To post or not to post: How should journalists navigate social media policies?

And what happens when the rules are selectively applied?

ByAkanksha Kumar
To post or not to post: How should journalists navigate social media policies?
Shambhavi Thakur
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At around 2 pm on July 16, reports began trickling in about the killing of Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui in Afghanistan. Among the condolences on social media were celebrations by right-wing trolls, since Siddiqui’s coverage had been critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Shyam Meera Singh, a sub-editor with Aaj Tak’s digital team, also took to Twitter that day, to call out “Sanghis” for their reactions.

Singh returned to Twitter about five hours later, this time to call prime minister Narendra Modi “shameless” for not saying “one word” in tribute to Siddiqui.

Two days later, Aaj Tak terminated Singh with immediate effect. In a letter, a screenshot of which Singh posted on Twitter, the India Today Group Digital's HR business partner Vanchha Garg cited the India Today Group's policies on social media and code of conduct "which specifically advise to use social media for news that has been published or aired by the system and not for personal views".

In an official statement, the India Today Group’s corporate communications desk told Newslaundry that the reason for Singh’s termination was “a repeat violation of the social media policy of the Group on two accounts”.

Singh himself had told Newslaundry that he did not blame Aaj Tak for losing his job, he blamed the government. “ I blame it on them because it could not create a safe environment for journalists who could question them and call them 'shameless'.”

Later, he told this reporter that he had been aware of the company’s social media guidelines, since it had been made “mandatory to sign” in order to get a job. But, he pointed out, his Twitter bio had the disclaimer that his views were personal. “Making someone sign on such papers is unconstitutional as this amounts to breach of my right to freedom of speech,” he said.

The India Today Group isn’t the only media house in India to have strict social media policies outlined in their employee contracts. A host of others – including Hindustan Times, Times of India, NDTV, Republic, etc. – have them as well, often mandating that employees use their social media handles only to disseminate news published by their organisations. It’s also not an Indian phenomenon; several international publications, from the New York Times to BBC, have guidelines outlining the dos and don’ts for employees while expressing an opinion on social media platforms.

The issue, of course, is when the guidelines are selective.

In February 2018, Angshukanta Chakraborty was fired from her position as political editor of DailyO, which is owned by the India Today Group, for calling out “promoters” who turn a “blind eye” to journalists spreading hate or fake news.

Chakraborty had refused to delete her tweet, telling Scroll at the time: “I decided I won’t resign, and I should not own up to any guilt, I don’t think I’m guilty. So I said that termination is the only way out. And so they gave me a letter of termination.”

She also said her tweet hadn’t violated the company’s social media policy. Importantly, Chakraborty’s tweet wasn’t entirely wrong. There are several instances of journalists with the India Today Group sharing fake news or communalising issues (see here, here, here and here). This has happened across newsrooms too: see here, here and here.

In all these cases, the journalists or those in the social media team tweeting fake news in question were not pulled up by their parent organisations. By and large, there’s a tendency for backlash to be directed against journalists whose social media posts are critical of governments, particularly the BJP government at the centre.

Social media policies in newsrooms

In the case of the India Today Group, the management emailed all employees on January 3, 2018 regarding the organisation’s social media policy. While reiterating that the group reposes “full trust that our influencers will never cross the line”, the email said editorial employees “must not use their positions to promote personal agendas or causes – implicitly or explicitly”.

The email continued: “Nor should they allow their internet activities to undermine the impartiality of the India Today Group’s coverage, in fact, intent, or in appearance.”

On February 2 this year, the group’s HR team sent another email with the subject line “Social media reminder” to all the employees. The email flagged concerns about disciplinary actions taken by the group over violations of its social media policy being made public.

“Internal disciplinary procedures make us a more responsible media house that uses its influence, even on social platforms, with valuable tenets of journalism,” the email said.

While applauding “the balance and restraint” shown by employees in “tweeting, retweeting, likes, etc”, the email said, “There have been instances of undesirable controversies being courted by individuals. Depending on the transgression, a review was done. Disciplinary feedback was given and appropriate course corrections were made.”

But what was this “transgression”? Five days before the email was sent, India Today had decided to take its consulting editor Rajdeep Sardesai off the air for two weeks after he incorrectly reported that a farmer had “died of police firing” on Republic Day. Sardesai was also docked one month’s salary.

“There were two reasons behind sending this email. One was to address the elephant in the room, that is, respond to criticism regarding action taken against Sardesai. Second, it aimed to send out a certain message to the government,” said an employee who asked not to be named. The employee pointed to reportage by Caravan and the Wire claiming the farmer who died on January 26 had sustained bullet injuries. Both Caravan and the Wire were later named in FIRs by the Delhi police and the UP police.

On 3 June, employees of the India Today group received another mail from the office of vice chairperson Kalli Purie. “This mail was sent around the time when Twitter Spaces was exploding,” the employee recalled, “and it reiterated that the social media policy is equally applicable to Twitter Spaces”.

At Hindustan Times, employees received an email from editor-in-chief Sukumar Ranganathan in 2018 outlining the organisation’s social media policy which was “based almost entirely” on the social media policy put in place at its sister concern, Mint.

According to the email, beat reporters “should never indicate a political or corporate allegiance on social networking sites”. While journalists were encouraged to use social media to amplify their work and engage with readers, the email cautioned that their “social media utterances should reflect the fairness, honesty and accuracy that characterises the newsroom’s work”.

“All personal accounts should be tagged as such – with the usual disclosure about the views not being representative of the newsroom’s,” the email continued. “But irrespective of whether you mention your affiliation to HT or not, most of you are reasonably well known and your comments will anyway be seen as those of a HT journalist. Do not compromise your professional credibility with your social media utterances.”

A former employee of Hindustan Times told Newslaundry that she was suspended for allegedly violating the policy after she was trolled online for posting a misconstrued tweet. She had apologised but the suspension stood.

At Republic TV, there was no social media policy as part of employee contracts until the channel was pulled up for its coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June 2020. Soon after, the human resources team sent employees a 30-page document which included a social media clause.

The clause said employees “shall not, either expressly or impliedly, make or repost comments, which are false, libellous, slanderous, defamatory or disparaging, which in the opinion of the Company damages, harms or brings into disrepute, the Company or the Company’s goodwill, business, brand, policies or services.”

A former employee told Newslaundry that she knew of at least one person who was summoned by management and warned over her social media post that made a reference to “bhakts”.

The Times of India has had a social media policy in place for several years. In 2014, employees of its parent group BCCL were told to convert their Twitter and Facebook accounts into company accounts. The following year, employees were told the variable component of their pay would be linked to their Twitter activity. In 2017, employees with personal and professional social media accounts were instructed to tweet their stories only from their professional IDs.

Not much has changed since then. In 2020, employees were sent an advisory asking them to make sure not to post errors on social media. “We live in times where everything we do gets amplified within minutes and if we make a mistake, it gets amplified within seconds,” read the email from Rajesh Kalra, then the head of Times Internet. “And once that happens, we get attacked, trolled from all possible sides.”

“There is a fear for sure and one feels pressured,” said a Zee employee who was also asked by his bosses to delete a tweet. “There is no well-defined social media policy as part of our contract. But in today’s world you have to take sides, be it left or right. And everytime I write against the government, either I’m tagged or my organization is tagged by trolls. So it’s problematic.”

In October 2020, the employees of the Print received an email from their managing editor YP Rajesh. A former employee who didn’t want to be named told Newslaundry, “It was a generic note on how one should refrain from sharing opinion on certain subjects especially if one is covering it as part of their beat. There is a thin line that does call for some sort of balance for sure. But if it’s backed by facts then that shouldn’t be a problem. As a journalist, we witness so much that in 2021, if I can’t speak about hate crimes then that’s too bad. That’s a call one has to take between being neutral versus objective.”

Foreign newsrooms

But media organisations coming up with their versions of social media policies is not a phenomenon restricted only to India. Globally, media outfits have devised their own policies mandating employees to exert caution while posting.

And from the New York Times to the Washington Post, there have been instances in the past with employees facing demotions or suspensions following social media posts that were termed as “serious lapses of judgement”.

The NPR, for instance, has listed several clauses on its website regarding responses to abusive behaviour and how reporters conduct themselves online.

“We shouldn’t SHOUT IN ALL CAPS when we’re angry,” the website says. “We shouldn’t take the bait from trolls and sink to their level. We don’t use foul language. We pause to re-read our responses before hitting ‘reply’.”

Among a slew of social media guidelines, BBC also advises its employees to refrain from stating which political party they support, expressing views in favour of or against a policy that is a matter of current political debate, or advocating a position on any “controversial subject”.

In May 2021, Emily Wilder, a reporter with the Associated Press, was fired after posting tweets questioning the media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. AP spokeswoman, Lauren Easton, was quoted as saying, “Every AP journalist is responsible for safeguarding our ability to report on this conflict, or any other, with fairness and credibility, and cannot take sides in public forums.”

The AP’s managing editor, Brian Carovillano, told CNN in an interview: "Emily Wilder was let go because she had a series of social media posts that showed a clear bias toward one side and against another in one of the most divisive and difficult stories we cover.”

Why these policies exist

But do these policies serve a purpose at a time when so many people live so much of their lives online?

The head of social media at a digital news organisation told Newslaundry, on the condition of anonymity that backlash from “trolls” has far-reaching consequences.

“Trolls these days are usually backed by some or the other political party. They are large in number. And so, once the backlash begins, the next step is that they go to the app store and manipulate ratings,” he said. “Screenshots of ads are shared and advertisers are dissuaded from putting in money. And that’s a lot to deal with.”

Adding that “it is different for a freelance journalist”, he said, “We may call out Ola and Uber on social media, which is very different from calling out a minister.”

Karnika Kohli is the growth manager at Scrollstack and previously handled social media at Scroll, the Wire, and the Times of India. She justified the need for such policies, adding that her “personal opinion is that media organisations should not enforce social media policy”.

“It is not fair but the kind of environment there is and the pressure that news organisations face from the government, a single tweet calling out the government can have severe consequences,” she said. “Partly that’s the reason why media organisations, including the mainstream ones, have a social media policy in place.”

In response to a Newslaundry questionnaire on social media policies, Nandagopal Rajan, new media editor at the Indian Express, said, “While we don’t have a social media policy, we do have a code of ethics which mandates conduct expected of every journalist or member of the editorial staff. It is a binding commitment to uphold and reinforce the trust readers have in our websites and digital products and the organisation.”

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