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Three simple rules for journalists in social media

Many media houses have spent a lot of time regulating how journalists can behave in Twitter and other social media. I think it is quite simple: Basically you only need three rules!

I am writing this blog post in preparation for a panel debate I will participate in tomorrow discussing whether journalists need social media rules. The debate is arranged by a newly founded Norwegian network for people working with online media.

I have been a journalist and editor for many years, most of the time for Norway’s leading quality newspaper, Aftenposten. At the moment I am digital media strategist, which is not formally an editorial position. Yet I still work closely with the editorial staff and identify myself very much with the role of journalists.

To me the question of regulation for journalists’ use of social media is quite simple – at least in principle. Some editors make Twitter a very big issue. I don’t think it is . In fact I am not sure you need specific rules for Twitter or Facebook at all.

But you need rules for how journalists should behave in public. Twitter, blogging, giving a speech, writing an article, sharing videos on YouTube, etc. It all deals with how you act in the public. And pretty much it can all be covered in the same framework.

For social media I would start with three very basic principles, and then one can elaborate on each of these according to specific issues. Here they are:

1. The media company should be genuinely positive to its staff being active in social media

Journalism is no longer a one-way stream of information. Instead journalists need to be in continuous dialogue with their readers. You cannot do that without being an active user of social media. And by “active” I mean not only listening, but also sharing, the very nucleus of social media. To a large extent participating in social media is becoming a prerequisite in modern journalism. Media companies are wise to encourage it. Be proud that you have competent employees. Applaud their attempts at sharing their enthusiasm with people and expect them to bring impulses and ideas back from the readers to the editorial newsroom.

Media houses have much more to gain from their employees playing an active role in social media than from trying to restrict them. Keep an open mind. Trust your employees. It will pay off.

2. Social media activities must be done in a way which maintains the professional integrity of journalists

This is important. I think journalists can be both private and personal in their social media activities. But they must never forget that they behave in the public space. That means you should never give your readers any chance to discredit your editorial credibility and integrity because of what you write or do in social media.

And of course; whether a journalist indeed maintains her integrity is not determined by the journalist herself, but by how she is perceived by the public.

Integrity is the tricky part for journalists, as it has always been. And maintaining the integrity will of course put some limitations on journalists. For instance it may usually be wise not to express your personal opinions too much  on issues you are covering as a journalist. And it is definitely not so smart to describe your last interviewee as an idiot on Twitter.

This being said, I think the development of social media has made it somewhat more acceptable for journalists to be personal in the public space without their integrity being hurt. The reason of course is that the public space has become so much more crowded. In a world where everybody is sharing and publishing, people are getting much more used to perceiving others from multiple perspectives.   In many ways we are becoming more tolerant to the fact that we all play different roles in life.

Yet credibility and integrity have always been core values for professional journalists, and the emerging social media platforms don’t really change that.

3. Stay loyal to your employer

This is a basic last point. Although social media gives journalists – and other professions – great freedom in expressing themselves, employers should expect them to stay loyal in the public space. Twitter is not the place to discredit your employer and you shouldn’t publish your internal quarrels on your blog. That is being disloyal – and in my opinion also hurting your own credibility as a journalist.

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These are my three principles for journalists and social media. Do you agree? Or would you rather approach it from a completely different direction? Let us know!

About the author: Experienced media manager and journalist. Enthusiastic about digital media – and eager amateur photographer. Currently Chief Communications Officer at Schibsted Tech Polska in Krakow, Poland.

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