The media never looked more corporate.  After reprimanding a reporter for posting a comment critical of the company’s investment decisions, the Associated Press has come out with a new policy governing the use of social networking sites.  Among the AP’s requirements for all employees, not just reporters, is:

Posting material about the AP’s internal operations is prohibited on employees’ personal pages, and employees also should avoid including political affiliations in their profiles and steer clear of making any postings that express political views or take stands on contentious issues. Employees should be mindful that any personal information they disclose about themselves or colleagues may be linked to the AP’s name. That’s true even if staffers restrict their pages to viewing only by friends.

It’s true that the Associated Press and other news service agencies have a legitimate interest in maintaining reputations for unbiased, truthful reporting.  This is the commodity that they trade.

For this reason, like many other organizations the AP relies on a professional code of ethics to dictate core issues that often arise in journalism, such as the impropriety of paying interviewees and the use of anonymous sources. Additionally, the AP also has a set of policies that further proscribe the acceptable personal conduct of its employees.  For example, according to AP’s policies employees may engage in civic activities, such as religious ones, but they should not participate in political activities.  There is some good question as to whether these measures tackle the problem of bias or merely create a false perception of objectivity and professionalism.  There is also a persuasive argument that disclosure rather than mere formalistic semblance of utmost objectivity may give a more truthful account of both the objective and subjective underpinnings of a story.  (See Jeff Jarvis, professor of CUNY Graduate School of Journalism).

AP’s policy governing the use of sites such as Facebook seems unnecessarily expansive and beyond the scope of ethics in journalism.  Instead, the policy reveals the corporate interests at work.  This seems even more evident in light of the fact that employees are encouraged to post promotional AP material and attribute it to the corporation.   However, all employees, not just reporters, are to refrain from posting political views.  And the policy seeks to regulate any content pertaining to the AP’s reputation – employees have even been instructed to monitor and remove comments posted by others on their own personal sites, which implies that they could be disciplined for these posts as well.  Furthermore, the social networking policy suggests how employees should censor the opinion out of their posts to comply:  “[w]hen tweeting, remember that’s there a big difference between providing an observation (“I nearly bumped into Chris Matthews outside Penn Station”) and an opinion (“I nearly bumped into the loudmouthed and obnoxious Chris Matthews”).

How can a news organization that relies so heavily on the free flowing river of information bottle up speech when it comes to its own employees?   Fortunately, most other companies engaged in the business of journalism, such as The New York Times Company, and the Wall Street Journal have adopted more “common sense” approaches that take into account factors such as the individual’s role at the company (for example, a political reporter arguably should not announce support for a particular candidate while there is no reason to so restrict a reporter covering an unrelated beat).  So far, the AP seems to stand alone in its totalitarian grip on opinions expressed on the personal sites of its employees even when confined to a network of friends.  The AP seems to be caving to its corporate identity at the expense of its essential mission, as a member of the press that flies the banner of free speech.

Furthermore, the policy may violate the AP’s own code of ethics:  [Newspapers] should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals. Concern for community, business or personal interests should not cause the newspaper to distort or misrepresent the facts.

This social networking policy is straight-up hypocrisy.