The Roanoke Times is suing one of its former sports reporters over what the outlet calls a breach of its social media policy. Andy Bitter, the reporter, left his position at the Times for a competing news outlet. He took with him the Twitter account he had used at the outlet. The Times claims its social media policy states that the outlet retains ownership of reporters’ social media accounts, and therefore Bitter should have turned over the account before leaving for his new job.
This case raises several questions
Who owns a reporter’s social media accounts?
What are the potential implications for journalists?
Are journalists required to submit passwords to management?
If you owned the account prior to your employment and then use the account as part of your reporting, is this considered property of the outlet?
How is “ownership” defined?
“Ownership” Is Becoming More Common
In a study I co-authored about social media policies in local television newsrooms, I addressed the issue of “ownership.” Nearly two-thirds of local TV news managers who responded to my survey indicated that it’s the policy of their outlets to “own” the social media accounts of their reporters.
My book, Mobile and Social Media Journalism: A Practical Guide, also discusses this question in the chapter about social media ethics. Here’s an excerpt from that portion:
It’s the policy of an increasing number of news outlets to retain ownership of the professional social media accounts of their reporters. A study of local TV stations’ social media guidelines sheds light on this emerging policy. Two-thirds of stations own the professional social media accounts of their journalists, according to the research.
In some cases, this means journalists are required to submit their passwords to newsroom management, and such a policy raises the question of whether an employee is allowed to keep the account and its associated followers when the employee leaves the newsroom. Under this type of policy, typically when employment with the news outlet ends, the journalist no longer has access to the account—the process is similar to what happens with a company e-mail address.
The E.W. Scripps Company, which owns news outlets in more than two dozen markets across the United States, makes this clear in its social media policy: “Your professional account is the company’s property and the name and contents remain company property if you leave Scripps. Scripps reserves the right to edit, monitor, promote or cancel a professional account.”
What is defined as “professional” under this type policy? Any account on which you’re sharing information as part of your position with the outlet or representing yourself as a staff member of the outlet. That means even if you created an account prior to working at the outlet, the outlet could retain ownership of that account if you use it for professional purposes. This may in fact be a reason for creating separate social media accounts for personal and professional purposes.
Rachel Barnhart learned this lesson firsthand when she worked as a reporter for WHAM-TV in Rochester, New York. Barnhart spent years building a robust social media following. She has tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers combined. Barnhart’s “following” was very much tied to the brand she had built on social media.
When Sinclair Broadcasting bought WHAM-TV, Barnhart was faced with a choice: Create new accounts, or keep using the accounts she had created and risk losing them if she left the station. It’s the policy of Sinclair to own the social media accounts of its on-air personalities. She decided to use new social media accounts for work purposes only. She explained her decision in a note to followers:
“At this juncture, I am retaining ownership of my existing Facebook and Twitter pages. Therefore, the company has started new social media accounts in my name for me to use during work hours when I am covering stories. The company has administrative control over these accounts.”
She added that her station remains supportive of her social media activity as “we are all trying to navigate the new frontier of social media and journalism.”