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Friday, February 8, 2013
From the President

Expressing common-sense guidelines

By Sonny Albarado

"Journalists and newsrooms should seek truth and report it."

That’s the first sentence from “Guidance for Journalists on Expressing Personal Opinions,” a set of recommendations for staff members at Digital First Media.

A group of Digital First Media journalists has been working on guidelines for opinion journalism within the company, and this essay, posted in mid-December, is the second in a series of best-practices reports the committee has produced. Here’s the rest of the essay’s preamble, subheaded “Guiding values”:

Opinions are an important part of the journalism we provide for our community.

We must always seek to build trust.

Transparency helps build trust.

Journalists should avoid or disclose conflicts that may shape their reporting or opinions.


Now, compare those words with these:

Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable.

Those words, of course, are from the main headings of SPJ’s Code of Ethics, adopted in its current form in 1996, long before “social media” became a journalistic necessity and obsession.

Taking note of this similarity isn’t meant to tout SPJ’s trailblazing in the field of journalism ethics. Nor is it meant to belittle Digital First and its digital transformations editor, Steve Buttry, for reflecting the behavioral code of the nation’s oldest and largest journalism organization.

Rather, we should celebrate the universality of a set of guidelines for ethical behavior among journalists no matter where or how they practice their craft. And we should celebrate efforts to explain how we can apply those guidelines in situations that are particular to the new platforms and changing news environment in which we live.

The Digital First guidelines are meant to help that company’s employees find their way through the minefield of social media commentary as well as expressions of opinion in other forums.

But they resonate strongly in the wake of a Louisiana TV station’s firing of an African-American meteorologist at the end of November after she responded to two viewers’ comments about her on the station’s Facebook page.

The news director of Shreveport’s KTBS took the unusual step of issuing a statement defending its firing of Rhonda Lee once Richard Prince picked up the story for his Journal-isms column at the Maynard Institute. Lee, it seems, violated a station policy forbidding employees from responding to viewer complaints on the station’s Facebook pages — not once, but twice, according to KTBS news director Randy Bain.

One comment questioned her short, natural hair style, wondered whether she wore it that way because of illness and suggested she wear a wig. The other viewer questioned the station’s coverage of a charity event that the viewer thought showed bias by featuring “people of color.”

Anyone who’s read Lee’s responses knows she was exceedingly professional and declined to engage the commenters beyond defending herself and the station’s random selection of the children chosen for the charity coverage.

Lee’s defense has been that she merely commented on viewer comments, that she did not respond to a complaint, making a distinction that at least one labor lawyer found weak.

If the station had a policy against responding to viewers on social media and if Lee had been warned, the station may be legally right. But is it ethically or morally right? Especially when in Wisconsin, a TV news anchor ridiculed for her weight was encouraged by her employers to address the issue on camera in an editorial style response.

Whether journalists should be able to respond to personal attacks is a matter of hot debate these days. Personally, not responding to trolls or taking readers/viewers to task for their comments seems like good policy.

But it should be clear policy, and in today’s environment — where journalism outlets also encourage journalists to engage their audience on social media — what’s permissible and what’s not should be spelled out.

That’s why Digital First’s efforts at common-sense guidelines strike a strong chord.

Too few organizations have thought through the implications of social media platforms on their news and opinion operations. On one hand, they encourage reporters and anchors to engage with readers and viewers in conversations on social media. On the other, they punish employees when that engagement veers into territory the employer deems inappropriate.

Digital First has obviously spent a lot of energy trying to help its newsrooms thread the needle. In addition to these guidelines, it has also offered recommendations for its opinion writers and staff for engaging readers on social media.

And Buttry and company provide the guidelines while adhering to the core values of ethical journalism.

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