on Internet use
in the newsroom
As news organizations expand use of the Internet for gathering news, not just for distributing news, managers face many decisions.
Who should have Internet access? What limits should be placed on its use? Should we always identify ourselves as journalists? How do we verify the information we find online?
Many news organizations have written policies on Internet use. Here is one, from the Associated Press. It doesn't cover every subject, but has been used by other news organizations developing their own policies.
AP management decided in 1995 that every AP reporter and editor and photographer and artist, to do the job, needed a PC with full access to the Internet (e-mail, Web, newsgroups, FTP, etc.) It wasn't an easy decision (or cheap). Reaching that conclusion may be made easier by having some clear rules on appropriate use of the new technologies, and including those rules in training.
Guidelines for Responsible Use of Electronic Services
These rules apply to the Internet, commercial online services, and other electronic resources used by staff of The Associated Press.
The guidelines are intended as guardrails against careless use of the new electronic vehicles.
Some of the points should seem obvious, because our old values of accuracy and responsibility remain the same. Other rules will seem new, as the technologies are new.
But no rules can protect us entirely. In general, use common sense, be cautious, and think before you act. If you're not sure, ask for guidance. What you do on a computer can be awfully hard to take back.
No doubt these guidelines will evolve based on experience. Please offer your suggestions, comments or questions. A current copy of the guidelines is always available on the main menu of AP's internal Internet server.
1. Accounts on AP's electronic services are intended to aid the business and professional activities of AP staff. The accounts are for business use only, the same as AP portable computers and cellular phones. If you have private business to conduct, use a private account. Although you can access the AP accounts from home, this is not a license to connect for personal use. Remember that connecting to electronic services uses a limited resource that costs the AP money. The same Internet connections and dial-up ports are needed to file and distribute AP text, graphics, photos, video, and data.
2. Each account is assigned for use only by the AP staffer. Sharing accounts is not permitted. No generic or departmental accounts will be assigned. Change your password monthly, choosing a password that would be difficult to guess (not your birthday, not a word in any dictionary).
3. Conduct business on electronic services as if you are appearing at a public meeting representing the AP, or writing a letter on company letterhead. After all, every message sent with an AP account is stamped "ap.org." No one at AP is monitoring what staff do online, but the nature of the electronic services is to log almost all activity. What you write, even in private e-mail but especially in posts to lists and Usenet newsgroups, could be forwarded to millions of people, and no doubt will be saved somewhere by somebody. Many mailing lists that are erroneously thought of as private are routinely archived on Usenet or the World Wide Web, which are public. Even World Wide Web servers collect the addresses of all Internet users visiting them. And any user of AP's Internet server can see generally what activity any other user is doing. In short, if you wouldn't want your online activity to be shown on CNN or in Times Square, don't do it on the Internet or America Online.
4. AP has longstanding rules against News employees participating in political activities or taking sides on matters of public debate. These rules apply to electronic communication as well. Do not express opinions about products, companies or individuals. Non-news employees, who may be unaccustomed to these rules, should remember that Internet readers won't know whether a user from ap.org is a newsperson. Even what a non-News employee does can reflect on AP's newsgathering.
5. To do their work, AP staff need to participate in electronic discussion groups on professional or technical topics. Posting to other groups of general interest should be limited to seeking information. For example, a reporter doing a story on prostate cancer may post to a medical group, or a group for older men. Or a technician may seek help on a software discussion group.
6. When participating in discussion groups, be sure the reader knows that you are not intending to speak for the AP. Someone reading a message from firstname.lastname@example.org won't know AP's organizational structure. If complaints or questions come to you because you are identified as an AP employee, refer them to the appropriate supervisor.
7. Act as if the laws on libel and privacy apply to electronic communications. Remember that the laws of other jurisdictions may be more restrictive than your own. Respect the privacy of individuals, who may not be aware that their comments in electronic forums could be distributed by journalists. Do not quote private individuals or public figures from online communications unless you verify the identity of the author and assure yourself that the author meant to speak publicly. Often it's best to contact people online, then to conduct an interview by telephone or in person. If you have online discussions to gather information, make sure the other party knows you are a working journalist. Although some Web pages and browsers allow sending of what's called anonymous e-mail, send only mail with your name and AP affiliation attached.
8. Apply the strictest standards of accuracy to anything you find on electronic services. The Internet is not an authority; authorities may use it, but so do quacks. Make certain a communication is genuine before relying on it as a source for a news story. More than one person may share an e-mail address, and e-mail addresses and Web page sponsorship can easily be faked. Ask yourself, "Could this be a hoax?" Do not publish on the wire any electronic address without testing to see that it's a working address, and satisfying yourself that it is genuine. Apply, in other words, your usual news judgment.
9. Respect the copyrights of individuals and organizations, including the AP. Do not forward or post anyone's material without permission. Do not post or send to individuals any proprietary AP material, including news stories, photos, graphics, audio, video, data, or any internal communication.
10. Abide by the courtesies of the electronic community. Courtesy requires basic technical competence. For example, be careful not to send a message to a mailing list that was intended for only one user. Don't type in all caps; people will think you're shouting. Avoid the "flame wars" that easily erupt when conversations are conducted online. And, because AP's Internet server has limited capacity, clean out your mailbox and home directory routinely, and log off when you're not using the system.
You can reach Bill Dedman by e-mail at Bill@PowerReporting.com.