How local television newsrooms’ social media policies are evolving

The study “Social Media Policies in U.S. Television Newsrooms: Changes over Time” by Anthony C. Adornato and Allison Frisch from Ithaca College looked at the ways in which way newsroom social media policies evolve in four areas.

The four areas were 1) journalists’ professional

and personal social media activities, 2) social media sources and content, 3) audience complaints, and 4) ownership of on-air talents’ accounts.

Social media policies, or SMPs, address how social media impacts gatekeeping and agenda-setting, and objectivity, bias and transparency in newsrooms. A previous study reveals that nearly all newsrooms have SMPs. They typically address how to appropriately use social media accounts and so on. 

In this study, two U.S. online surveys were conducted, in 2014 and 2020. The sample for the first study consisted of 526 news directors, while the sample for the 2020 study consisted of 512 news directors. In the latter study, a prenotification email was sent to the directors and in both cases, reminders were sent to increase the response rate. 

The surveys contained questions on all the four areas. The total number of participants for the 2014 study ended up being 126, and 110 for the 2020 study. The results revealed that 95% (2014) and 96% (2020) of the newsrooms had SMPs.

When it comes to the first area, professional media activities, the study revealed that nearly all had guidelines for the use of professional accounts (90% in 2014, 96% in 2020). For the use of personal accounts, there was an even more marked increase in the guidelines: 71% had such guidelines initially compared to 79% in 2020.

There were seven items on the questionnaire related to online conduct. Nearly all of the SMPs had guidelines on sharing of personal opinions on professional accounts ( 95% in 2014 and 99% in 2020). An increase in other elements was noted: sharing of political affiliation went from 70% in 2014 to 98% in 2020; advocating on behalf of issue/agenda went from 83% (2014) to 97%, among others.

The SMPs made little distinction between what is appropriate on the professional accounts and personal accounts. The data regarding maintaining a personal account versus a professional did not change between the studies significantly. 

When it comes to the second area, sources and content, there was a noted increase on allowing the “friending” of sources between 2014 (41%) and 2020 (60%). Though some still discourage the practice, less than 1% of stations said it was not allowed. In content, there were no guidelines on verification in 30% (2014) and 26% (2020). aA significant increase,  45% in 2014 to 77% in 2020, said they were required to ask permission before publishing an user’s photo or video.

For the third area, audience complaints, there was a decrease on whether the reporters are allowed to respond to complaints (19% in 2014, and 7% in 2020). Very few (4%) stations had no policy on the issue, and for nearly a half it depended on the complaint type. 

On ownership, it is an increasing policy for the stations to own the accounts of on-air talent (66% in 2014, 70% in 2020). On the question, only on the 2020 study,  on whether the leaving reporters are allowed to take their accounts with them if owned by the station, a plurality (43%)  selected no, 37% yes, and 20% “it depends”. There were also other further questions on the 2020 version. 

Although nearly all of the newsrooms had SMPs, a surprising amount had unwritten ones – 17% in 2014 and 22% in 2020. A majority of them (72%) had been revised in six years. SMPs are still a top-down exercise in most cases, with managers drafting the guidelines and only 30% (2014) and 26% (2020) asking for input from staff members. The authors note that this process should be evaluated more. 

They also comment on the conundrum that staff members are expected to humanize themselves on personal accounts, yet the guidelines which differ little from professional accounts leave little room to do so. 

The entire topic requires more empirical study particularly when it comes to journalistic autonomy and journalistic capital. The authors suggest that further studies could focus on how journalists from marginalized communities are allowed to share their lived experiences on social media under the SMPs.

The article  “Social Media Policies in U.S. Television Newsrooms: Changes over Time” by Anthony C. Adornato and Allison Frisch is in Electronic News. (open access).

Picture: untitled by Adem AY @ademay

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