While social media might seem like a natural place to opine, journalists need to watch what they say -- especially if it might cast doubt on their objectivity, according to Associated Press deputy managing editor for standards and production Tom Kent.
Kent sent a memo to AP staffers warning against posting their opinions about current events on social media accounts -- even if it's private.
He pointed to recent posts by AP reporters that contained their opinions about two current events: the New York State Senate's vote to legalize gay marriage, and the "not guilty" verdict in the high-profile Casey Anthony murder trial.
While reiterating the importance of social media as a tool for distributing and raising awareness of AP stories, Kent said social media posts expressing opinions about the news "undermine the credibility of our colleagues, who have been working so hard to assure balanced and unbiased coverage of these issues."
In the same memo, the AP standards boss drew AP staffers' attention to the organization's News Values and Principles, which emphasize the importance of objectivity in news reporting, and concluded that "social networks, however we may configure our accounts or select our friends, should be considered a public forum. AP staffers should not make postings there that amount to personal opinions on contentious public issues."
He further warned that "failure to abide by these rules can lead to disciplinary action."
As noted, social media presents both opportunities and pitfalls for journalists, who can use online platforms to gain visibility for their work but also risk falling afoul of journalistic standards of objectivity. Publishers must likewise tread a fine line, encouraging journalists to publicize their work without crossing into overt opinionating.
The importance of social media as a publicity platform was underlined in April when the News Media Guild urged AP reporters to participate in a "Twitter strike" -- essentially not using social media to promote their stories online -- as part of its bargaining tactics.
In June, newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps issued new guidelines for journalists, distinguishing between content that is suitable for personal and professional social media accounts. However, like the AP, Scripps warned: "Even though it is a personal account, you are a representative of Scripps and should be aware of how your actions impact the brand and credibility of all of our business units."
The Scripps memo added: "If your personal account contains material that could reflect badly on Scripps, its business operations or your colleagues, or is contrary to Scripps policies, you may be asked to remove your affiliation with Scripps from the personal account or be otherwise disciplined, including termination. The possibility of disciplinary action is not intended to limit your use of social media, but clarify the company's position regarding egregious behavior."