Stephen J. A. Ward Goes Meta with Social Media Guidelines

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Stephen Ward, photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication, "one of the oldest journalism programs in the nation."

Last week, we wrote about National Public Radio’s recent release of social media guidelines, close on the heels of the Washington Post‘s. But these two outlets aren’t alone. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC, have also put out guidelines for staff using social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or blogs, and guidelines from other outlets will inevitably follow. Writing for (via lopper’s posterous), Stephen J.A. Ward, Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers ideas for how to think about shaping social media guidelines that will maintain a publication or broadcaster’s integrity without sacrificing the benefits of new media.

Before laying out a few guidelines of his own, Ward explains where he sees social media guidelines fitting into the larger scope of journalism ethics. “The guidelines should be applications of general ethical principles,” he writes. “The issue is not only about giving individual journalists the freedom to participate in new media…It’s about how social media should be used to contribute to responsible, democratic journalism. Guidelines should not be ad hoc “fixes” to a particular problem. We need sober, nuanced, ethical thinking that takes the long view, not emotional arguments from social media enthusiasts.”

He then lays out two principles, both of which echo values championed by Steve Buttry, to whom we’ve been referring for thoughtful, balanced prespectives regarding this topic. Ward, like Buttry, thinks that strict rules are not the way to go, as the first guideline makes clear (emphasis Ward’s):

(a)  Flexible rules that encourage new media

In this developing area of ethics, guideline writing should be experimental in spirit, viewed as a work in progress. Avoid a hectoring or absolute tone.

The second guideline for social media takes this idea further (again, emphasis Ward’s):

(b) Rules that are consistent with a plurality of ethical principles

Guidelines should be evaluated according to how well they honour or violate the principles of journalism as a whole. A common mistake is to argue from only one principle. For example, critics who reject the very idea of social media guidelines often invoke free speech rights. They don’t mention that journalism ethics also recognizes the principle of journalistic independence, which insists on the avoidance of conflicts of interests and perceived conflicts.

These two principles address head-on what irked most critics of the Washington Post’s guidelines — problems that Ward also notices in the Wall Street Journal guidelines (ironically, the WSJ didn’t release the guidelines publicly, though they can be viewed at Buttry’s blog). Of the Wall Street Journal‘s approach Ward writes, “It runs against the grain of social media and its love of collaboration and transparency.”

Ward also confronts the underlying question: Should news sources have social media guidelines? “The development of reasonable guidelines,” he writes, “should be sustained against the libertarians of the Net who reject any rules and hidebound conservatives who accept only traditional norms.”

For all of Ward’s insights, see his post here.


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Stephen J. A. Ward Goes Meta with Social Media Guidelines

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