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As Social Media Heat Rises, Media Houses Worry About What Journalists Are Tweeting

The debate over how much journalists should reveal on social media about their political preferences has become even more relevant as the polity and society get increasingly polarised.

journalists social media
New Delhi: Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd (BCCL), India’s largest media house and publisher of the Times of India, Economic Times, Navbharat Times and many other similar publications, made headlines earlier this month because of its new social media policy.

First circulated in July, the group’s new policy was best described by one of its own reporters who wished to remain anonymous — “Whoever drafted this understands the online medium the way Donald Trump understands consent.”

The guidelines note that Times journalists should not state their political preferences, or say anything that would compromise their impartiality. The Times Group also advised its journalists to not write in a way that seeks to predict election results, match results and stock market trends. One would imagine that’s part of a journalist’s job, but not if you work for “The Grey Lady” of Indian journalism.

Neither can one “like, favour, recommend, or support comments or posts from politicians, bureaucrats, or anyone in a partisan or controversial position” or “repost or retweet updates from others that can be perceived as an implicit endorsement of a specific viewpoint or fact.”

The company has tweaked one of the controversial demands it made earlier. It still retains the right to ask its journalists for their social media login credentials and post from their handles but will now do so only after seeking their permission.

With this new policy, all social media posts of employees will be considered intellectual property owned by the employer. If an employee leaves the company, all content created by him/her on social media – tweets, Facebook posts, photos on Instagram – during his/her employment with BCCL belongs to the company.

This isn’t the first time BCCL has tried to control what its employees share on social media. In 2014, the company asked its reporters to hand over their Facebook and Twitter passwords. A year later, they linked  variable pay of employees, which is 10% of their cost to company (CTC) in most cases, to the number of times they tweet.

The Times Group isn’t the only Indian media house to have laid down such rules. The Hindu, in 2014, asked its reporters not to share stories of rival publications on social media.

As restrictive as these conditions seem, a quick survey of the social media policies of international media organisations suggests a similar pattern.

File photo of Indian press photographers. Credit: Reuters

NYT: ‘Leave the editorialising to our colleagues on the opinion side’

Twice in 2016, once after the Orlando shooting and then right in the middle of the contentious presidential campaign, the New York Times warned its staff to avoid editorialising, endorsing candidates or otherwise promoting their own political views on social media.

NPR: “Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist … If we have something critical to say, we say it to their face – not on social media.”

National Public Radio (NPR), which warned its journalists against celebrating or complaining about the results of presidential elections on social media, has a pretty elaborate social media policy which advises employees on what they should avoid doing on the day of election results, basic etiquette to follow while posting on the internet, how to deal with abusive trolls and much more.

NPR, which bars its employees from advocating for political or other polarising issues online, also advises its staff to ‘follow’ and ‘like’ politicians and advocacy groups from both sides of the spectrum only if their work includes coverage of politics and social issues. Interestingly, the same rules apply while using apps like Snapchat too. Content shared on Snapchat only stays up for 24 hours.

LAT: “Assume that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public and knowable to everyone with access to a computer”

Be aware of perceptions: The Los Angeles Times warns its employees against ‘befriending’ a source or joining a group of a certain ideology as ‘readers may view their “participation” in a group as their acceptance of its views; be clear that you’re looking for story ideas or simply collecting information’.

Reuters: “Avoid flame wars, incendiary rhetoric and loose talk” 

News agency Reuters requires its reporters to maintain constant awareness when posting to Facebook, Twitter and other online fora because “an indiscretion lasts forever” on the internet.

WaPo: “Don’t post against our advertisers”

The Washington Post faced a lot of flak in July for prohibiting conduct on social media that “adversely affects its customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners”. The media organisation, which reserves the right to fire defaulters, also demanded that employees “refrain from using social media during work hours, unless using social media is an authorised part of their job.”

BBC: “Don’t do anything stupid”

“You’re a BBC journalist; act like it” is the best way to summarise the social media guidelines issued by the British public service broadcaster. Warning its staff against getting ‘seduced by the informality of social media into bringing the BBC into disrepute’, the organisation reminds them that saying “retweets aren’t endorsements” or adding an equivalent disclaimer in their bio won’t be enough to protect the organisation from reputational harm. Reporters are also advised against ‘breaking’ news on their personal handles instead of sending it to the newsdesk first.

Politico: “Monitor what other people post to your page”

Politico.com advises its employees to make sure they log out of all social media platforms when they shut down their computer to prevent hackers from taking over their account and posting something in their name that could be embarrassing. “Just as politicians learn, to their regret, that they should always assume the mike is live, we should assume that we are always on.”

Denver Post: “Be transparent and correct mistakes where you make them”

The Denver Post‘s advice to its employees in case they make a mistake on social media: Delete the tweet or Facebook post. Issue a correction tweet or Facebook post thereafter. Do not repeat the error. Don’t try to hide the error by deleting the original message and then reissuing the news. Many Twitter clients, for example, download tweets and store them on users’ computers or hand-held devices, so they won’t be deleted from someone’s stream even if you delete the tweet. The same applies for Facebook.

Questionnaire: The search for the most balanced policy

Back in India, Mint requires its journalists to include a disclaimer – the views expressed herein are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of Mint in any way – in their social media bios.

The Wire also has a generic social media policy for its employees and “reserves the right to request that certain subjects are avoided and to ask for the withdrawal of certain posts and inappropriate comments”.

The debate over how much journalists should reveal on social media about their political preferences and whether media houses should be able to dictate dos and don’ts has become even more relevant as the polity and society gets increasingly polarised. We talked to a few journalists to get a sense of how they feel about this issue.

Please note that none of the journalists The Wire interviewed spoke on behalf of their employers.

Should media houses be allowed to dictate social media dos and don’ts for journalists?

Almost everybody we talked to agreed that a basic set of guidelines, and not a diktat, should be provided on how journalists should tweet, engage with readers, deal with abusive tweets, etc. “Outlets have a responsibility to train journalists on how to use social media effectively as a powerful reporting tool, how to maximise digital impact and avoid the risks and pitfalls,” said Siobhan Heanue, who works for ABC News Australia.

facebook twitter social media guidelines for journalists
Speaking in favour of an employer’s right to issue guidelines, an editor with a major daily newspaper, said, “There is acute sensitivity today among political parties, business houses, and even NGOs and religious organisations about how they are covered. Allegations of paid news and bias fly around freely, as do legal suits, and most people simply refuse to accept that a journalist working for an organisation does not reflect his employer’s opinion through social media.”

Is it fair for a media house to ask for its journalists’ social media credentials and post messages on their behalf?

“We aren’t robots who are remote controlled by the organisation we work for,” said Nidhi Razdan, executive editor of NDTV, when asked about her take on TOI requesting the login credentials of its employees’ social media handles to post on their behalf. A senior TOI journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, used one of Donald Trump’s favourite word to slam his employer for “behaving like slave-owners”.

Scroll.in’s Rohan Venkataramakrishnan doesn’t think that any media organisation has the right to speak on behalf of an individual employee but at the same time feels that since “some journalists are now hired because of their social media presence, while others occasionally are turned into brands by their organisations – a situation that blends the personal with the professional, such instances can be dealt with on a case-to-case basis”.

Should journalists engage with abusive trolls on social media?

While Heanue and Razdan feel that social media abuse is a serious problem and calling out trolls and reporting them is perfectly legitimate, The Quint’s Jaskirat Singh Bawa advised journalists be smart and sharp in identifying the ones who can be engaged and reasoned with instead of painting them all with one brush.

NewsLaundry’s Abhinandan Sekhri sees no harm in engaging with ‘trolls’. “In some cases it helps getting a conversation started and is a great opportunity to demonstrate your own rationality against a troll’s irrationality. In some cases it causes emotional stress and angst so then its best not to,” he said.

Prasanna Viswanathan, CEO of Swarajya, feels that the word ‘troll’ itself suffers from lack of definitional clarity and often journalists deflect genuine feedback/criticism by dismissing contrarian voices as those of the trolls.

“Don’t let the conversation get abusive. If it does, I’d suggest just back off and let it die. There’s no point in going on and on with someone who’s being decidedly abusive, because he wants to be so. It’s like hitting your head on the wall,” said Venkat Ananth, a Delhi-based journalist for a digital publication.

Heanue, who is a supporter of the maxim – ‘don’t feed the trolls’, feels that abuse shouldn’t be tolerated but it’s healthy for journalists to at least hear, if not engage with, robust debate and criticism around their work.

A Delhi-based senior editor of a national daily said that he avoids trolls by not commenting politically on social media because, “I think I lack the ability to make my point in 140 characters. Nonetheless, I still attract the odd troll or two. I generally block them if they are persistent.”

“Know that it is a brutal world out there, full of people waiting to impute bad faith onto everything you say. So if you’re going to be an incorrigible idiot, be an incorrigible idiot on our sites—not on some random social media service,” said Rohan Venkataramakrishnan quoting Gawker’s social media guidelines.

Credit: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

Should journalists be forced to reflect their employer’s viewpoint on policies and politics even from their personal social media handles?

“There’s an old saying about refraining from discussing politics, religion or sex at the dinner table if you want a civil meal, and I am naturally inclined to keep my views private,” said Heanue who hasn’t faced this issue as she works for a public broadcaster that maintains impartiality. However, this isn’t true for most journalists who work in a field which is primarily run by corporates and politicians.

Should journalists reveal their political preference on social media?

The jury seems to be out on this one. While Sekhri feels that it is healthy for a journalist to do so and Razdan too agrees that it isn’t wrong to criticise or praise politicians or parties on individual issues, Rohan Venkataramakrishnan prefers “if political journalists are not allied to any particular party (in part because they ought to be cynical enough to know that most will disappoint you).”

Heanue too advises against it as “once you reveal a political preference you enter the realm of commentary and opinion and can no longer be taken seriously as an impartial observer and reporter.”

“Why not?” asks Viswanathan, who runs a magazine that prides itself in being ideologically right of centre. “Declarations of ideological allegiance and political predilections are morally a much better space to operate from than contrived neutrality and an attempt to mask positions. As a part of professional training, journalists, especially those engaged in reportage, should  cultivate the skill of fact-led writing.”

To Akshaya Mukul, senior researcher and journalist, it does not matter if you reveal your political preference or not because others have already branded you. “We are living in bizarre times. If you oppose killings in the name of the cow or condemn the death of children in a hospital for lack of oxygen you are immediately branded a leftist or a ‘sickular’. Anyone who criticises an act of this government is called a leftist. The irony is that the political Left is in terminal decline,” he said.

The Wire‘s Devirupa Mitra belies that journalists should practice restraint and not take the bait. “However, journalists are also citizens, so I am not sure that self-censorship on all tweets which could be construed as political, is healthy or sustainable.”

Credit: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Credit: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Do you feel that by revealing their political preferences on social media journalists affect they way their work is perceived by readers?

“Of course it will but I don’t see how that’s a problem. A journalist’s personal politics always and continuously influences what stories they choose to work on, when and how,” feels The Wire‘s science editor, Vasudevan Mukunth.

“It is better to reveal your biases to your readers and then dive into a story instead of keeping them hidden and giving the impression that they don’t exist,” he added.

Sekhri, who runs a media critique portal, too favours making one’s biases transparent. “Sure it can, both ways – for better as well as for worse. While haters will use that as “evidence”, many will also see you as more fair and transparent, and isn’t that what is the most fashionable word in evolving democracies these days – “transparency”?”

There are a host of other reasons that now decide how a journalist’s work is perceived by social media, says the DailyO’s Pathikrit Sanyal. “A journalist’s work is now judged also on the ground of where they work. Most users on social media would have already made up their minds about the media house, and subsequently the article, even before they move past the headline. If one is to get judged for the media house’s alleged leanings anyway, then, in my opinion, one should make one’s own political preferences/leanings more apparent on social media,” he said.

According to an editor at a top tech website, who did not wish to be named, “From readers’ perspective, it’s entirely down to the kind of work you do – I don’t think (hope!) most people care about the political views of tech journalists. But if you are reporting on PM Narendra Modi and identity yourself as someone with left-leaning views, you won’t be seen favourably, though I admit it’s unfair. The same way you can be an iPhone user and still be objective about Android phones,” he added.

Venkat Ananth believes that over a period of time, despite trying, posts on these platforms do reflect certain leanings. “As long as it doesn’t start impacting the sort of stories he/she does, I don’t see a massive issue with that, to be honest. That said, there’s a great risk a person carries being ‘labelled’ about his/her leanings. But that’s the nature of the beast, I am afraid. A certain section of readers would say, ‘I know what to expect from him/her’, which is not a bad thing from their perspective. But more than political ideology/leanings, I’d definitely like the journalist’s body of work to reflect his/her qualities. I am taking liberty with some cliches here, but as a journalist, as long as my guiding philosophy is the truth/facts of the matter, I believe I’m doing a decent job. And it’s easier to convince readers, than just [waving] my political ideology. At the same time, I’d be wary of those using their social media handles for naked propaganda, a trend which I think is becoming more of a norm these days. And disappointingly so,” he said.