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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: My votes aren't on my Facebook profile

By Tom Warhover
March 4, 2011 | 10:24 a.m. CST

Dear Reader,

In April, I shared with you the proposed revisions to the Missourian’s conflicts-of-interest policy.


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That draft has undergone several revisions, based on feedback from readers, from Missourian staff and from Missouri School of Journalism students and faculty.

The final version, adopted in late January, follows my letter. (I apologize for not telling you about it earlier.)

As with the first draft, the biggest change is the addition of rules on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

The consensus: Missourian journalists should refrain from airing their politics.

“Political viewpoints should not be apparent through students' or staffers’ public profiles on social networking websites,” the policy reads.

It doesn’t say Missourian staff should be free of political viewpoints; that would be silly. They simply shouldn’t wear their politics on their sleeve.

The conflicts policy's most important sentences are the first two: “Credibility matters. The Missourian strives to be an independent and impartial source of news and information, which means we must maintain an independence from faction.”

You won’t see Missourian sports reporters wearing MU T-shirts while covering the KU game or cheering from the press box.

There is plenty of room for interpretation here. Virtually anything could be considered political. Everyone is for education, right? But how to get great education for our children is hotly debated.

I think the definition of a political view will narrow over time. Journalists have recognized the need to be more transparent in their work, which requires that they share more of themselves with their audience.

The special ingredient to any policy is a healthy dose of common sense.


Conflicts-of-Interest Policy

Credibility matters. The Missourian strives to be an independent and impartial source of news and information, which means we must maintain an independence from faction. We should make every effort to maintain rigorous professional standards for ourselves and to avoid business and political ties that could threaten our credibility.

Personal Conflicts

Missourian staffers have lives outside the newsroom. It is everyone’s right to be involved in campus and community life, but we must protect both the reality and the appearance of the Missourian’s independence and impartiality.

Students and staff should not engage in business dealings, accept gifts or favors or have close emotional ties with a news source.

Students and staff should not cover nor attempt to manipulate coverage of organizations or events in which they are involved.

All students, upon joining the Missourian, should provide to their faculty editor a list of activities or employment places that might create at least the appearance of conflicting interests.

Personal relationships can affect the Missourian’s credibility as well. As is the case at any professional publication, journalists at the Missourian should not write about, report on, photograph or make news judgments about subjects with whom they have close ties.

Some examples:

Business Conflicts

Political activities by student journalists can affect the reality and the appearance of independence and impartiality of our newspaper. So, too, can outside work for competing media.

Work for other local media by Missourian paid staff or students in staff classes (reporting, copy editing, design, photography, photo editing, graphics, etc.) is prohibited. Local media include daily and weekly newspapers and related websites in our circulation area, campus newspapers and competing broadcast outlets.

One exception is collaborative projects and other work for KBIA and KOMU, which require advance approval by a faculty editor. Any work for media-related clients beyond the Missourian – non-local news outlets, campus or government publications, public relations, etc. – must be approved by the executive editor or managing editor. These circumstances may mean preferences as to the type of Missourian work (beats, shifts, etc.) to minimize the conflicts.

Students taking classes outside regular Missourian staff classes are exempt from this policy and are welcome to work for any news outlet.

As with potential political conflicts, apply this rule: When in doubt, disclose.

Social Media

The advent of social media introduces a world of complications as we increasingly share aspects of our personal lives online.

Political viewpoints should not be apparent through students or staffers’ public profiles on social networking websites. Be careful what you post. Ask yourself: What would a source think?

At the beginning of each semester, students will conduct peer reviews of their Facebook profiles and/or other online social media. Remember: If you don’t think an editor should see it, why would you want a source to see it?

Students or staff may be “friended” by a source or a subject they cover. It may even be in the interest of students and staff to “friend” sources in order to follow their businesses or campaigns. In such cases, students and staff are accountable for viewpoints expressed on their private profiles as well.

Students and staff should refrain from expressing political and religious viewpoints or preferences while using online social media, especially on divisive issues.

As a rule, always assume that all posts are public. When in doubt, err on the side of neutrality.

This is a new area for everyone. There will be gray areas. But as with your wardrobe, your voice mail and your demeanor, the same ethic always applies: Be professional.