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Social media policy for journalists lags in India

Leading news organisations of the country, Bennett and Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL) and Kasturi & Sons Ltd, released their social media diktats over the past one month and caused much debate. The policies are aimed at regulating the use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter by journalists on their rolls. While some called the guidelines necessary, since the medium is new and evolving, others cried hoarse over their ‘restrictive’ mandates.

A quick comparison with global news majors, however, reveals that Indian media houses have a lot of ground to cover. Almost all major global news agencies like Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, and the British Broadcasting Corporation have detailed social media policies in place for the last two to three years. Also, the policies of Indian news outlets are relatively raw when it comes to how their employees can use social media to disseminate as well as gather news.

This could be due to the fact that social media is only now becoming prominent in the country, in contrast to the West. Also, there have not been many high-profile incidents where organisations have landed in serious trouble or have been embarrassed by what their employees have shared on social media.

More Indian news organisations are expected to come up with social media policies in the future, according to experts. And existing social media policies will also get significantly tightened since content posted on these sites has unforeseen legal, economic and social implications.

The managements of news organisations now understand the reach which social media has, says Mahesh Murthy, founder and CEO of digital media agency Pinstrorm. “The thought process is not restricted to the main handle of the organisation but also of the individual journalist.” But, organisations can’t claim a stake to the personal accounts of journalists, he adds.

The Hindu (published by Kasturi & Sons Ltd) created quite a stir when it barred its journalists from retweeting or sharing articles of rival media companies. The UK-based broadcaster, SkyNews, released a similar policy in 2012. Its latest policy for 2013-14 says, “You should never retweet any content that we would not be prepared to put on any of our platforms.”

AFP encourages its journalists to have social media accounts. However, they are not allowed to tweet or share AFP content even after a delay. AP discourages employees from offering views on controversial topics because it may reflect the journalist’s bias. AP also tells it staff not to ‘friend’ or ‘like’ political candidates because that may create a perception that the agency’s journalists are advocates.

This may in some way curtail a journalist’s ability to cultivate sources online. But the organisation is erring on the side of caution.

Murthy says one way to solve this issue is to encourage journalists to have both personal and officials accounts like the way they have email accounts. “The official one can toe the organisation’s social media policy and the journalist should be free to post whatever he/she likes on the personal account.” He adds if the organisation controls even the personal account, it will be more destructive than constructive since the handle will become a tool to broadcast its own stories leading to boring content. “The journalist will drop on the engagement index and the followers may leave, it will only be a loss for the organisation.” And, even if a journalist chooses to make a controversial statement, till the time it is from the personal account, the organisation should not care. “That is what freedom of speech is about.”

AP also discourages its employees from interacting directly with readers. “Any response we make to a reader or viewer could go public. Email, Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages may feel like private communications, but may easily find their way to blogs and political pressure groups, attorneys and others. In the case of a story or image that stirs significant controversy, the editor is likely the best person to reply, rather than the person who created the content,” the policy says.

Using common sense, good judgement and being accurate are common traits of the policies of most global news suppliers. “Social networks encourage fast, constant, brief communications; journalism calls for communication preceded by fact-finding and thoughtful consideration. Journalism has many “unsend” buttons, including editors. Social networks have none. Everything we say online can be used against us in a court of law, in the minds of subjects and sources and by people who for reasons of their own may want to cast us in a negative light. While, obviously, we cannot control what others may post on our accounts, we must maintain constant awareness when posting to Facebook, Twitter and other online fora that we are flying without a net, and that an indiscretion lasts forever. At all costs, we must avoid flame wars, incendiary rhetoric and loose talk,” say the Reuters guidelines.

Some of the challenges of social media are caused by instant sharing. Washington Post writes in its guidelines that as a general rule, its news, visuals and text are edited before publication. “With the advent of new digital media, our readers expect news and information to be delivered immediately and accurately. In some cases – especially in blogs or tweets filed by Post journalists during live news events – items may therefore be posted without prior editing.” Therefore, senior editors in each department should determine which staffers may self-publish, and under what circumstances, it says.

The issue of a journalist’s right to express through social media came to the limelight when BCCL, which publishes The Times of India and The Economic Times among other publications, according to reports, discouraged its journalists from posting news-related content from their personal social media accounts and asked them to hand over passwords of their official social media accounts so that the organisation could use them on their behalf when needed.

A senior BCCL executive described its new social media policy for journalists as a move towards continuous ‘updating’ in an era of digital overdrive. “What happens at times, the reporter might not be available or know about a certain development regarding a story. In such a situation, access to their passwords will help us update it and use it on their social media accounts,” said the executive who did not wish to be named.

This executive, however, added the group had decided to do away with the clause of keeping an employee’s password even after the person resigns from the company.

The move to tweak the policy came after protests from senior editors and reporters in the organisation.

The episode does raise questions about the ownership of content shared on social media and the leeway an organisation can take to control it without impinging on the freedom of speech.

While social media policies for the majority of local media companies are expected to evolve, it remains to be seen if these will be influenced by the international experience or will be tailored to the realities of India.


MEDIA STAND

BBC
You are not discouraged from your own personal activity, done for your friends and contacts, but not under or in the name of BBC News, but as a BBC member of staff – and especially as someone who works in News – there are particular considerations to bear in mind. They can all be summarised as: ‘Don’t do anything stupid’.

Reuters
Social networks encourage fast, constant, brief communications; journalism calls for communication preceded by fact-finding and thoughtful consideration. Journalism has many “unsend” buttons, including editors. Social networks have none. Everything we say online can be used against us in a court of law, in the minds of subjects and sources and by people who for reasons of their own may want to cast us in a negative light. While, obviously, we cannot control what others may post on our accounts, we must maintain constant awareness when posting to Facebook, Twitter and other online fora that we are flying without a net, and that an indiscretion lasts forever. At all costs, we must avoid flame wars, incendiary rhetoric and loose talk.

AP
Any response we make to a reader or viewer could go public. Email, Facebook messages and Twitter direct messages may feel like private communications, but may easily find their way to blogs and political pressure groups, attorneys and others. In the case of a story or image that stirs significant controversy, the editor is likely the best person to reply, rather than the person who created the content.

The Washington Post
As a general rule, The Washington Post news, visuals and text are edited before publication. With the advent of new digital media, our readers expect news and information to be delivered immediately and accurately. In some cases – especially in blogs or tweets filed by Post journalists during live news events – items may therefore be posted without prior editing… Senior editors in each department should determine which staffers may self-publish, and under what circumstances.

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