After receiving criticism for forbidding its journalists from posting their opinions on the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade last week, Gannett is now sorting through the feedback it has received from its employees regarding the news publisher’s social media policy.
Last Friday, Gannett – which owns USA Today and over 250 local dailies in 45 states – was one of many media companies to respond to the SCOTUS ruling by sending a memo to acknowledge the impact to employees’ health benefits – as well as a memo reiterating its social media policy. The latter email barred journalists from taking a public stance on the ruling. It also asked employees to alert their managers if they saw such messages posted by colleagues.
“You cannot use social media to take a political position, criticize or attack a candidate, or express personal feelings about an outcome or ruling. (If you notice a newsroom colleague posting inappropriate comments, immediately alert your supervisor.),” the company stated in the email. The email also told journalists to “refrain” from liking or retweeting posts “that could appear to indicate support for any side or group.”
Gannett’s journalists are guided by the company’s “Principles of Ethical Conduct,” which are “echoed throughout our social media policy,” a Gannett spokesperson said in an email. While some media companies publish their social media policies publicly, Gannett is one of the news organizations that only shares its guidelines internally.
The reaction to the memo was swift. Twitter threads cropped up dedicated to arguing the concept of objectivity. While most major newsrooms have guidelines prohibiting journalists from taking a political stance – due to the idea that perceived bias could damage a news organization’s credibility – the guidelines become murkier when the issue at hand is one of civil and human rights. Similar tensions were brought up when journalists openly supported the Black Lives Matter movement and joined protests against racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Gannett employees that spoke to Digiday under the condition of anonymity said they felt disappointed by the way the company handled the situation.
“Basic statements like ‘women deserve equal treatment under the law’ is not a political opinion. It’s a basic factual thing,” said one Gannett employee.
The employee wished the company had sent the memo at a different time, such as earlier in the week, rather than when employees were reeling from the news of the SCOTUS ruling. “It just seemed poorly timed, in my opinion,” she said.
“Instead of saying we should keep our personal feelings to ourselves, I feel like since we want to show our diversity and be proud of it we should encourage people to thoughtfully talk about how we’re humans and how that helps with our coverage because of our experiences,” a second Gannett employee said.
“We’re not going to tweet out ‘Fuck SCOTUS’ – it’s more like ‘this happened to me and this is important to me and it’s harmful to my healthcare,’” said the second employee.
Since Friday, the topic of Gannett’s social media policy has been raised in certain committee and group meetings within the company, according to the Gannett employees. Some employees were told to directly email Gannett’s vp of standards with feedback, the second employee said. Various ERGs are also having discussions about the policy, providing a space for employees to share their thoughts, the first employee said.
Despite the internal discussions surrounding Gannett’s social media policy, there are “no changes to the policy that are imminent,” the Gannett spokesperson said. The spokesperson continued, “we are listening to the concerns of staff and working to find opportunities to provide additional guidance surrounding notable moments in time (such as Dobbs / Roe v. Wade).”
“If there is an appropriate time to provide more guidance to our policy based on feedback we will make the decision to amend the guidelines,” the spokesperson added.
Both employees felt these discussions and the ability to share feedback with Gannett’s leadership was one benefit of the hoopla of last week. It could help lay the groundwork for improvement and nuance in the future handling of these situations, they said.
The second employee referenced a column USA Today’s editor-in-chief published a few days before the SCOTUS ruling, on her mother having an abortion in the 1970s.
“It wasn’t saying ‘I disagree with the ruling,’ but it was expressing a personal account of how this has affected her. The way our policy is worded makes it hard to discern what is acceptable to post like that, vs. what’s not,” the staffer said. Coworkers and a number of those in the newsroom’s leadership at Gannett are “welcoming of our experiences and how they help us,” which the employee said can be confusing to reconcile with the social media guidelines.
Gannett was not alone in reiterating their social media guidelines to employees after the SCOTUS ruling fell.
Axios and The New York Times also reminded staffers about the company’s social media policies last Friday, and the importance of refraining from sharing stances that could be perceived as biased. On Thursday, The Daily Beast reported The Washington Post had updated its social media guidelines, urging Post journalists that they “should not feel compelled to engage or broadcast on social media platforms, except for those whose roles explicitly require it,” and to not use social media to “air personal grievances.”
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