CBC updates its journalistic standards guide

CBC provided a much-needed update to its Journalistic Standards and Practices guide Wednesday. The document includes a section on social media use for the first time, making the point that, for information-gathering, “we apply the same standards as those for any other source of newsgathering.”

There are two elements worth noting:

  1. It sets out a standard for publishing information gleaned from social media that news staff may not be able to verify. In “exceptional circumstances” governed by “timeliness or if it is in the public interest,” editorial staff may publish user-generated content such as tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos or photos. The kicker is that “we are clear with the audience about what we know.” This is an important acknowledgement that the CBC will be visible when important events emerge from social media in real-time, without compromising the news organization’s commitment to verification. It suggests that events can happen so quickly in social media that journalists sometimes need to make their process of verification public — a conclusion contained in a set of guidelines I co-authored for the Canadian Association of Journalists on “Re-Tweeting or Re-Posting Information Found In Social Media.”
  2. It makes a statement about personal use of social media, acknowledging the danger that “personal opinions on controversial subjects” can “erode the trust of our audience.” True enough. However, it states that personal social media activity must conform to the CBC’s social media principles, whose guiding rule is not to publish anything in social media that wouldn’t go on the air or the news site. This is simply too restrictive and doesn’t acknowledge how people actually use social media — especially in their personal lives. Applying the “publishing” standard to social media use has the effect of hammering down whimsy, spontaneity and experimentation, in short: personality — the key driver of “social” in social media.

Here’s the issue in a nutshell: the very first statement of social media principles declares that Twitter, Facebook or flickr “can be useful tools for gathering information, as well as disseminating it.” What about sharing, engaging and receiving feedback? “Dissemination” sounds like 20th-century broadcasting. “Gathering” sounds like “taking.”

According to Esther Enkin, executive editor of CBC News, this document took “nearly two years of work.” In some ways, the social media section feels like it was authored in 2008. It lacks practical guidelines for the kind of interacting it is encouraging its reporters to take on.

In all, there is much to admire here and Enkin’s commitment to making this a “living document” offers the promise of adapting the document as social media practices evolve.

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