First circulated in July, the group’s new policy was best described by one of its own reporters who wished to remain anonymous — “Whoever drafted this understands the online medium the way Donald Trump understands consent.”
The guidelines note that Times journalists should not state their political preferences, or say anything that would compromise their impartiality. The Times Group also advised its journalists to not write in a way that seeks to predict election results, match results and stock market trends. One would imagine that’s part of a journalist’s job, but not if you work for “The Grey Lady” of Indian journalism.
Neither can one “like, favour, recommend, or support comments or posts from politicians, bureaucrats, or anyone in a partisan or controversial position” or “repost or retweet updates from others that can be perceived as an implicit endorsement of a specific viewpoint or fact.”
The company has tweaked one of the controversial demands it made earlier. It still retains the right to ask its journalists for their social media login credentials and post from their handles but will now do so only after seeking their permission.
With this new policy, all social media posts of employees will be considered intellectual property owned by the employer. If an employee leaves the company, all content created by him/her on social media – tweets, Facebook posts, photos on Instagram – during his/her employment with BCCL belongs to the company.
This isn’t the first time BCCL has tried to control what its employees share on social media. In 2014, the company asked its reporters to hand over their Facebook and Twitter passwords. A year later, they linked variable pay of employees, which is 10% of their cost to company (CTC) in most cases, to the number of times they tweet.
The Times Group isn’t the only Indian media house to have laid down such rules. The Hindu, in 2014, asked its reporters not to share stories of rival publications on social media.
As restrictive as these conditions seem, a quick survey of the social media policies of international media organisations suggests a similar pattern.
Twice in 2016, once after the Orlando shooting and then right in the middle of the contentious presidential campaign, the New York Times warned its staff to avoid editorializing, endorsing candidates or otherwise promoting their own political views on social media.
National Public Radio (NPR), which warned its journalists against celebrating or complaining about the results of presidential elections on social media, has a pretty elaborate social media policywhich advises employees on what they should avoid doing on the day of election results, basic etiquette to follow while posting on the internet, how to deal with abusive trolls and much more.
NPR, which bars its employees from advocating for political or other polarising issues online, also advises its staff to ‘follow’ and ‘like’ politicians and advocacy groups from both sides of the spectrum only if their work includes coverage of politics and social issues. Interestingly, the same rules apply while using apps like Snapchat too. Content shared on Snapchat only stays up for 24 hours.
Should journalists engage with abusive trolls on social media?
While Heanue and Razdan feel that social media abuse is a serious problem and calling out trolls and reporting them is perfectly legitimate, The Quint’s Jaskirat Singh Bawa advised journalists be smart and sharp in identifying the ones who can be engaged and reasoned with instead of painting them all with one brush.
NewsLaundry’s Abhinandan Sekhri sees no harm in engaging with ‘trolls’. “In some cases it helps getting a conversation started and is a great opportunity to demonstrate your own rationality against a troll’s irrationality. In some cases it causes emotional stress and angst so then its best not to,” he said.
Prasanna Viswanathan, CEO of Swarajya, feels that the word ‘troll’ itself suffers from lack of definitional clarity and often journalists deflect genuine feedback/criticism by dismissing contrarian voices as those of the trolls.
“Don’t let the conversation get abusive. If it does, I’d suggest just back off and let it die. There’s no point in going on and on with someone who’s being decidedly abusive, because he wants to be so. It’s like hitting your head on the wall,” said Venkat Ananth, a Delhi-based journalist for a digital publication.
Heanue, who is a supporter of the maxim – ‘don’t feed the trolls’, feels that abuse shouldn’t be tolerated but it’s healthy for journalists to at least hear, if not engage with, robust debate and criticism around their work.
A Delhi-based senior editor of a national daily said that he avoids trolls by not commenting politically on social media because, “I think I lack the ability to make my point in 140 characters. Nonetheless, I still attract the odd troll or two. I generally block them if they are persistent.”
“Know that it is a brutal world out there, full of people waiting to impute bad faith onto everything you say. So if you’re going to be an incorrigible idiot, be an incorrigible idiot on our sites—not on some random social media service,” said Rohan Venkataramakrishnan quoting Gawker’s social media guidelines.
Should journalists reveal their political preference on social media?
The jury seems to be out on this one. While Sekhri feels that it is healthy for a journalist to do so and Razdan too agrees that it isn’t wrong to criticise or praise politicians or parties on individual issues, Rohan Venkataramakrishnan prefers “if political journalists are not allied to any particular party (in part because they ought to be cynical enough to know that most will disappoint you).”
Heanue too advises against it as “once you reveal a political preference you enter the realm of commentary and opinion and can no longer be taken seriously as an impartial observer and reporter.”
“Why not?” asks Viswanathan, who runs a magazine that prides itself in being ideologically right of centre. “Declarations of ideological allegiance and political predilections are morally a much better space to operate from than contrived neutrality and an attempt to mask positions. As a part of professional training, journalists, especially those engaged in reportage, should cultivate the skill of fact-led writing.”
To Akshaya Mukul, senior researcher and journalist, it does not matter if you reveal your political preference or not because others have already branded you. “We are living in bizarre times. If you oppose killings in the name of the cow or condemn the death of children in a hospital for lack of oxygen you are immediately branded a leftist or a ‘sickular’. Anyone who criticises an act of this government is called a leftist. The irony is that the political Left is in terminal decline,” he said.
The Wire‘s Devirupa Mitra belies that journalists should practice restraint and not take the bait. “However, journalists are also citizens, so I am not sure that self-censorship on all tweets which could be construed as political, is healthy or sustainable.”