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Practices vary on newsroom Facebook use

Over the past month or so, I’ve gotten a few emails from readers who said they sent me a “friend request” on Facebook and wondered why I hadn’t accepted it. Two of them pointed out that they are already Facebook friends with a few other Eagle newsroom staffers, and they weren’t sure why there were differences among Eagle news staff in the connections they make on social media networks.

So let me talk a little bit about our social media guidelines as a newsroom, and mine individually.

Earlier this week, the newsroom staff had a great lunchtime discussion about how our personal and professional lives intersect on social media networks. We updated the newsroom’s ethics policy over the summer and added a social media section for the first time, and one thing is already clear — it needs to be more specific to give our staff more guidance in how to use networks like Facebook, Twitter or MySpace without compromising our credibility as a journalists (and, by extension, The Eagle’s).

Earlier this month, Mashable.com quoted a study in which more than half of employers surveyed block social media sites on work computers. At The Eagle, I believe that connecting to these networks, especially within our community, is an increasingly important part of our job. I encourage our staff to be engaged in digital community conversations as part of their job. And to do it with the same sound ethical guidelines we’ve adhered to in the print business for many decades.

The use of social media is evolving so rapidly, though, that stories are abundant of people who have harmed their careers and their employers’ reputations by exercising poor judgment in Tweets, blog posts or Facebook updates. Being a news organization just adds an extra few layers of complication, and we don’t yet have all the answers on how to handle every situation that can arise. Our guidelines and practices will change as we make mistakes, or discover ethical dilemmas we hadn’t anticipated.

In our discussion last week, I told our staff that I won’t issue rules on who they should or should not invite or accept as Facebook friends. Common sense should guide decisions for journalists who use Facebook as a mix of personal friends/family and professional connections. It’s common for journalists to have professional acquaintances connected to them on Facebook. I view it as a great compliment to our staff that readers and sources in the community want to have connections to our staff on social networks — they see our writers, editors, visual journalists, etc., as approachable, or they wouldn’t want to connect to them.

Some of us are, frankly, unsure how far to go in opening the doors of our Facebook pages. We’re figuring it out as we go, and, at least for me, practices change over time as use of the social network grows. It’s not that there are hoards of people banging at my Facebook door by any means. And I don’t have earth-shattering posts on my Facebook page (and I don’t update it often enough — I’m working on it). But I do have family members there, and my vacation photos, and conversations with close friends.

So a month or two ago I decided that I was not going to connect with people on Facebook if I don’t know them. It’s not meant as a slight to anyone. I just consider it something of an extension of my personal space, and I want to make sure that I know who the people are who are stopping by. At the same time, I’m not willing to suggest to Eagle staff members with their practice should be. That needs to be a personal decision. I do, though, ask that they be aware of the implications of people they might accept or invite as friends, and the potential for those connections to reflect on them in their role as a journalist.

Twitter is a much more open space, in my view, and I follow people there whom I have never met in person.

We’ll be working on a more specific social media policy in the coming weeks. If you wonder what other companies — both inside and outside the media business — have established for policies, Mashable points to a great directory of policies at Social Media Governance.