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December 23, 2014

#PoliticsAndThePress

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Away from the extremes

By Marcelo J. García
For The Herald

One gap widening in Argentina is the one that separates the language of many of the country’s leaders from reality. The union walkout on Thursday was the latest example: the strike was grey; the language around it either black or white.

In between the government’s claim that 75 percent of the country’s working masses did not adhere to the stoppage and the unionists call that 80 percent of the workers voluntarily decided to stay home, the vast majority of Argentines found themselves stuck in a more complex reality, which subverted their daily routines but not as much as they feared it would.

Extremism does not fancy moderate outcomes. Most political words voiced in Argentina these days lean toward the extremes, even though the moderates are the ones who, if opinion polls are to be trusted, make the greater gains among the public. It has been one of the big merits (or flaws) of the Kirchner era: to force supporters and opponents alike to the corner, gloves on, ready to fight.

During the years the government waged a war on the media, it has been commonplace to debate whether journalists pushed the politicos to the borders or the other way around. The truth is that another gap in our era is the one that separates journalism outlets from the journalists who work in them and who do not always want to get carried away to any fringes.

Since public life includes social media, journalists have gained an entirely new boost for their careers. While for the vast majority of the people you read on newspapers or listen to on TV and radio, this shift still does not mean enough money to make ends meet, the journos can now target their own audiences directly via social media channels like Twitter or Facebook. This is a win-win situation for the audiences, who can interact with figures that were until not long ago kept in the dark inside their newsroom cages. But it has also prompted an ego clash between the newsrooms as institutions and the journalists as individuals.

A case reported this week took this clash to (yes!) an extreme.

India’s largest media conglomerate Bennett Coleman & Co (BCCL), publisher of The Times of India drafted new guidelines asking its journalists to convert their personal social media accounts into corporate accounts and hand over passwords to their employer so that “news and other materials” could be posted on them. The Times of India (@timesofindia) is one of the world’s largest-selling English-language newspapers.

The story was broken by the digital publication Quartz (@qz), whose India editor Sruthijith (@sruthijith) published a document distributed internally by the company with the new “bizarre” rules, which included reporting any personal accounts journalists may have, a strong recommendation to drop them and the announcement that the company would open accounts in each journalist’s name and have log-in credentials to post stuff there.

“If needed, Company may request access Password(s), for the Company User Account, which shall be used by you on behalf of the Company to make posts. Company retains administration rights of the Company User Account, which shall be made accessible to the Company on demand for fulfilling any statutory obligations/compliance of laws/or otherwise. It is understood that sharing of such details of the Company User Account shall be an integral part of your contract with the Company and shall be disclosed and shared with the Company at any time,” reads the guideline, as reported by Quartz. It goes on, “The Company may upload news or other material on the Company User Account through any means, including automated upload streams, at its sole discretion, during your Contract with the Company” (emphasis added).

Most of the mainstream Western news organizations have drafted guidance for their staff’s use of social media over the last few years, acknowledging that there is an innate tension between people’s personal public profiles as de facto representatives of the organization and the outlet’s own goals. In most cases, however, these instructions have been presented as best practice tips rather than mandatory axioms that could jeopardize individual freedom.

The Associated Press, for instance, requested journalists to identify themselves as AP staffers in their profiles if they are using their accounts for work. The US’ National Public Radio (NPR) urges its journalists to be impartial online just as they are offline and “Refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online.” At the Guardian, they encouraged their journalists to, “be careful about blurring fact and opinion and consider carefully how your words could be (mis)interpreted or (mis)represented.” Reuters calls on its journalists to keep “open-minded and with enlightened skepticism” even in the social networks’ “short forms.”

It is ultimately a question of, as the BBC’s manual puts its, “not doing anything stupid” when handling profiles, which applies both to individuals and corporations. The Columbia Journalism School’s own rules for the use of social media in academia puts it bluntly, “What’s common sense in real life is common sense in social media.” A nicer form of saying that it is better to avoid all extremes.

@mjotagarcia

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