'Washington Post' social media guidelines target bias

WASHINGTON: The media industry is divided over the new social networking guidelines 'The Washington Post' instituted for its staffers last Friday, including restrictions on the use of Twitter and Facebook.

WASHINGTON: The media industry is divided over the new social networking guidelines The Washington Post instituted for its staffers last Friday, including restrictions on the use of Twitter and Facebook. While social media has helped the industry become more open to the public, the opinionated nature of social media can affect the perception of reporter impartiality.

"I think media needs to allow the outside world into their operations and that's why the social media stuff—Twitter and Facebook—is good," says Eric Rosenberg, VP and senior media strategist for Ogilvy PR, and a former reporter. "On the other hand, reporters have to be very careful when they go into social media because they can't express personal opinions because people then challenge them on impartiality."

He adds that the increasing influence of blogs, which encourage writers to give their opinions, has changed what the public wants when it comes to reporting.

"I think reporters have opinions, but it doesn't mean they can't report something professionally," says Jennifer Saba, senior editor at Editor & Publisher. "Somebody could say, 'Oh I really enjoy Mad Men,' and if they cover TV, does that mean they are biased?"

Rosenberg's mixed response to the guidelines seems to be typical in the industry, Saba says, as "it has caused a lot of debate. There are people out there who think that the more open you are the better."

The blogosphere seemed to outright condemn the Post's guidelines with some suggesting traditional media just doesn't “get” social media. BusinessWeek's Stephen Baker blogged a piece entitled, “How I run afoul of Washington Post's social media rules--and why.” Several reporters have come out publicly, including Post media reporter Howard Kurtz who said "Under new WP guidelines on tweeting, I will now hold forth only on the weather and dessert recipes," on his Twitter account last weekend.

On the other side of the debate, a number of communicators and those in media sounded almost grateful at some rules to help them navigate the blending of personal and professional that is inevitable in social media. Ron Charles, fiction editor and weekly critic for the Post's Book World, expressed relief for standards that "provide clarification."

Bob Pearson, chief technology and media officer for WeissComm, agrees that the guidelines are helpful for people trying to balance the fine line between professional and personal lives, particularly in this Internet age. Pearson, who is also president of the Social Media Business Council, works with Fortune 500 companies that he says would do well to take on similar guidelines.

"With the Fortune 500, many companies are regulating or putting in place policies related to what you say on behalf of a company, but staying away from what you might say personally," he says, adding that these restrictions will be more prevalent in the future. "I think The Washington Post is ahead of the trend."

The Washington Post declined further comment to PRWeek, saying "the social networking guidelines speak for themselves" and referred to Ombudsman Andrew Alexander's column. The full guidelines were published by paidContent.org here.

Even if more media follows the Post, Wall Street Journal, and ESPN into tightening reporters' use of social media, both Pearson and Rosenberg say it's unlikely to greatly affect the way PR pros communicate with journalists on these sites.

"I think PR people are always going to reach out to reporters and reporters are always going to reach out to PR people,” Rosenberg says. “I don't think this is going to quash the relationship; it better defines what's allowable now in the social media world."

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