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Last week National Public Radio joined ranks with the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and others by issuing social media guidelines. Like their print counterparts, NPR’s guidelines have raised some concerns, but by most accounts, the not-for-profit radio network seems to have provided enough ethical guidance without hindering the potential benefits of new media.

Issued on October 15, 2009, the NPR News Media Social Guidelines apply to “all NPR journalists, officers, and selected other staff.” Bill Lichtenstein, writing for the Huffington Post, quoted pieces of an email from NPR president and CEO Vivian Schiller to staff, which implied that everyone at the organization should take note of the new policy. For staff who work in departments that aren’t specifically named in the guidelines, “even if you fall outside those boundaries,” Lichtenstein quoted Schiller’s email as saying, “you’d be smart to review the guidelines and follow them. NPR is first and foremost a news organization, which means staffers from Finance to Facilities represent the face of NPR’s journalistic integrity.”

The NPR guidelines begin with an over-arching clause: “First and foremost – you should do nothing that could undermine your credibility with the public, damage NPR’s standing as an impartial source of news, or otherwise jeopardize NPR’s reputation.” A bulleted list follows with suggestions like, “You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization. In other words, don’t behave any differently online than you would in any other public setting”; “Remember the same ethics rules as apply offline also apply to information gathered online”; and “Realize that social media communities have their own culture, etiquette, and norms, and be respectful of them.”

Whereas the Washington Post‘s guidelines state, “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,” NPR’s take a different tack, requesting that “If you are writing about meetings and gatherings at NPR – always ask first if the forum is on or off the record before distributing information or content about it.”

Although the content of the Post’s and NPR’s guidelines overlaps, the tones differ widely. As Michele McLellan, writing at the Knight Digital Media Center, points out, NPR’s guidelines present a more optimistic outlook for social media users, unlike the fear-inducing language of the Washington Post‘s guidelines. She highlights the phrases “Increasingly important,” and “Very valuable,” in the NPR guidelines as opposed to the key words and phrases like “hazards” and the phrase “Protect professional identity” in the opening paragraphs of the Post‘s guidelines.

Steve Buttry, the Information Content Conductor for Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who weighed in with thorough commentary when the Post‘s guidelines were first published, feels similarly hopeful about NPR’s language. He writes at his personal blog about NPR, “The message is clear and unmistakeable: These tools are important, we need to use them aggressively and wisely.”

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But what really pleases Buttry is NPR’s reliance on off-line behavior as a blueprint for new media online. “The fundamental principles of journalism ethics — seek the truth and report it; minimize harm; act indepently; be accountable — are not tied to technology or platform. The NPR guidelines say loudly and clearly that NPR journalists should practice good journalism ethics in social media, just as they do elsewhere.”

While Buttry says he sees some flaws in the NPR guidelines, he doesn’t go into detail (though if we were to guess based on his prior coverage, he’ll have a thoughtful follow-up with suggested improvements soon). But Lichtenstein at Huffington Post does.

Without naming names, Lichtenstein says some of the NPR guidelines have “left staff members puzzled and unhappy about the network’s reach into their personal self-expression are.” He enumerates three points, the rule that staff “must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog) to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on”; the guideline stating that, “Your simple participation in some online groups could be seen to indicate that you endorse their views. Consider whether you can accomplish your purposes by just observing a group’s activity, rather than becoming a member. If you do join, be clear that you’ve done so to seek information or story ideas. And if you “friend” or join a group representing one side of an issue, do so for a group representing the competing viewpoint, when reasonable to do so.”; and “You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization.”

He says the guidelines are “skittish, and appear to demonstrate a modest naïveté about how people are actually using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter” — quite the opposite of Buttry who complimented NPR because he felt the policy showed input from those who understand the way social media works.

Lichtenstein seems to hold the New York Times guidelines, which were issued last January and take shape in a much looser format, as the standard to which other social media guidelines should be measured. He thinks the Times “has voiced what seems like a more measured and insightful position with regard to the use of social media by the newspaper’s staff, with guidelines that include practical advice about using social media sites as part of the reporting process and detailed specifics regarding personal and professional conduct on-line.”

But this isn’t a battle for best guidelines, it’s a competition to see who will be able to adapt and survive in the new media terrain. The guidelines are merely the opening paces; it will take much longer to see who comes out with their journalistic integrity intact.

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NPR Joins the Pack of Media Outlets Issuing Social Media Guidelines

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