Are media houses infringing on journalists’ personal social presence?

Social and digital media has emerged as one of the most important mediums for journalist and media houses but in their urge to extend their presence online, media houses might be toeing the line of what is acceptable and what is not

e4m by Abhinn Shreshtha
Updated: Nov 3, 2015 8:14 AM
Are media houses infringing on journalists’ personal social presence?

Social and digital media has emerged as one of the most important mediums for journalist and media houses. Not only is it a great medium to stay in touch with the latest news and leads from around the world but it is also a way to reach directly to the readers or audiences.

With media houses, like most brands, trying to increase their presence online, over the last year or so, there has been some negative developments. For example, just recently, there was a report in an online media publication that one of the largest English language dailies in the country has asked their reporters to add the name of the publication to their Twitter handle. It was also rumored that reporters had been told that their annual performance appraisals and bonuses would be directly linked to their social media activity.

The publication in question has not confirmed or denied this report. However, two sources within the company said that this has indeed been the case. It has to be noted here that another source from outside Mumbai said that no such intimation has yet been received. This could mean that it is an initiative that is being rolled out only in Mumbai or it could just be that it has not yet rolled out in other cities.

If true, this will not be the first time that a major publication has faced public ire due to questionable social media practices. Last year, the Times found itself in the middle of such a controversy, when in August, the Group drew flak after media reports emerged that it had sent a list of social media guidelines to journalists, most controversially, asking employees to allow the company to post through their private Twitter handles.

Also read: Berserk & alarming: TOI's highly questionable social media policy for employees

Sources within the company have told us that this policy was not implemented finally, possibly because of the intense backlash the company received. Also last year, The Hindu was rumored to have asked reporters and employees to not tweet links from rival organizations through their personal account. Again, it seems that the policy was never implemented.

There are two key issues herewith all these developments over the past year----on one side it is about media publications not respecting the privacy of their employees and the second is about introducing a financial element to the equation. The idea of monetary benefits to induce employees to generate traffic is not exclusive to India. Scottish publisher Johnston Press, which runs The Scotsman, among other publications, has also introduced awards for its employees who contribute to increasing online traffic to its websites.

By itself, the idea does not seem that sinister. John Thomas, Consulting Editor at the International Business Times, admits that IBT too offers incentives to its staff to promote stories but he insists that is all voluntary. According to him, a transparent system of incentives for driving traffic will generate the interest of employees which will remove the need for arm-twisting, which he called “uncivil”.

“Employees being asked to open social media accounts with the employer's brand included in the name to promote stories is fine and it has been tried in several foreign organizations such as BBC. But asking employees to surrender their social media accounts and insisting all their media activity be for the benefit of the company, under threat of linking an employee's performance to such compliance, borders on the exploitative,” he said.

The fact that it seems some media organizations are pushing employees to increase social media activity without considering the person’s interest might actually turn out to be counterproductive, especially if there is no strategy or thinking behind it. At the end of the day, obviously, an organization cannot infringe on their employee’s privacy and we have seen earlier the kind of negative response it elicits.

This is a thought also echoed by Anant Goenka, Head (New Media) at The Indian Express. “Social media is all about being human. Giving guidelines of what not to do, is fair because that's to protect the institution. But mandating actions on social media, in my view, is useless. Because unless the journalist embraces the medium and enjoys engaging with people, chances are they won't be very successful,” he said.

He gave the example of journalists like NYT’s Nicholos Kristoff, Indian Express’ Praveen Swami and film critic Shubhra Gupta, who have amassed a strong social media following because they have embraced the medium .

“At the Express, we value opinions in our newsrooms and social media really, celebrates opinions. But we only suggest, "strongly urge" and showcase our successful social media stars. I wouldn't like to make anything mandatory. Building a good social media following is squarely in the interest of the journalist and his or her career because they take their following with them. Take on the other hand, several journalists at the express and other papers who are on social because they've been asked to -- they post links to stories and don't showcase their human side at all. It's pointless,” he further added.

"It is important to have some kind of oversight by any company over what their employees post on social media. This is just a good practice and something which any journalist or any other employee shouldn't anyway have an issue with. Having said this, it's not prudent to put too many restrictions on social media posts of employees," opined ‎Mitrajit Bhattacharya, President & Publisher at Chitralekha Group

Sanjay Mehta, Co-founder at Social Wavelength, called such incidents “knee-jerk reactions”.

“I am aware of a few that have created attractive programs for their employees, to participate and post content on social media. There are others who invest into employee training and education, and also create content banks that the employees can use, and make their presence on social media, more interesting and relevant. And then there may be others who might prefer to use a certain coercion to get their employees to participate. As businesses go through this transition phase, in time, things may get clear and some more fair policies should emerge to handle this situation,” he opined.

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