Journalism Technology

Your local social journo, their bosses, and you.

By now, most of you may be aware that Channel 13 was recently bought by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair is one of the juggernauts of media consolidation, from their own “About” page:

Sinclair owns and operates, programs or provides sales services to 87 television stations in 47 markets. Sinclair’s television group reaches approximately 27.1% of US television households and includes FOX, ABC, MyTV, CW, CBS, NBC, MTN and Azteca affiliates.

What you may not know is that, because of the change in ownership at WHAM, new policy changes regarding social media are going to potentially have a big impact on your relationship with the social media journalists, of which 13WHAM’s media team are among the best in our market. Because it is apparently the policy of Sinclair Broadcast to take ownership of social media accounts of on-air talent. This means that a social media account of your local broadcast journalist would now include full administrative rights given to the company: Lois Lane’s boss is now looking over her shoulder, whether you know it or not.

You may already have noticed that a few of the on-air talents at 13WHAM have already changed their Twitter accounts, adding new ones that are marked as 13WHAM. Rachel Barnhart, Evan Dawson and Norma Holland have all done this, more may follow suit. They’re doing this because the company is asking for separate accounts, rather than attempting to take ownership of these journalists’ personal accounts.

Romenesko broke the story of Rachel Barnhart posting the news to her extremely large and active social media following:

Barnhart points out in the comments on her post: “The big benefit for stations is owning a reporter’s relationship with followers. The reporter can’t take the following with her if she leaves for a competitor or anywhere else.” She adds: “I don’t consider this a muzzle, as I can continue to use my own accounts, primarily as I have been. I just have to maintain additional work-only accounts.”

This precedent has many in local media both concerned for their own privacy and worried about the long-term effects this type of corporate control may have on free speech and the ability of a social media journalist to establish trust with their audiences. Calling it “silly and misguided,” journalists point out that the need for corporate control misses the point of social media entirely and as Rachel eludes to above, basically takes ownership of a professional’s ability to practice their profession.

Both legally and ethically, the corporate take-over presents a bit of a problem. Because it is already well established that your boss cannot ask for nor assume administrative access to your social network account profiles. They’re not allowed to ask for your password in pre-hire and they certainly cannot establish any level of ownership after hiring you. Journalists are many things, but they are employees of the companies they work for. The insistence on creating separate profiles is, to put it mildly, too cute by half.

There is absolutely no distinction to be made between owning one account and having administrative rights to the other. Because a social network account is a profile. It is a means of direct access to any person, but especially a journalist. Journalists at 13WHAM will be “encouraged” to use their corporate owned Twitter accounts when doing live tweeting or other “business” related to the news. Sooner rather than later, the audience will see the WHAM account as the authoritative one.

But beyond your local social journo and their boss, the title of this post did mention you, did it not? Oh, yes. It does. The reason is that, beyond merely 13WHAM, Sinclair also owns Fox 31 and, and presumably all the social media accounts you’ve been following related to Fox. And they’ve owned the local Fox affiliate for a long time. That means that all those things about you that Facebook already knows are also the purview of Sinclair Broadcasting Group already, if you’ve done any interacting with their Facebook presence. This would include:

  • Your comments on those posts and tweets.
  • Your posts to their Wall
  • Oh, yes. This absolutely does include the stuff you or they deleted in those times when you might have gotten a little carried away.
  • Semi-private messages such as DMs on Twitter.

Your privacy is a part of this. And any time you make contact with any of 13WHAM’s on-air personalities through their official accounts (and for those who haven’t already changed their accounts, who knows??) are now within a quick glance from any Program Director with the curiosity to look.

And if none of this strikes you as a problem because you have “nothing to hide,” what about those who do? Local media rarely works with Deep Throat and those that might would probably not opt for the barely-safe social media accounts they have. But people with tips about their companies? Victims of violence or scams who want someone to know but didn’t want to go public?

We can tut-tut about privacy all we like – who would use a social media account to pass private information? – but in this modern era, I am personally aware of many stories broken via first leads over social media accounts. And if those same leads could not trust to whom they spoke, would they be as willing?

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

8 replies on “Your local social journo, their bosses, and you.”

I said my piece in the comments on Rachel’s Google+ posting on this, but the short version is clueless bosses are clueless.

Excellent summary of the situation, Tom. I will maintain that the company is within its rights to pursue this particular policy. That doesn’t mean it’s the right strategy, though. In fact, the list of media giants scrambling to play catch up with innovations that have been around for years is discouraging. If they cannot grasp the technology, how can they expect to manage the people finding new and valuable uses for that technology? Their answer is to throw up roadblocks. Sigh.

Thanks John.

I’ve been a musician for a long time and have to say this reaction is entirely, drearily predictable. From cassette tapes to CD to MP3s, the music industry has constantly been behind the curve. Even, in the case of MP3s, where they actually played an active role in creating the technology. An argument can be made that a similar situation exists for the media industry and new media, but of course that’s messier.

As for “within their rights,” well. That is certainly true based on a strict interpretation of the law with blinders on. But what about the intention of the law? You can stretch that way too far, of course, but in this case, A leads quite obviously to B.

For Rachel Barnhart or Evan Dawson – established journalists with established social media accounts – there’s very little harm. But for some first-year graduate of j school? What happens when she decides to leave her job? All five years worth of contacts and relationships, potentially in harm’s way when she leaves, because of course, they’ll delete the account and prevent her from carrying over her followers. That’s the whole point.


Agreed. At the micro level, it’s a new twist on the old problem of people being called down to HR to be fired/downsized and never being able to return to their computer to e-mail that list of contacts on their desktop to their personal e-mail account.

The dude who figures out how to painlessly port Twitter followers to a new account doesn’t rule the world, but he gets dibs on a piece of prime oceanfront property.

And FWIW, I’d be changing my password (assuming I have access) on my corporate-controlled accounts on a regular basis. It might only give me a five-minute head start over a sloppy IT department in a pinch, but that might be enough.

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