify how Facebook plans to change its standards, it’s clear the update is in part a response to journalists who complained that the social network was preventing them from sharing content that was clearly in the public interest.

In September, Facebook removed an image from its website that was posted on the Facebook page of Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper. Espen Egil Hansen, the newspaper’s editor, published a lengthy open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, saying that he was “restricting my room for exercising my editorial responsibility.”

In part, the letter took issue with Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook is not a media company, calling the CEO “the world’s most powerful editor.”

I think you are abusing your power, and I find it hard to believe that you have thought it through thoroughly.

Facebook eventually restored the photo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Napalm Girl” image that laid bare the horror of the Vietnam war, which ran afoul of the social network’s standards against nudity.

Shortly after that, however, Facebook removed an article by the French news website Les Décodeurs about mammograms because it showed a picture of a women’s exposed breast.

Although Facebook claims it is not a media organization, the social network is grappling with questions that news outlets struggled with during the last century regarding the value of displaying graphic content. Newspapers and websites have had to formulate standards that balance the societal benefits of newsworthy photos with the risks that come with exposing their audiences to traumatic or prurient images.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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