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News Media Struggle Over New Rules for Twitter

In wake of WaPo rules and Obama slips, media companies look to impose guidelines on staffers.

Ever since the first all-staff e-mail was forwarded outside of the bunker walls, media companies have scrambled to keep some semblance of control over their employees’ e-lives. 

Twitter, despite its 140 character limit, has made those walls thinner than ever.

Now news organizations across all media are looking to amend — or at the very least clarify — the rules that govern their staffers’ use of social networking tools.

The most public leak was former ABC News White House Correspondent Terry Moran's tweeting of an off-the-record comment in which President Obama, in a pre-interview chat with CNBC, called Kanye West a "jackass" for his behavior at the MTV Music Video Awards.

Within the hour, ABC News had the Tweet – and others – deleted. The network then apologized to the White House and CNBC.

But the problem has not been limited to Moran.

Raju Narisetti, managing editor at the Washington Post, shut down his Twitter account late last week after some of his tweeted opinions — on health-care reform and term limits — drew the ire of the paper’s executives as breaching required objectivity.

Though relatively “innocuous” fare as far as Twitter goes, according to the paper’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander, executive editor Marcus Brauchli fired off a memo to employees detailing the paper’s new guidelines governing Twitter use.

"Nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment,” the rules read. “Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”

The backlash from Twitterville has been, as one might expect, harsh. "Just another example of a newspaper as a clueless ostrich," one wrote.

"The Wash Post actually expects reporters to *have no opinions*? I.e., to be high-functioning idiot savants," Time magazine columnist James Poniewozik wrote on his Twitter feed. (Poniewozik followed up with a blog post entitled "The Washington Post Slaps the Twitter Handcuffs on its Staff.")

But in terms of reporting, Twitter — despite being a great tool — can circumvent the editorial process, executives say.

“There’s a thick, dark line between material that is in the process of being reported, and material that has been vetted and published,” Jeffrey Schneider, VP of public relations at ABC News, told TheWrap.

Schneider said that while there is not, to his knowledge, an actual document outlining guidelines for use of e-media at ABC, staffers understand what they are.

“Since the advent of e-mail we’ve had them,” he said, adding: “The technology has changed, but the principles are the same. “Our guidelines remain the same — it’s just getting our people to abide by them.”

But the problem has even arisen at the New York Times, where several staffers were reprimanded for Tweeting about an internal strategy meeting about the future of its website.

One of them, Brian Stelter, updated his Twitter feed like this:

"At a digital strategy meeting at the Times. News nugget: Wash Post isn't the only paper in talks w/ Google. NYT is, too. 11:13 AM May 11th from mobile web"

Later that week, according to a piece in the New York Observer, the Times’ executive editor Bill Keller addressed the issue in a staff meeting.

“It's important that we be as open as possible with one another about things going on inside the Times,” Keller said. “But the level of candor is likely to be diminished if people are Twittering fragments of the conversation to the outside world. We need a zone of trust, where people can say what's on their minds without fear of having an unscripted remark or a partially baked idea zapped into cyberspace.” (In the same meeting, though, Keller praised Stelter for helping the Times in its navigation of the new medium.)

“The Times has approached social networking sites wisely,” Stelter told me in an instant message last week. “There have been no knee-jerk reactions, no drastic policy directives. We're able to experiment, interacting with the audience and sharing our content in new ways, while knowing that we represent the Times on any platform, including Twitter.”

While, the Times hasn’t updated its guidelines for Twitter specifically, other media companies are following the Post’s lead.

ESPN, which, like ABC is owned by Disney, drew the ire of some of its employees when it issued a set of formal guidelines in August.

“The hammer just came down, tweeps: ESPN memo prohibiting tweeting info unless it serves ESPN,” Ric Bucher, one of the network’s NBA analysts, wrote to followers of his Twitter feed. “Kinda figured this was coming.”

According the network’s memo, prohibited are “personal websites and blogs that contain sports content,” and talk about internal policies, a relatively standard practice for any media company.

The rules also aim to define when and what employees are allowed to Tweet about — especially sports: “Prior to engaging in any form of social networking dealing with sports, you must receive permission from the supervisor as appointed by your department head.”

Online and magazine companies, too, are struggling with the Twitterevolution.

“We are putting the finishing touches on our policy,” said Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico.com. “In essence, Politico employees should behave no differently on Twitter than they would in any other professional setting.”

And John Byrne editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com and one of the more prolific Tweeters around, said in an e-mail to TheWrap, “We're working on guidelines but currently don't have anything in writing.”

Morevoer, he said, reporters at BusinessWeek are struggling with how to source those who Tweet.

“One ethics issue we've confronted is quoting someone in social media,” Byrne said. “We think that our reporters have an obligation to contact a person who made a comment they would like to quote to verify the source and to essentially approve the use of that person's remark on Facebook or Twitter, especially when that person is not a public figure.”

But, as some reporters have discovered this year, anyone who Tweets is a public figure.