Last week Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise tweeted “Roethlisberger will get five games, I’m told,” referring to about Steelers quarterback Ben Rothlisberger, who was facing suspension for off-field conduct. Rothlisberger was in face suspended for six games. Wise later admitted that he had made up the suspension rumor – “As part of a bit on my show today, I tried to test the accuracy of social media reporting. Probably not the best way to go about experiment.” Now Wise has himself been suspended for a month by the Washington Post.
What struck me as remarkable is that a veteran journalist suspended for an entire month for a statement not made in the paper but on his private twitter feed not only doesn’t sue or protest, but seems contrite and accepting of the punishment and will presumably show up back to work ready to contribute in October.
But in the end, it proved two things: 1. I was right about nobody checking facts or sourcing and 2. I’m an idiot. Apologies to all involved.
How is it possible that this didn’t devolve into a nasty fight between employee and employer with colleagues picking sides and threats of lawsuits all around? Answer: the Washington Post’s Social Media Policy. It’s probably the clearest example yet of why every company should consider implementing one of their own.
The Post’s current policy guidelines don’t appear to be publicly posted, but PaidContent.org has an older version that sheds some light – Newsroom Guidelines for Use of Facebook, Twitter and Other Online Social Networks. The guidelines make it clear that there is no distinction between public and private for Washington Post journalists:
Using Social Networking Tools for Personal Reasons
All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.
Gone are the arguments that what a reporter says in his or her own capacity is somehow different than what appears in the paper. Here the paper represents a unique situation, cognizant that its reporters are still acting as reporters even when their statements aren’t made under the WP banner. There are probably arguments to be made on both sides here – is the Post thereby also taking responsibility for any individual twitter account by an employee?
The Post’s social media policy also imports higher journalistic standards in evaluating the propriety of individual statements.
When using social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, My Space or Twitter for reporting, we must protect our professional integrity. Washington Post journalists should identify themselves as such. We must be accurate in our reporting and transparent about our intentions when participating. We must be concise yet clear when describing who we are and what information we seek.
In my mind, this is where Wise’s tweets went rogue in that an experiment in whether other journalists fact-check information culled from sources like twitter before repeating them inherently lacks transparency in intention.
However, the Post goes even further.
Post journalists must refrain from 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. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.
That could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias? By whose perception is this measured? is there any statement that would not reflect such a bias in the eye of the right beholder?
The Social Media Governance website has a database of social media policies available.