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Following Roland Martin Suspension and Sky News Rules, A Look at Social Media Policies in Cable News

A pair of social media stories made news this week, and they raise questions about how TV news outlets should–and do–handle social media.

First was CNN contributor Roland Martin and his ill-advised Super Bowl tweets, which ended up getting him suspended from the channel.

Then Sky News and BBC News in the U.K. released social media policies that forbid reporters from breaking news on Twitter, and in the case of Sky, actually forbid reporters from tweeting about anything other than their beats and from retweeting anyone that didn’t work at Sky. Mind you, the rules applied to personal Twitter accounts, not just official Sky News accounts.

We reached out to the three cable news channels to see what their social media policies were.

Fox News says that the network does not have a formal policy per se, but rather generally encourages staffers to use social media in a constructive way. Tools and best practices are explained to talent and staff, and they are encouraged to promote their work, and the work of others. The only real “rule” is a reminder that on social media staffers are ambassadors to the brand, and should treat it as they would any other journalistic medium.

MSNBC uses the NBC News social media policy (you can read it here). The NBC rules are very similar to FNC, in that they are hardly severe. The guidelines advise staffers to check out links before tweeting, and to avoid taking positions on “controversial or political” issues, without getting permission first. They can tweet information about upcoming NBC stories, provided they get permission from their supervising producer.

Similar rules apply to personal accounts.

CNN did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but its social media policy was posted after Octavia Nasr was fired in 2010 for tweets of her own. CNN’s policy is a bit more wide-reaching than NBC’s covering not just controversial or political issues, but “any issues, people or organizations” the network may report on.

Commentators that have been hired to give their opinions have a little more leeway in what they say.

Clearly, no cable news channel has a social media policy as draconian as the one Sky News proposed, but all of them are vague enough to possibly ensnare a well-meaning staffer–or a free-tweeting analyst.

Social media is evolving so rapidly that news organizations should take care to monitor it closely, and evolve their guidelines accordingly. That said, rules like the ones Sky News put forth are clearly not to the benefit of viewers or users, only to the organization itself. As has been proven during the “Arab Spring,” Twitter and other social media platforms can be journalistic platforms on their own. Care should be taken for accuracy, but trying to put the genie in the bottle and keep the news off of those platforms until convenient is not a lasting solution.

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