On the Media: How social should the media be?

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Virtual foot-in-mouth disease, thy name is Twitter.

Or Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat ... take your pick. It's all too easy to post something in the space of 140 characters that you're certain to regret.

As former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., can attest, it's also possible to tweet your way into unemployment.

Social media provide a wealth of opportunity for users to help grow their brand, spread a fan base and fuel the flames of a celebrity scandal as well as introduce up-to-the-second news on a presidential inauguration.

For news organizations, it's still a Wild West of guidelines. Reporters, anchors and radio hosts are expected to embrace social media to help the overall brand. But what does that mean? Every time a Post-Gazette writer tweets about bad roads or the latest UPMC/Highmark kerfuffle, he/she is promoting the newspaper.

If those same writers bore with details of the wonderful lunch they just ate or, worse, express a controversial personal statement, are they out of bounds? What about Facebook pages, where the opinions of the user's friends might be deemed offensive to some?

WTAE-TV's Ashlie Hardway, a reporter who might have recused herself from having anything to do with the coverage of a man who killed two people, instead recently posted to her personal Facebook page a visceral "letter" to Ronald Robinson after his sentencing.

"I saw them [first responders] as they flew past me on William Penn Highway with lights and sirens. I saw them trying. Compressing. Begging. But it was too late. You had already killed him."

Penn Hills officer Michael Crawshaw and another man, Danyal Morton, were killed in 2009. Ms. Hardway, who grew up in the area, used to be married to a Penn Hills police officer.

Clearly, she is entitled to her opinions. But she inserts herself into the story when she writes, "I will never forget walking up to Mr. & Mrs. Crawshaw's home. ... with a handwritten note I had scrawled on my lap in the live truck. ... I remember being in North Braddock on a totally different story four days later when my phone rang. I remember the crack in Mrs. Crawshaw's voice -- the thank you for the note -- the appreciation for the way my station and I handled the coverage."

In the comments section of that post, readers were generally supportive. But posters to a local online forum for TV and radio were aghast. The post was removed from her Facebook page some time after Monday morning.

Michael Hayes, president and general manager at WTAE-TV, did not choose to specifically address Ms. Hardway's post but noted, "By its nature, social media engages the viewers and offers many different angles of insight to a story. It continues to represent a change in the dynamic way news and information is now being consumed."

Should social media accounts be proprietary? Who actually owns the account linked to your work, and if the powers-that-be demand a post be changed or removed, are you legally obligated to do so?

Can an unflattering post via social media get you into trouble? This is hardly an issue confined to journalism, as any teacher with "red cup" photos on her Facebook page has learned.

The easy answer: Who knows? Social media policies are works in progress. But in the case of journalists, some occasionally walk a very fine line between upholding public truths and inserting themselves into news stories.

Five years ago, it was unlikely any news organization had formal social media policies. Today, most -- including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- have fluid guidelines that address incidents on a case-by-case basis.

"We don't have a formal social media policy, but we do have a social media editor who is our guide on training and advising people in the newsroom on best practices," said Susan Smith, Post-Gazette managing editor.

"Basically we tell our staffers to use their best judgment and not to do anything on social media that would violate basic journalistic principles of fairness and non-partisanship or that is simply in bad taste and would reflect negatively on them and the Post-Gazette. That's pretty broad, I know, but we haven't had any real problems, so I think people get it."

In late 2012, The New York Times enforced a monthlong suspension of Magazine feature freelance author Andrew Goldman after he engaged in a Twitter debate with novelist Jennifer Weiner.

Ms. Weiner questioned why Mr. Goldman would need to ask actress Tippi Hedren in an interview whether she considered giving in to Alfred Hitchcock's sexual advances; an HBO movie about their troubled relationship had just been released.

This escalated into a snarky online fight, with Mr. Goldman retorting to Ms. Weiner, "You would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top."

Times associate managing editor for standards Philip B. Corbett responded with a staff memo. After reminding reporters, "your online behavior should be appropriate for a Times journalist," he quoted the paper's ethical journalism policy: "Civility applies whether an exchange takes place in person, by telephone, by letter or online."

The New York Times also has considered what it means to report from the field via social media, as compared to edited stories in print.

In early 2012, the Times' Jodi Rudoren became Jerusalem bureau chief. Although her reporting was praised, some of her posts on social media quickly ignited protests from all sides.

During the Gaza conflict, her Facebook post described Palestinians as "ho-hum" about the death of loved ones, according to a column by Times public editor Margaret Sullivan. "That was a ridiculous word to use," she later told Ms. Sullivan. "I just wasn't careful enough."

There were other instances, enough to prompt the Times to assign a foreign editor to work with her from New York.

"The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media's engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter's unfiltered and unedited thoughts," wrote Ms. Sullivan.

Protect readers from "unfiltered and unedited thoughts"? Where's the trust here? Ms. Rudoren is an experienced journalist, not Charlie Sheen.

According to the Times, the National Labor Relations Board recently affirmed that across-the-board policies are unrealistic, and that workers must be allowed to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution. Even if it's on Facebook.

"Many view social media as the new watercooler," said Mark G. Pearce, NLRB chair. "All we're doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology."

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Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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