In May I wrote about the social media guidelines that Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones issued to its employees, making the point that they were about control rather than collaboration. I agreed with Time writer James Poniewozik that Dow Jones was missing the opportunity to make its reporting more collaborative. Even though increased collaboration with readers might help traditional media properties reinvent themselves and maintain their sliding market shares, they are bristling at the idea.
The Associated Press just followed suit, issuing a social-networking policy for its employees that the News Media Guild says is "perhaps the most restrictive the union has seen," according to a Wired story. The guidelines were issued shortly after an AP reporter posted a comment on his Facebook profile criticizing the McClatchy newspaper chain.
I understand the guild's objections, which seem to focus especially on one item that asks AP employees to monitor their Facebook profiles for material posted by others that may violate AP standards and to delete such material. That's the item that is "making some people cringe," says News Media Guild administrator Kevin Keane. "It is not appropriate for a company that heralds free speech." It's pretty unrealistic to put AP employees in a position where they are being asked to police their friends.
Largely, however, I agree with Mashable's Ben Parr, who writes that AP's guidelines are hardly draconian. At least, he notes, "the AP clearly states that they don't want to quash the use of social media." (You can click through to the policy, which is presented in a Q&A format for employees, in the Wired story, and I've seen it widely reproduced elsewhere as well.) In the very first question, AP gives props to social networking sites like Facebook:
(Social-networking sites have) become an integral part of everyday life for millions of people around the world, and the AP already has a robust corps of employees with accounts on all the social networks. These networks also have become an important tool for AP reporters to gather news-both for big, breaking stories and in cases in which we're seeking out members of the public who might serve as sources for our stories. And they're a prime source of citizen journalism material. One of our top images from the US Airways crash in the Hudson River, for instance, was a photo taken by a civilian that first surfaced on Twitter.
I don't think it's unreasonable to ask AP employees to "identify themselves as being from the AP if they are using the networks for work in any way." Companies like Intel, which is often lauded as a company that strikes the correct balance in its social media guidelines for employees, request a similar transparency. Intel also asks employees to "respect proprietary information and content, and confidentiality." Again, not all that different from the AP, which prohibits "posting material about the AP's internal operations."
It gets a little trickier when the AP asks its employees to "avoid including political affiliations in their profiles and steer clear of making any postings that express political views or take stands on contentious issues." One could argue that this unfairly restricts AP employees, But remember they are paid to produce impartial reporting. Fox News notwithstanding, impartiality is still regarded as a standard to which good journalists aspire. AP points out that posting a political comment on a profile isn't really akin to uttering such a comment over drinks with friends. It's easy for folks to copy material from personal profiles and reproduce it elsewhere.
Again, I'll agree with Mashable's Parr, who writes:
The best option for the Associated Press is to sit down with its employees and address these concerns and create a policy that takes everybody's interests into account.
As social media channels continue to evolve, the guidelines addressing employees' use of them must evolve as well. A dialogue is a great idea.