Social media policies are important for any organisation, not just in journalism. They ensure that employees do not express views that amount to hate speech, racism or any kind of online harassment that could tarnish the image of the company itself because an employee is often seen as an extension of the company. 

However, there have been instances when employees expressed views that are not in line with their own company’s values or which incite harm and violence, and this may have landed them in hot water. 

For example, in 2013, former PR executive Justine Sacco tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before boarding a plane from New York to South Africa. The tweet sparked immense outrage, which resulted in her losing her top job at New York-based internet empire InterActive Corp. 

In another instance, controversial media personality, Gareth Cliff lost his contract with M-Net as a judge on Idols in 2016 after he defended racist, Penny Sparrow’s social media post in which she compared black people to monkeys, saying that they were “allowed to be released” on Durban beaches during the December holidays, adding that “they have no education whatsoever…”. 

Sparrow was found guilty of hate speech in the Equality Court and was ordered to pay R150 000 to the Adelaide and Oliver Tambo Foundation. 

In response to public outrage, Cliff tweeted that “people don’t understand free speech at all”.

Cliff, a former radio presenter at 5fm and the founder of Cliff Central, has been at the centre of many controversial social media posts. Most recently, he shared a picture of Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor in a brown headscarf on his Instagram stories with the caption: “When the best you can come up with for Halloween is to dress up as a turd”, followed by a poop emoji. Despite facing immense public backlash, Cliff did not apologise for his remark, and instead said: “To be clear: I do not care if you are upset or offended. Those are your problems to deal with. I’m not required to be polite or tiptoe around your emotional fragility. As 2024 polls [approach] expect me to care even less” – among other things, TimesLive reported

Former DA leader, Helen Zille has also taken a bashing for some of her tone deaf tweets in the past, making the political party itself look bad. 

Role of a social media policies

Social media policies are guidelines that ensure that organisations and employees maintain good practice when engaging online. According to Swaybase, a good social media policy does not only protect the company’s reputation, but also encourages employees to speak positively about the company, adding that it sets expectations with employees and removes confusion when it comes to sharing content online.

Read more here. 

The rules are a bit more sensitive when it comes to journalism, though. Journalists are expected to be impartial, unbiased and fair in their reporting and general world views. This is to ensure that they maintain integrity, even when expressing their personal political opinion, but sometimes the line can be blurred.

This is the case that US-based publication Hearst made when it changed its social media policy to prohibit its journalists from sharing their personal political views on social media, adding that political posts must first be reviewed by a supervisor before posting, stating that those who do not follow the policy can be fired or disciplined. The decision was made in light of the ongoing war between Palestinians and Israelis in Gaza. According to Fashionista, the policy also encourages employees to report their fellow coworkers for posts that feel too “inflammatory”.

Employees in this case  were quoted as saying they were being censored. 

This has raised the question about social media policies for media organisations in South Africa. 

Journalists rely on social media to obtain information about topical issues and public interest matters, but they also use it to share information instantaneously which can be risky according to Webber Wentzel partner, Wendy Tembedza. 

“While social media has created opportunities to connect with the public in a way that facilitates conversations on socially relevant issues, social media simultaneously creates challenges and risks for journalists and their associated media houses,” she said.

She added that even when using social media for reporting, journalists should continue to practise “pre-existing level of professionalism and journalistic integrity”.

Bearing this in mind, an effective social media policy for media organisations should:

  1. Be clear on what rules exist regarding the restrictions on social media platform use. 
  2. Be clear about the rules governing sensitive stories before they are published. 
  3. Include guidelines for responsible use of social media by journalists, for example, when a media house prefers that all social media posts be made in the journalist’s personal capacity (as opposed to affiliating views with the media house).
  4. Clearly set out if social media posts by a media house are monitored and if there are consequences for a breach of the policy. 

In South Africa, the right to freedom of expression is sacrosanct and should be equally enjoyed by journalists, which means journalists have the right to share their political views, but Tembedza warns that this does not mean that media houses are prohibited from ensuring that journalists in their organisation use their social media platforms in a responsible manner. 

“There are accordingly some basic requirements for use of social media platforms by journalists that media houses are likely to expect that do not impede on the right to freedom of expression. Any unlawful restriction or disciplinary action that violates the right to freedom of expression can be challenged in a court of law. In addition, journalists can face disciplinary action from their member bodies if they fail to uphold certain levels of journalistic integrity,” said Tembedza.

To mitigate some of these risks, social media policies can include specific provisions which require journalists to explicitly mention that the political views expressed on their platform are their own and are not affiliated with their media house. 

Journalists are governed by the press code, which can be accessed here and here

The director of the South African National Editors’ Forum, Reggy Molousi said while journalists have a right to their point of view, they need to be careful when sharing.  

“Journalists have every right to express themselves, and should always do with the responsibility this comes with. It’s always advisable that the opinion is stated in one’s personal capacity, that’s ethical and clear enough.”