Twitter and Facebook: Powerful But Dangerous
On March 7, the Star carried an exclusive interview with Jonathan Moi as its front page lead story. Moi was quoted as denying claims in an article by John Ward in the Nairobi Law Monthly that he was responsible for the murder of Ward’s daughter 24 years ago.
Hot story, for sure. But not as exclusive as the Star might have liked, since two reporters who knew about the piece had mentioned it on their Facebook pages the night before. When Star Editor Catherine Gicheru learned about the postings from other members of staff, she immediately called the two and told them to take them down. “It was wrong because the story wasn’t out,” she says, noting the potential for competitors to quickly match a story with one of their own and also the possibility of pre-publication efforts to block a sensitive article.
Both reporters say they put up the posts only because they wanted to alert their friends to the story, and they suffered no retribution for their actions. But the incident prompted the Star’s editors to begin discussions about what the Star’s policy should be on so-called social media — in particular Facebook and Twitter.
Between them, these two are driving changes in the way news is collected and disseminated, and they are doing it at what often seems to be warp speed. As one example, earlier this month celebrity tweets led to more than 100 million online viewings of a video of dubious accuracy about Uganda’s Joseph Kony. Social media are also allowing consumers of news to talk back: CNN’s Nairobi correspondent felt compelled to apologise after angry Kenyans tweeted criticisms of a report on the Machakos bus station attack that suggested the country was experiencing widespread violence.
The Star has its own Facebook and Twitter accounts, which it uses to promote Star stories and, occasionally, to keep its readers up to date on breaking news. But almost all Star staff also have personal Facebook accounts and as many as a third of them tweet, which is where things can get complicated. Is it okay to tweet news from your beat on your personal Twitter account? What about taking a political position — even if you don’t mention you work for the Star — on your Facebook page?
Star CEO William Pike says the guiding principle for Star journalists should be protecting the paper’s reputation. “We want the Star to be perceived as an independent paper,” he says. “We want freedom of expression but at the same time the newspaper is providing a public service. Journalists are supposed to be like civil servants and keep our personal opinions private.”
Some reporters, however, question whether such an approach is desirable, or even realistic. “We all have opinions every day,” says one. “I will feel very bad if they say we can’t put opinions on Facebook.”
The Star is not the only news organisation trying to figure out what to do. I belong to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, an international group, and lately there’s been a lot of talk among the members about how to engage with the public through social media without hurting your ‘brand’.
One member provided an example of just how dangerous Twitter can be: a sports writer at his paper, intending to send a colleague a message disparaging a local team’s owner, accidentally sent it to all 14,000 of his Twitter followers. He was immediately taken off the beat.
The BBC’s policy on social media seems to me to be a model of common sense. It says that while management doesn’t want to discourage news staffers from tweeting or other uses of social media, “there are particular considerations to bear in mind. They can all be summarised as: ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’”
The Star journalist who I remember as the earliest to be active as a blogger and then to shift her attention to Twitter and Facebook is Grace Kerongo, who writes the ‘Word Is…’ daily gossip column. Grace says she uses both Twitter and Facebook as major sources of information about local celebrities, since celebs tend to use social media so much themselves. She also uses social media to interact with people who follow her work: when she wanted to compile a list of top music hits she put out a request on Facebook for readers’ opinions.
But perhaps because she’s got so much experience, Grace is acutely aware of the importance of treating Twitter and Facebook with care. “I never retweet anything of interest to me,” she says, because even that could tip off competitors to what she’s working on. And, she says, she tries to avoid controversies and not to voice opinions that might be perceived as carrying more weight than they ought to. “People follow you because you’re an authority on something,” she says. “They recognise your name and they know you work for the media.”
I’d be interested in hearing readers’ thoughts on these issues. Such comments could help the Star to develop a policy that reflects not just newsroom opinions but also those of the people it serves. Or maybe the Star should just appropriate the BBC’s boiled-down directive: Don’t do anything stupid.
Does anyone in the Star newsroom read the public editor’s column? That’s what I asked myself a week after the appearance of my last column, on covering polls, when the Star ran another front-page story on a poll that was headlined ‘Mudavadi eats into Raila base’. As I pointed out to the editors, the headline was not supported by the data, and per cent and percentage points were again confused.
Seeking support for my stand, I later went to the website of the Kenya Media Council. The Council, whose members include representatives of journalists’ groups, media owners, and government, is charged with promoting “high professional standards”. But what did I find? No guidelines on how to report polls, but, on the home page, a completely unscientific, thoroughly unreliable poll that invites members of the public to vote on whether they favour the proposed Media Bill!
A recent reference to “Asians” in the Star made me think about the role of the media in setting the tone for how Kenyans refer to each other. When I lived in Kenya in the early years of independence, people sometimes called each other “mwananchi” — in this case meaning “comrade”. I still remember watching a Kenyan border guard’s face change from a scowl to a smile after I addressed him as “mwananchi” as I reentered the country from Uganda. If the Star and other news organisations made a concerted effort to identify all Kenyans as Kenyans, rather than describing some of them as Asians, Somalis, wazungu and the like (even if such people describe themselves in ethnic or racial terms), that would be a meaningful step toward building — or rebuilding — national cohesion.
If readers have noticed a recent uptick in corrections, they can claim much of the credit. Following a public editor’s column offering readers’ opinions on why regular acknowledgement of errors would be a good idea, and several discussions by editors, it was decided to adopt a ‘more rather than less’ corrections policy. Many days now you’ll find a blue-tinted box on page 2 headed ‘For the Record’, along with an invitation to write to the editors to bring possible errors to their attention.
Send your comments and criticisms to firstname.lastname@example.org.