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Social Media And The Not-So-New Rules Of The Road

Feb 24, 2012

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Mark Stencel

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NPR's newly issued and updated ethics guidelines have a lot to say about being a journalist in the era of Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and any number of other social media channels that our staff uses every day.

But less seems to have changed over the past couple of decades than you might expect. National correspondent Pam Fessler recently unearthed a one-page "netiquette" guide handed out to NPR staff in 1994, when the company first offered most employees at-work Internet access. The handout appears to be from an hourlong introduction to this new communication tool called email.

The document lists nine common-sense tips, SUCH AS NOT TYPING IN UPPERCASE. A few other points that stand the test of time:

"Be brief."

"Be careful with humor and sarcasm."

"Don't overreact to spelling errors."

The most relevant items in the 1994 guide, especially for employees at a national news organization like this one, are the first two on the page:

"Be careful what you say."

"Your message reflects upon you and NPR."

Those clear simple statements come remarkably close to summarizing what we advised our staff 15 years later, in 2009, when NPR issued its first guidelines for another new form of digital communication — social media. And the two-part message in both documents echo throughout the updated guidelines that NPR just released: Take advantage of these powerful resources to do your work, but don't forget that you represent our organization, especially if you are an editorial employee.

Sharing and social media have become deeply embedded in how NPR does business. These channels are among the ways our journalists cover their beats, cultivate sources and communicate with listeners and readers. They are vital listening posts that help us monitor events around the globe — from Haiti to Homs. Social media conveys our news coverage and our cultural coverage and helps promote our work and our mission. And, most recently, social media has become a recruiting tool for new employees — for us as well as other friends across public media.

In fact, social media is now fully woven into our new ethics guidelines precisely because it is so woven into how NPR operates and communicates, both as a newsroom and as a media company. (You also can read a summary and standalone compilation of the guidelines that specifically relate to social media, if that's the part that's most of interest.)

We tried to avoid being overly prescriptive about disclaimers or RT'ing policies for Twitter and the like. Instead we trust our journalists to be journalists, and to identify themselves as such when they use social media for reporting purposes. And we emphasize that our guidelines are a "living document," intended to evolve along with the technology. And the technology has already evolved quickly.

The overall message to our editorial staff is unchanged: Social media services offer powerful ways to do our work and extend the reach of our journalism. As in all aspects of our lives, we need to conduct ourselves online as journalists and remember that what we say and how we act will reflect on NPR.

Oh, and be brief, be careful with humor and sarcasm and don't overreact to spelling errorrs.

Mark Stencel is NPR's managing editor for digital news. He welcomes your feedback in the comments with this article or on Twitter: @markstencel

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