Social Media: Journalism's Friend or Foe?

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In September, The Washington Post's senior editor Milton Coleman published guidelines to the paper's staff members about their activities on the internet-while on and off the job. His email to staff said, in part: "Social networks ... can be valuable tools in gathering and disseminating news and information. They also create some potential hazards we need to recognize. When using social networking tools for reporting or for our personal lives, we must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists."

It was the "or for our personal lives" part that created a firestorm for The Washington Post. But its concern about what its staff members-particularly reporters-are saying online is understandable. Some of the journalism-centric concerns expressed in the memo (posted at www.paidcontent.org) include the following:

• When using social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, or Twitter for reporting, we must protect our professional integrity. 
• Washington Post journalists should identify themselves as such. We must be accurate in our reporting and transparent about our intentions when participating. 
• When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment. 
• Be sure that your pattern of use does not suggest, for example, that you are interested only in people with one particular view of a topic or issue.
• Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything-including photographs or video-that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.
• Post journalists should not be involved in any social networks related to advocacy or a special interest regarding topics they cover, unless specifically permitted by a supervising editor for reporting and so long as other standards of transparency are maintained while doing any such reporting.
• Personal pages online are no place for the discussion of internal newsroom issues such as sourcing, reporting of stories, decisions to publish or not to publish, personnel matters and untoward personal or professional matters involving our colleagues. The same is true for opinions or information regarding any business activities of The Washington Post Company.

While these guidelines have triggered a great deal of backlash and commentary in the blogosphere, this memo is indicative of the serious impact social media is having on the journalistic profession. It's not so much that fundamental standards have changed; rather it's more that the scope or reach of what we say and do is much more transparent and pervasive than ever before. A reporter sharing political perspectives with a source at a night club in the 1970s would likely suffer fewer repercussions than a reporter in the 21st century sharing those same perspectives on Twitter with the potential of thousands of others "listening" in.

On the flip side, of course, social media tools afford journalists an opportunity to identify and connect with sources and to learn about potential stories as they're occurring in ways that were never before possible. Now famous, Janis Krums, a man from Sarasota, Fla., was the first to post a photo of U.S. Airways flight 1549 crashing into the Hudson River using TwitPic to post images to his Twitter feed from his iPhone ... and he was interviewed on MSNBC as a witness about a half-hour later.

However, journalists don't necessarily like to be beaten to the punch by their new "citizen" brethren. So they're jumping into the fray as well. For example, WCCO, a Minneapolis/St. Paul TV station broke the news about Brett Favre signing with the Vikings via Twitter. The tweet, sent via @wccobreaking, said: "A high-level source with the Minnesota Vikings tells WCCO's Mark Rosen that QB Brett Favre is expected to sign with the team Tuesday."

Journalists and Social Media
Pamela Johnston is director of new media at Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. Prior to that, she was VP of member experience at Gather, a social network created in a similar vein as the wildly popular Facebook. "During the 2.5 years I was there, social media exploded," says Johnston. The experience allowed her to immerse herself in the world of social media as she watched the firm's competitors rise to prominence. In the course of her career, Johnston also spent 16 years in broadcast media as a producer and a news director-so she has had a good view of both sides of the emergence of social media's impact on journalism.

Journalists and reporters, says Johnston, are using social media tools "voraciously." "They're out there, and they're looking for sources and experts. It's funny because they're really the first ones at the dance, and the people they're looking for really haven't arrived yet."

That's particularly true in the healthcare industry, she notes, where privacy concerns and HIPAA regulations make administrators particularly nervous about embracing social media. However, there are those professionals making forays into leveraging social media for this type of coverage. Chris Seper runs MedCity News, a media industry news service in Cleveland. He says that "social media allows you to make stronger connections with sources in a broader geographic area."

He also points out that "Twitter is a critical tool for our ongoing conversation with our core audience-the stakeholders of healthcare. We've taken the stories we've tweeted and carried on debates with people from Minnesota, Penn-sylvania, and Maryland-and later used that momentum to incorporate the thoughts of our readers into forums and future stories."

However, as with any form of media or expression, social media presents both positive and negative opportunities.

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