To what extent should media entities regulate company and employee social media accounts?

Social media is an increasingly important tool in the world of journalism. Not only do news outlets use it as a part of their reporting, but journalists are using it to share their stories and interact with the public on a personal level, as well.

So, what exactly is the interaction between journalism and social media? The Newseum discussed this in a recent YouTube video, demonstrating how journalists are using the digital media platforms in their reporting, and some of the ethical dilemmas it possesses, specifically in the legitimacy of accounts, posts and photos/videos.

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“We are not only living on the same planet, but we are also all connected to one another.”

CEO and cofounder of Storify, Xavier Damman, discusses how social media is changing the world, and specifically the journalism industry. His powerful quote, above, discusses an ethical obligation that journalists have via social media that they don’t necessarily have when reporting on traditional media. A journalist is obligated to report the truth to its audience, and the public which, on social media, is the world – not just the immediate audience that might see a local, or national broadcast.

What new problems or ethical and legal dilemmas does social media bring to journalists?

A student at the University of Texas discusses the transition from traditional media to social media, and how the “great power” of social media comes with “great responsibility, and a great number of chances to make public error.”

NPR sums up perfectly the challenges of social media. They open their guidelines to employees with, “[The Internet and social media] also present new and unfamiliar challenges, and they tend to amplify the effects of any ethical misjudgments you might make. So tread carefully.” It’s important that journalists follow guidelines set by their organization and also general rules set for reporting and writing in general.

The RTDNA discusses why social media is important in the first place. Their guidelines say, “Social media and blogs are important elements of journalism. They narrow the distance between journalists and the public.” Ethically, journalists have an obligation to the public, to seek and report the truth.

But, with social media integrating itself into newsrooms and the hands of journalists comes a new set of ethical questions and requirements set by organizations. With the ability to post an update within seconds, journalists can report news while they’re walking down the street or live tweet an event they are attending.

What are the potential ethical and legal implications of social media?

51pj56rvrtl-_sx328_bo1204203200_In Regulating Social Media: Legal and Ethical Considerations, a chapter by Kelly Fincham titled “Toward a New Code of Ethics” discusses the potential ethical implications of social media and the ethical rules that should come out of it. “Twitter’s always-on platform, which facilitates the instant dissemination of verified and unverified information from a diverse range of sources, is potentially problematic because of that instant dissemination.” The instant nature of social media is what causes some journalists to make mistakes, but that is not, ethically or legally an excuse, for making a mistake. At the root of social media is still traditional journalism, and one should verify all information before providing it to the public as a part of their obligation to seek and report the truth to the public.

But, legally Twitter and the instantaneous nature of social media helps journalists because they can issue and allow immediate corrections. This is an ethical obligation that journalists already had, but with social media, they can make it clear that they’ve made a mistake more immediately, according to Fincham.

Are there national social media guidelines for media entities?

Due to the fact that social media is still very new, specific ethical guidelines by the Society of Professional Journalists or Public Relations Society of America have not been created. But, the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA) has discussed the importance of guidelines and published their own social media and blogging guidelines.

Due to the quick, un-retractable nature of this content, news organizations (among many other industries) are cracking down on what employees can or cannot post to their social media. In addition, upper level management at news organizations also sets social media guidelines for publishing on company accounts (i.e. @CNN@NBC@ABC). All of these policies are meant to allow an organization to maintain its brand across all platforms, as well as preventing an employee from posting something unethical, or questionable on any account – whether it be company, personal, or professional.

Does an employer have an ethical obligation to the public, as well, to regulate a journalist’s personal social media account?

The RTDNA’s social med5-legal-ethics-pitfalls-to-avoid-in-your-law-firm_s-social-media-campaignia code would say yes. It says, “As a journalist you should uphold the same professional and ethical standards of fairness, accuracy, truthfulness, transparency and independence when using social media as you do on air and on all digital news platforms.” Therefore, social media should be treated no different than on air reporting, despite its short form nature. Ethically, this means that an employer does have the responsibility to monitor and regulate an employee’s social media, to uphold the standards that they have set for their journalistic organization.

Fincham says that representatives from Twitter “advised media organizations to update their ‘existing editorial guidelines to make them relevant to social media platforms.'” But, as Fincham said, and as is proved by large organizations like PRSA and SPJ, many large organizations have failed to do so.

What are social media guidelines that do exist regulating?

From the BBC to NPR to the Washington Post – organizations are limiting things like sharing inaccurate articles, avoiding conflicts, and stating personal and political preferences.

BBC’s Social Media Guidelines

NPR’s Social Media Guidelines

The Washington Post’s Social Media Guidelines

But, does limiting an employees personal social media use limit their opinion and voice?

And, does a journalist have the right to a personal opinion when they are working for a news organization or are they limited to sharing the opinions of the organization that they represent?

The RTDNA discusses, in a very clear way why journalists need to be mindful of their personal posts. The RTDNA says, “Personal and professional lives merge online. Newsroom employees should recognize that even though their comments may seem to be in their ‘private space,’ their words become direct extensions of their news organizations.” This is why news organizations have an obligation to create guidelines for their employees to follow, ethically, to prevent their brand from being misrepresented.

Despite the need for organizations to regulate employees’ social media, it is not ethical for them to control every word, character and post that is made on personal accounts. In the tweet above, the person who posted this was fired from their job at a Toronto sports media organization for sharing his personal opinions on Twitter. This is something an employee should in no way be punished for. In Regulating Social Media: Legal and Ethical Considerations Fincham described the organization Sky News, who was said to have “draconian” views about social media. Their guidelines “banned staffers from breaking news on Twitter or retweeting anyone who did not work for Sky. The guidelines also told reporters to ‘stick to their beat’ and to refrain from tweeting about personal issues on their professional accounts.” This is a very strong, harsh approach to the ethical obligation that organizations have to regulate their employee’s social media accounts and legally goes against what exactly an employer can regulate. Clearly, according to Fincham, there is a very fine line that organizations should walk to regulate social media.

This battle of regulations for social media raises the question of whether old, more traditional policies like the SPJ code of ethics, the RTDNA’s code, and more, can properly address new media platforms like social media. Should these codes remain the same, or should they transform to encompass the ethical and legal issues that journalists may face in social media reporting? The answer is not definite, but it is likely that in the future the codes will.

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Can employers legally regulate what employees say on social media, or are these guidelines simply “guidelines”?

There are very little legal guidelines to social media in the workplace, but employment laws do cover what an employee can or cannot do.

While many journalistic organizations have not had cases regarding the social media use of employees, various other companies that also regulate or have tried to regulate what employees post, have gotten into trouble doing so.

Costco Wholesale Corporation endured a legal case for what they had listed in their social media guidelines in a section of their employment contract. In their contract they said, “Any communication transmitted, stored or displayed electronically must comply with the policies outlined in the Costco Employee Agreement. Employees should be aware that statements posted electronically (such as [to] online message boards or discussion groups) that damage the Company, defame any individual or damage any person’s reputation, or violate the policies outlined in the Costco Employee Agreement, may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment.” The company turned their guidelines on online posting, which includes social media, to a legal contract and attempted to hold employees accountable for anything negative they said about Costco. They also stated that if the employee said something wrong, they would be fired, which is what the National Labor Relations Board was reviewing. In a case against a local division of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union they found that Costco was in violation of the National Labor Relations act by stating that employees were not legally allowed to post something negative about the business without being fired.

If a company’s social media guidelines limit the opinions that employees are allowed to have, that also violates the idea of free speech and the first amendment. Employers should have guidelines for employees, ethically, but they should not legally prevent employees from posting and establishing their opinion on their personal social media accounts.

One of the most recent issues in social media employment law is whether or not an employer should have access to an employees social media account.

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What laws exist in social media regulation by an employee?

There aren’t specific social media laws, or guidelines yet, but according to an article by Lorene Park, a lawyer, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media comments can be protected under other groups like the NLRA.

“An NLRB fact sheet  explained that in 2010, the Board started receiving charges in regional offices about employer social media policies and specific instances of discipline for postings. In some cases, the agency has found that the communications were protected and that there was reasonable cause to believe an employer’s policies or disciplinary actions violated federal labor law.”

Although there aren’t laws for social media, the National Labor Relations board is hearing various cases, like the Costco case, about social media issues.

Park spoke of a case with a car dealership whose social media violated the NLRB’s policies as well. “The overbroad 2010 social media policy prohibited employees from disclosing information about employees or customers; required them to identify themselves when posting comments about the dealership; prohibited them from referring to it in a way that would negatively impact its reputation; prohibited any conduct that even had ‘the potential to have a negative effect’ on the dealership; and allowed the dealership to request access to anything they posted on social media.”

This, again, proves that employers can set guidelines for employees’ social media activity, but legally they cannot take action against an employee unless their guidelines fall in line with the NLRB. Legally, employees can go through the NLRB if they feel their employers have taken wrong action against them through their social media policies or guidelines. It is important, though, as time goes on and social media becomes its own type of reporting that employment laws specifically for social media are created and employees have something to support them.

Like the NLRB, only certain instances are covered when it comes to social media, and therefore the first amendment only applies in specific instances. Therefore it must be clearly investigated and discussed as to whether the first amendment would cover a social media post, though in most cases it would.

Overall, what are the ethical implications of a journalist having personal social media?

Firstly, a journalist’s use of social media can cause ethical implications for a news organization, despite someone adding, “opinions are my own and retweets are not endorsements” to their profile. A journalist’s words could be used against them, no matter how big or small, and this could impact an organization. If a journalist tweets something very harsh or illegal, their organization could be held accountable for it.

Despite this, some organizations like Reuters still require their journalists to add this information in their profile. They say, “In our Twitter and Facebook profiles, for example, we should identify ourselves as Reuters journalists and declare that we speak for ourselves, not for Thomson Reuters.” Legally, news organizations are attempting to do everything that they can to prevent themselves from being affected if an employee posts something controversial.

In 2015, a Washington Post journalist named Wesley Lowery began things about race, knowingly representing the outlet that people felt were inappropriate, the Washington Examiner reported. Though Lowery was not fired, or approached by upper management, many reporters are.  Many organization’s guidelines state that, yes, they do legally have the right to remove someone based on their social media posts. But, is it ethical for an employer to fire someone or approach them over what they are tweeting on a personal account?

An assistant journalism professor at George Washington University Nikki Usher, says in the Washington Examiner’s article that journalists feel pressure to give constant updates about things, because of the new age of social media. This, ethically, poses a question about whether journalists are required to constantly update their audience, even when they are not working. The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists, “should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” Regardless of the quickness of social media, the reporting should still be accurate.

Usher says, because of a journalist’s ethical obligation to their audience, to keep them updated with what is going on, “what ends up happening is it becomes really easy to let your opinions of coverage or of what’s happening slip through because you’re covering every moment, trying to be competitive, and that’s naturally going to involve some unfiltered observations.”

Ethically, social media can raise questions of whether or not the quick nature of the platforms can excuse someone for inaccuracy. The RTDNA’s code says, “Twitter’s character limits and immediacy are not excuses for inaccuracy and unfairness.” Whether on a personal or company account, social media should be edited and should endure a review process before going live, as once something is on the internet, it is very difficult to take it back.

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Should new social media guidelines be created?

Social media is growing as a crucial tool for journalists and with guidelines from organizations like SPJ and PRSA not tailoring to social media, new guidelines are necessary for both legal and ethical concerns that journalists may encounter.

What are the overall takeaways?

Social media guidelines and regulations have both ethical and legal implications and, while they are highly necessary, they pose serious conflict. There is a stark conflict between journalists needing guidelines, but employers not being allowed to regulate everything that they do, because it would violate many labor laws. Ethically, employers cannot regulate free speech, but legally employees need some limits to what they can post so that they don’t release confidential information or information before their place of employment can publish it (in the case of a media entity). But, these ethical and legal aspects conflict and until they can work together, it will be nearly impossible to create successful, appropriate social media guidelines.

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