News staffers are prohibited from tweeting, posting or distributing via other social networking means “anything that compromises the integrity and objectivity of you or NBCUniversal,” even using a personal account. Some observers see the policy as overly broad, but NBC says if material is not solid enough to include in a newscast, it shouldn’t be distributed via social media either.
While people typically delineate their personal and professional digital lives, there is little distinction between the two — at least as far as social media is concerned — for the news staffs at the 10 NBC-owned stations.
For the last year or so, the NBC Owned Television Stations have required individuals who work in their newsrooms — from interns and production assistants to reporters and anchors — to follow the company rules governing social media use, regardless of whether they are using the platform to promote news or their personal lives.
That means news staff is prohibited from tweeting, posting or distributing via other social networking means “anything that compromises the integrity and objectivity of you or NBCUniversal,” even using a personal account, says Kevin Keeshan, ombudsman for the station group.
“We ask them to think and use common sense,” he says. “Don’t post anything we’re not prepared to broadcast.”
Keeshan says the policy is necessary to protect the reputations of both personnel and the news organizations they represent a time when “there is a tendency to be more flip and looser with the jargon and vernacular of the times on social media.”
Any news person who wants to post an opinion on an issue of note has to clear it with a manager first. The company’s policy also calls on news staffers to “clearly identify themselves” as NBCUniversal employees across the medium, he says.
That guideline stretches far and wide, applying to everything from Facebook and Twitter posts to sharing information on Four Square, Tumblr and YouTube, Keeshan says.
Content that is shared or re-tweeted is subject to the policy as well. If unconfirmed information is not solid enough include in a newscast, it is not worthy of being distributed via social media either, Keeshan says.
Regulating social media use evokes the same tenets of industry-wide practices that for decades have served to maintain the objectivity — and credibility — of news operations, such as prohibiting reporters’ involvements in political activity and other issues that would create conflicts of interest, he says.
An NBC station reporter, for example, cannot make an appearance or speak before a group if the engagement could be construed as an endorsement of a particular organization, he says.
“We certainly had the same standards before Twitter and Facebook,” Keeshan says, adding that the policy, which is taught as part of staff training, sends the same message that newsmen and women have heard for years: “You’re a journalist. Act as if you’re a journalist. This is a vocation, not just a job.”
Keeshan says that during his five months on the job, news staff has been largely amenable to the policy. During that same time, there has been just “one errant tweet that I thought was inappropriate.”
Industry observers have mixed reactions.
“I was pretty astounded to hear of this new Draconian-sounding rule,” says Mark Feldstein, a University of Maryland broadcast journalism professor.
Feldstein says he understands news outlets have to “protect their hindquarters with a policy like this if and when someone posts something too political or undiplomatic or plain embarrassing.” But the NBC policy raises questions, he says, and he takes exception to the premise that social media content must meet the same standards as TV content because they are subject to different procedures and reviews.
“The truth is, before you say anything on the air there is an approval process. Someone looks at your script and authorizes it ahead of time,” he says. “Obviously there is no such process for social media.”
In addition, he says, enforcing such a policy by monitoring social media would require resources most stations don’t have. In turn, Feldstein says he “suspects” that the policy has been established more as a safeguard than a daily practice.
Ethical questions raised by regulating what journalists do during off hours, however, are not unique to the NBC stations’ policy, he says. Rather, governing reporters’ personal social media use is not fundamentally different than other rules geared at maintaining reporters’ neutrality, although “in some ways it’s the hardest of all to police logically because there is so much out there,” he says.
“We are all entitled to free speech, but we are not all entitled to a job in these news organizations,” Feldstein says. “What we are seeing now is that as technology evolves there are more places where there is conflict between two competing concerns [free speech and maintaining objectivity] meet,” he says.
Neither Feldstein nor Keeshan know of other broadcasters with equally stringent social media policies.
But the NBC stations are hardly alone in facing issues the new medium breeds. Just last week, Politico suspended reporter Joe Williams after he made controversial comments on cable television and a series of tweets that made fun of Mitt Romney.
Poynter’s Al Tompkins says policies like NBC’s exist for good reason. “When you work for a media company, it is different than working for a plumbing supply warehouse. You represent your company in all you say, do and write,” Tompkins says.
“So your employer has an interest in what you do on and off the job,” he says. The worst scandals involving news people seem to be after-hours events.”
Besides, journalists aren’t the only folks to who have a reputation to maintain 24/7.
“You are not alone,” Tompkins points out. “Elementary school teachers can’t have secret lives as pole dancers [and] ministers probably should not show up on Texas Hold’em TV shows.”
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