When it comes to journos, what’s fair on Facebook?

When the Toronto Star‘s new social media policy leaked, many journalists were tempted to brand it with a fail stamp. Not so fast, says Star public editor Kathy English.

In her April 8th column English asks, “What’s fair on Facebook?” While answering that question English reminds journalists and readers the Star (and other papers) have “long-held principles regarding impartiality and avoidance of conflicts of interest.”

This is, presumably, the same point Star executive editor Murdoch Davis makes in the now infamous staff memo: “The gist is that our overall standards of fairness, balance and impartiality apply on social media.” Any partisan postings or tweets “could be construed by readers as evidence that the Star’s news coverage is biased.”

To English, this makes sense. She writes that a journalist’s offline ethics shouldn’t change once the journalist enters the online world:

“These policies are aligned with journalistic values and the Star’s principles and policies. Just as I wouldn’t expect Star journalists to post signs on their front lawns announcing who they support in the May 2 federal election, I don’t think they should post information through social media expressing support or dissent to a political candidate or party.”

While some journalists certainly agree with English, others believe policies limiting journalists on social media are about as modern as Donald Trump’s hair.

Mathew Ingram discussed the Star‘s move on GigaOM (where you can also view the full memo). Ingram takes particular issue with the Star‘s assertion that “journalists should refrain from debating issues within the Star’s online comments forum to avoid any suggestion that they may be biased in their reporting.”

He writes:

“The Star is not the only media outlet making these kinds of errors — while they are happy to use social media to push their content, most major newspapers have failed to take advantage of these tools when it comes to building relationships with their readers …

“But the main point being missed is that social media is powerful precisely because it is personal. If you remove the personal aspect, all you have is a glorified news release wire or RSS feed. The best way to make social media work is to allow reporters and editors to be themselves, to be human, and to engage with readers through Twitter and Facebook and comments and blogs. Is there a risk that someone might say something wrong? Of course there is. But without that human touch, there is no point in doing it at all.”

Of course, as Ingram points out, the Star isn’t the only paper concerned about keeping up objectivity, or at least the appearance of objectivity.

The New York Times executive editor Bill Keller recently wrote an editorial about the importance of impartiality — and the pressure currently put on journalists to ditch the veil:

“As partisan ‘news’ sites have proliferated and the country has grown more polarized, there is sometimes pressure on journalists to abandon the effort to be impartial, to openly take a side and to write accordingly. Some of our critics insist that objectivity is unattainable — or boring — so why try? To me that is like saying that because much of our children’s future is ordained by genetics, we should abandon the effort to be good parents. Impartial journalism, like child-rearing, is an aspiration, but it is a worthy one.

“And unlike your children, a newspaper affords you the chance to start over, and this time get it right.”