Commentary

AP Turns Employees Into Facebook Police

The Associated Press' new social networking policy shows, once again, that the news organization hasn't yet grasped the workings of digital media.

The company's new rules, obtained by Wired, instruct staff to avoid expressing "political views" or taking "stands on contentious issues."

And how does the organization justify this gag order on staff? "We all have a stake in upholding the AP's reputation for fairness and impartiality, which has been one of our chief assets for more than 160 years," the company states.

With this policy, the AP is pretty much restricting employees' ability to use social networking sites meaningfully. People don't visit Twitter or Facebook just to learn the day's current events, but to see their friends' take on the news.

Still, that part of the AP's directive is more or less consistent with policies of many other mainstream news organizations that tell journalists to keep their opinions to themselves.

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But the AP goes beyond just telling employees to keep quiet. The organization also proposes that employees should censor their friends. "It's a good idea to monitor your profile page to make sure material posted by others doesn't violate AP standards; any such material should be deleted," states the policy.

In other words, the AP is warning that it could take action against reporters for comments that were posted by third parties they don't control. Even though those posts could be up for hours, maybe days, before the AP's journalists have the opportunity to sign in and view them, much less delete them.

There's a reason why Congress decided years ago that Web companies like Craigslist, MySpace and Facebook shouldn't face liability for users' comments. One of the main justifications for that policy (set out in the Communications Decency Act), is that the Web allows people to post comments instantly, without waiting for pre-approval. If sites were liable for user comments, publishers would have to screen posts in advance, which would cripple the interactive nature of the medium.

But the AP, apparently, has no problem suggesting that reporters should be responsible for posts by third parties.

This social networking policy isn't the first time that AP management has shown it doesn't understand the Web. The news service recently complained about blogs excerpting short quotes from news articles -- even though that's probably considered a fair use under copyright law. The company also has lamented the "misappropriation" of its content online, apparently relying on a 100-year-old doctrine that allows publishers to restrict the distribution of "hot news."

While the concept might have made sense in the early 1900s, it's not at all clear how any news organization can legitimately argue it should retain "exclusive" rights to the news in the Internet era.

5 comments about "AP Turns Employees Into Facebook Police ".
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  1. Mike Azzara from Content Marketing Partners, June 25, 2009 at 4:58 p.m.

    Important story, Wendy, but you buried the lead in the sixth graf! Professional reporters SHOULD expect their employers to limit their free speech; but they can't be expected to do the impossible, which is what the AP policy requires (according to your report) by asking them to monitor and delete their friends' comments.

    Actually, it sounds worse - it sounds like AP's misbegotten ideas about protecting its own liability is causing it to attempt to violate other people's rights to free speech. Ironic, isn't it?

  2. Anne Anderson from Anne W. Anderson, June 25, 2009 at 5:26 p.m.

    With regard to blogs excerpting short quotes from AP material -- it's not a matter of "restrict[ing] the distribution of 'hot news'," but, as you noted, is a copyright issue. "Probably considered a fair use" isn't a legal defense. Nor is the problem confined to "short quotes." Photos pulled from AP sites are another problem.

    Here are links to the Center for Social Media (http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/blogs/fair_use/) and to Stanford University's Copyright and Fair Use site (http://fairuse.stanford.edu) for information about what is considered fair use and what procedures must be followed.

    Information may be free, but photographers and writers need to eat, too. Their work in packaging that information in the form of images and reports--even electronic ones-- needs to continue to be protected by copyright, whether the copyright is owned by an individual or by an organization such as AP.

    Note, also, that AP seems to be asking its employees to delete comments only from the employee's page -- not from the originator's page (probably impossible), which means this isn't a violation of free speech, either. This would be analogous to other rules prohibiting employees from posting campaign bumper stickers on their cars or campaign signs on their lawns. If somebody comes along and posts one anyway, the employee would be expected to remove it.

    Hope this helps . . .

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 25, 2009 at 5:26 p.m.

    There are 2 parts here. Part 1) AP advising that their reporters - as Mike points out - should limit their opinions. You may call it free speech, but speech is not free. Although it is impossible to write an article without even a slight tinge of bias, the only way reporters can stay as reporters/journalists with the readers expecting as much truth as possible is to keep them from being opines. Freedom is not free. Part 2) Expecting others not to ever express their opinions and forfeit possibly pertinent information to retain "freedom" is not feasible in any fashion. AP will have to let it go which may be part of their price to pay for their freedom to relate information. Although I can understand why AP prefers the restraints regarding influence, they will have to invest more capital for editing and fact finders if they want their reporters/journalists to "get" THE story correct.

  4. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, June 25, 2009 at 9 p.m.

    Has anyone else noticed the gradual Right turn the AP has been making over the past couple of years? Or am I more paranoid than usual?

  5. Roger Walker from Walker and Associates, June 26, 2009 at 11:08 a.m.

    As far as AP asking its reporters to refrain from posting their personal views on social media, they are not being asked to do what any other public or middle-management and up business executives are asked or expected not to do. Few non-profit or business executives submit letters to the editors in their local papers for fear of alienating half of their customers or donors. Self-censorship is alive and well. Non-partisanship is expected in the public arena. If you want to write for AP and get the paycheck and prestige, those are the rules. Last time I checked, bloggers and twitterers aren't earning as much money.

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