Lawsuits over journalist Twitter accounts may become more common


In 2015, reporters were found to be the most active users of the popular social media platform Twitter. This means that in the world of social media, journalists face more risks than ever in facing lawsuits on the basis of their accounts. When work accounts are mixed with personal accounts, the risk is greater.

Social media ownership in the context of the work environment is a gray area. A recent case of a sports reporter for The Roanoke Times that left for another news outlet and decided to keep his Roanoke Times Twitter account is an example. Andy Bitter had 27,000 Twitter followers when he left The Roanoke Times, but when he left to go to another outlet, he kept the account to continue publishing his stories to his faithful followers. BH Media Group asked back for the login information to the account in order to get Bitter to stop using the account when he represented another news organization. When Bitter declined, BH Media Group sued him.

Issues of ownership and control come into play and get more complicated when journalists don't work for a newspaper anymore. Editors should be clear about the social media conduct they expect out of reporters, during the workday, during off-hours and even when the journalist is no longer reporting.

Many news organizations' policies and ethics guidelines don't address social media behavior, but should. And journalists should negotiate the policies to protect their own interests if they feel taken advantage of. This could solve many problems in the future of journalists and news outlets battling it out against each other in court. 

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