The Guardian’s report on plans by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the UK’s mainstream print-media regulator, to include tweets made by journalists in its regulatory remit shouldn’t be a surprise to any observer of the contemporary and rapidly-evolving media landscape.
As the Guardian reports, the PCC thinks some tweets by journalists would be considered as part of a newspaper’s editorial content and, therefore, subject to existing regulation covering such content. It wants media companies to differentiate a reporter’s "official" tweets and those that are personal comments, and develop policies to help everyone understand what the rules are when using social channels like Twitter
It’s a good idea if it helps to make clear what is editorial and reporting and what is personal opinion. The best example I know of a media organization setting out such policies is the BBC with its comprehensive and continuously-evolving Editorial Guidelines website, which includes specific guidance for journalists (and others, such as editors and programme producers) on usage of Twitter.
For example, in the section on Social Networking, Microblogs and other Third Party Websites: BBC Use:
[…] You may wish to consider forwarding or "retweeting" a selection of a person’s microblog entries/posts or "tweets". This is very unlikely to be a problem when you are "retweeting" a colleague’s BBC "tweet" or a BBC headline. But in some cases, you will need to consider the risk that "retweeting" of third party content by the BBC may appear to be an endorsement of the original author’s point of view.
It may not be enough to write on your BBC microblog’s biography page that "retweeting" does not signify endorsement, particularly if the views expressed are about politics or a matter of controversial public policy. Instead you should consider adding your own comment to the "tweet" you have selected, making it clear why you are forwarding it and where you are speaking in your own voice and where you are quoting someone else’s.
The BBC also has a specific policy on personal use of social networking and other third party websites including blogs, microblogs and personal web-space. As the Guardian notes in its report, journalists like the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones already maintain multiple accounts in an effort to preserve professional and personal distinctions.
Whatever type of organization you are, media or otherwise, developing clear policies and guidelines about employee use of social tools like Twitter, then communicating them to your employees and helping them understand the rules of the game, make good business sense.
And a good place to get inspired for your organization is to take a look at the BBC’s example.
Reporter and newspaper Twitter feeds are expected to brought under the regulation of the Press Complaints Commission later this year, the first time the body has sought to consolidate social media messages under its remit.
The PCC believes that some postings on Twitter are, in effect part of a “newspaper’s editorial product”, writings that its code of practice would otherwise cover if the same text appeared in print or on a newspaper website.
A change in the code would circumvent a loophole that – in theory – means that there is no form of redress via the PCC if somebody wanted to complain about an alleged inaccuracy in a statement that was tweeted. Last year the PCC found it was unable to rule in a complaint made against tweets published by the Brighton Argus.
Its plan, though, is to distinguish between journalists’ public and private tweets. Any Twitter feed that has the name of the newspaper and is clearly an official feed – such as @telegraphnews or @thesun_bizarre – will almost certainly be regulated.
However, that principle could be further extended to cover a reporter’s “official” work account, whilst leaving personal accounts that discuss conversations over breakfast and weekend exploits as outside its ambit. Some journalists – such as the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones – already maintain multiple accounts in an effort to preserve professional and personal distinctions.
The PCC wants each newspaper to develop a “Twitter policy”, to tell its reporters which accounts are considered part of its editorial product and which are not. But with many newspapers, including the Guardian, republishing tweets on their site, many journalist musings are likely to be drawn in.
An online working group of the PCC has already recommended that the body undertake a “remit extension”, the formal mechanism by which the self-regulatory body takes on a new area of responsibility, after consulting with the newspaper industry as to how Twitter regulation can be implemented. That consultation is due to finish in the summer and the new rules are likely to be in place by the end of the year.
Publication on Twitter is already subject to libel laws and court orders – the internet, of course, does not exist in a legal vacuum. Last week, for example, journalists at the Guardian were reminded that tweets that hinted at the identity of individuals covered by injunctions would be a breach of the injunction itself.
In February the PCC ruled that information posted on Twitter should be considered public and publishable by newspapers after it cleared the Daily Mail and Independent on Sunday of breaching privacy guidelines.
Both newspapers had reported on tweets posted by Sarah Baskerville, a Department for Transport employee, in November last year. Baskerville, who had around 700 Twitter followers at the time, described a course leader as “mental” and posted links to tweets attacking government “spin” and Whitehall waste.
Baskerville complained to the press regulator, arguing that she could have a “reasonable expectation” of privacy and that the reporting was misleading. The Daily Mail and Independent on Sunday argued that the messages were public and could be read by anyone.
The PCC decided in favour of the newspapers, in what is the regulator’s first ruling on the republication of information posted on Twitter.
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