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WaPo’s Social Media Guidelines: Bad News for International Media Development

October 11, 2009

407568812_8775ed516f_oI understand why The Washington Post would want to come up with the social media guidelines they recently set for their journalists that greatly constrain their use of social media. At least, I think I do.

They want to remain a reputable source of objective news (if objective news is even possible). And, they’d like to discourage the potential for their journalists to go “rogue” with their opinions and personal lives such that it could digitally be traced back to WaPo, and damage that reputation. Understandable. Social media are still kind of in their “Wild West” phase, and the technology makes it MUCH easier to publish online than to consider the implications of publishing online. Definitely a recipe for potential disaster in an industry in which reputation can be everything.

However, there are implications of instituting the guidelines they chose that could dramatically impact the future of media in a very negative way.

Sure, there’s the question of whether or not this violates the First Amendment rights of journalists (speech, press, petition, religion, assembly—all five are impacted by these guidelines). Does WaPo really have a right to restrict a journalist’s participation in an advocacy group, for instance? Probably. The First Amendment applies to the government, not private corporations. Still, even if it is allowed, it doesn’t mean it is okay.

If I’m WaPo journalist X, and I am a supporter of, say, Committee to Protect Journalists, are you saying I can’t “become a fan” of CPJ on Facebook or say even a “hello” on CPJ’s wall? If WaPo can restrict this, can they also restrict me from having a CPJ sticker on my car, or even mentioning my agreement with CPJ in public? After all, someone could easily record my conversation from the next table over, and upload it to the Internet, thanks to the wonders of today’s digital technology. Am I not allowed to donate to CPJ? What if THAT gets out?

I don’t usually like to play the slippery slope game, but I am afraid I have to in this case. Especially given the implications abroad.

United States organizations and government agencies have long been among the top international media developers in developing countries. And, our news media have often been a model that news media in developing countries have looked up to. Especially news media like The New York Times and the Washington Post.

If WaPo’s position as an industry leader pushes others to follow this social media lead, what could that mean for the international media development money flowing out of our country, and the example our media set?

Why would this be such a bad thing?

Social media, as we have seen so far, are most interesting and engaging when people share their views and reactions, as if they are having, well, a conversation. They are SOCIAL media, after all. And most people don’t sit around having conversations that are just an exchange of objective news report.

WaPo’s social media guidelines very clearly place tremendous constraints on the ability for its journalists to truly engage people through social media, because they will not be able to use them in an engaging way. Chances are, these guidelines will probably just discourage its journalists from even using them altogether.

Now think about this in the context of developing countries. So many of them are governed by military dictatorships, or at the very least, authoritarian systems that go to great lengths to discourage any form of public expression, participation, and citizen engagement, if they don’t outright crush them. Development funding directed at these countries tends to toward advocating for legal reform and promoting, well, public expression, participation, and citizen engagement. A lot of THAT money is going into media development, particularly involving news media. News media have long been seen as primary tools for promoting these things in democratic and independent societies, after all.

As I’ve pretty frequently blogged about, Ukraine has a culture that is still evolving out of its Soviet past of total media control by the government and rampant humiliation (and worse) of those who dared to speak up. In my years of work there, I still see prevalence among many of the people I worked with of fear to express oneself publicly with the same kind of fearlessness we enjoy in America (assuming, of course, that our fearlessness in America is a good thing).

In June and July, I was training journalists how to use social media to engage their audiences, to share their views, to add a human side to their work. The whole reason that news media are hemorrhaging audiences to social media is because their dead, boring, “objective” news is simply not as engaging as social media content. If these journalists want to continue to attract new audiences, and keep their current ones, they would have to become more engaging. And social media are the perfect tools for this.

All WaPo’s social media guidelines are going to do is give journalists in places like Ukraine one more reason to be afraid to use social media socially, and express themselves publicly, in an engaging way.

Think of Iran, and the tremendous Internet filtering and censorship that go on there every day. All WaPo’s social media guidelines do is affirm Iranian authoritarianism. Authorities can say to opponents of media censorship in Iran, “See, they do it at The Washington Post“.

Then think of what journalists might be able to do to deliver information to the public, that it has a right to know, in a place like Nigeria, where government and corporate pressures squash any real reporting on the oil industry, banks, or multinational corporations that are basically stealing from the public. Maybe nothing. But are these WaPo guidelines really going to help us find out?

These issues I’ve raised in Ukraine, Iran, and Nigeria apply, some or all, to much of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and parts of Africa. Likely more regions. These are the only ones I’ve studied at length. I could go on about these regions, with more examples, but I’ll save the post length for another time.

Instead of telling journalists they couldn’t be human beings on social media, why not require them to post a PROMINENT disclaimer saying that their views are their own and in no way represent WaPo’s. And then periodically take additional steps to MAKE THAT VERY CLEAR.

Sadly, that is not the decision WaPo made. They chose to go the road that says to the world, “It’s okay to censor your journalists on social media, it’s okay to discourage them from promoting real transparency, it’s okay to discourage the many potential societal benefits of social media in the name of protecting our business”. In the developing world, far too many news media already protect their businesses at the expense of social benefits. Just what they need is more disincentive to change this practice.

Boo, WaPo. Boo.

Photo 1: “Last Conversation Piece”. Courtesy of joelogon.

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