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Services like Facebook and Twitter are changing the ways we locate and share important news and information, and they have proven to be valuable additions to the field of journalism.

Yet their rise has created some thorny ethical questions for reporters and news organizations.

The New York Times' assistant managing editor, Craig Whitney, who is responsible for overseeing The Times' journalistic standards, issued policies for New York Times reporters dealing with their use of social networks. They make for an interesting read.

Whitney notes that these services "can be remarkably useful reporting tools" but also recognizes that their use can potentially throw the impartiality and credibility of reports, and the impartiality and credibility of the organization as a whole, into question.

Thus, the New York Times' policies are meant to head off any behavior that might cast doubt on what The Times publishes.

The rules:

  • Don't specify your political views. This includes joining online groups that would make your political views known.
  • Don't write anything you wouldn't write in The Times on your profiles, a blog or as commentary on content you share.
  • Be careful who you 'friend'. Since this is a tricky subject, The Times suggests that its reports "imagine whether public disclosure of a 'friend' could somehow turn out to be an embarrassment that casts doubt on our impartiality."
  • Using email addresses found on social networks to contact individuals is fine but the standard rules apply: treat the person fairly and openly and don't "inquire pointlessly into someone's personal life."
  • The Standards Editor must be consulted before contact is made with a minor.

Needless to say, these policies are quite stringent. That doesn't mean they don't make sense for The New York Times but asking reporters to hide his or her views is also difficult because everyone has opinions, affiliations and preferences. It's difficult to be vigilant about every single piece of personal content one posts or every single person who becomes a 'friend' on a social network. Given this, it would be interesting to see how well reporters can adhere to these policies.

But I do think that The Times' decision to publish official policies brings up a good question: should your company develop its own policies about employee social network use?

Have you considered how your employees' use of social networks might reflect on your company's image? Have you made them aware of the possibility? Have you provided any guidelines to them on the matter?

If not, you might want to. While there's a fine line to walk between protecting your company's image and asking your employees to refrain from activity that you have no right to control, the recent Belkin incident demonstrates that employees have more influence on the image of the companies they work for than ever before. And with social media and online PR being so important these days, that trend is likely to continue.

While The New York Times' policies are probably overkill for most companies, having some policies in place, or at least considering them, is probably a worthwhile thing.

Patricio Robles

Published 22 January, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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