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Reuters' social media rules stir online debate

Reuters has been taken to task for attempting to control what its staff write on the Internet and attention has been drawn to the fact that the editor-in-chief did what journalists are now told not to do: "Don't scoop the wire".

Reuters’ publication this week of new guidelines for social media like Facebook and Twitter in its Handbook of Journalism has attracted wide attention in the blogosphere.

The online magazine Salon said the guidelines suffer from many of the same problems as similar policies set last year by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

“All of these flaws boil down to one thing: A desire to control something that fundamentally can’t be controlled, and a fear of what happens when that control is lost,” it said.

Reuters’ guidelines state: “The advent of social media does not change your relationship with the company that employs you - do not use social media to embarrass or disparage Thomson Reuters. Our company’s brands are important; so, too, is your personal brand. Think carefully about how what you do reflects upon you as a professional and upon us as an employer of professionals.”

Salon commented: “The overwhelming message is that, while social media is great and useful for many things (although none of those things are ever mentioned), it is a minefield of potential dangers and even a potential threat to the company’s traditional media business…

“Right at the end of the new policy, Reuters says something that cuts to the heart of all the difficulties with social media guidelines. The policy baldly states: ‘Don’t scoop the wire.’ So I mentioned on Twitter that Reuters’ own editor-in-chief, David Schlesinger, (pictured), did exactly that when he was tweeting from Davos last year and posting about a number of newsworthy events [David Schlesinger: all a-twitter and scooping Reuters].

Schlesinger responded that “some stuff belongs on the wire first. some stuff belongs on tweets. some stuff you can’t always tell immediately.”

That phrase could just as easily be applied to all of the other potential negative outcomes that Reuters is trying to avoid with its policy, Salon said. Some things are bad to say on Twitter, and some things are not - and some stuff you can’t always tell immediately.

It added: “If you trust your writers and editors, whom you presumably hired and continue to employ because they are smart and capable, then let them use social media for what it was meant for: engaging with readers in as many ways as possible. Don’t get consumed with fear about a loss of control over them - embrace it.”

The blog Techdirt, in a commentary headed “Reuters Social Media Policy Gets It Half Right, Half Wrong”, said the rule that hard news content must be broken first via the wire doesn't really make much sense. “It also goes against what some at Reuters have successfully done. You can still ‘scoop the wire’ and then publish a full report on the wire. In fact, if you use Twitter correctly, you can build a lot more interest in the upcoming full story. 

“While there are plenty of reasonable and useful suggestions in the Reuters social media policies, some of it seems to go against what Schlesinger said last year:

“‘The old means of control don't work.

“‘The old categories don't work.

“‘The old ways of thinking won't work.

“‘We all need to come to terms with that.

“‘Fundamentally, the old media won't control news dissemination in the future. And organisations can't control access using old forms of accreditation any more.’” ■