Creeps, unfortunately, have been stalking TV talent for about as long as anchors’ faces have been broadcast into viewers' family rooms. Station veterans speak of a rogue’s gallery of photographs at the front desk, representing sketchy characters who are barred from entering the building, and chilling tales of anchors relocating to new positions across the country to escape stalkers—only to find the creep has made the trip as well.
With a litany of scary interactions recently between local TV anchors and viewers, several broadcasters are assessing what’s previously been a largely overlooked aspect of TV station guidelines—establishing protocols for talent in terms of social media activity.
A TV station’s Facebook presence has become, in some ways, the new Nielsen ratings, with general managers gleefully boasting of a ‘Friend’ total that exceeds that of the station across the street. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are increasingly critical for a TV station to connect with users around the clock, not just during set newscast times, with on-air talent often encouraged to close the distance between themselves and the community through constant updates that are of both the newsy and personal variety.
Station managers’ evolving rules and regulations regarding social media are designed both to protect the station and the talent at a time when the latter has never been more accessible to the public—by design. So, how does one strike the balance between familiarity and safety? The answer, as Facebook would put it, is: “It’s complicated.”
“I think companies are trying to get their arms around social media,” said Mark Pimentel, president and general manager at KMOV St. Louis. “There’s an aspect to it that is the Wild West, and everyone’s trying to find their way through it.”
Some 6.6 million people are stalked in the U.S. each year, according to figures from the National Center for Victims of Crime, with women victimized three times more frequently than men. On New Year’s Day, a man was arrested for allegedly stalking KPRC Houston anchor Jennifer Reyna. Christopher Marcus Olson allegedly terrorized Reyna five separate times this past fall— repeatedly defying a judge’s no-contact order issued after he twice drove his car into KPRC’s building in 2007, prompting an overhaul of the station’s facility designed to fortify it from future incidents.
In St. Louis, KMOV 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. anchor Vickie Newton signed off in August, then left the market. In late December, she mentioned on a website she founded, TheVillageCelebration.com, that she had been stalked online for five years—a possible factor in her departure from both the station and the area. “I don’t know who is stalking me and I don’t know what the end game is,” Newton said.
People familiar with both cases said they believe the reporters’ social media activity was not a factor in their being stalked. But other recent incidents involving TV anchors and Facebook highlighted the increased perils of digital interaction with viewers. Jennifer Livingston, WKBT LaCrosse (Wis.) anchor, became national news in October after a withering on-air retort to a man, Kenneth Krause, who had called her obese in an email that her husband posted on Facebook. In December, Rhonda Lee, meteorologist at KTBS Shreveport (La.), was fired after engaging a viewer on the station’s Facebook page who had criticized her close-cropped hair—one of Lee’s numerous violations of the station’s social media policy, according to KTBS.
‘Friend’ of the Devil
Therein lies the dilemma. Local TV executives want their talent actively engaging with users on Facebook and Twitter—several stations now mandate that all anchors and reporters take part on such platforms. But those unique glimpses at talent, which for many include their personality outside the studio and their leisurely pursuits around town, can be problematic. “You want them to reach out to the public, but at the same time, you’re reaching out to the one-tenth of 1% in the community who’s a wacko,” said one veteran GM who requested anonymity. “And then you’ve got yourself a problem.”
When a viewer’s malicious comments about an anchor came in via mail or telephone years ago, there was a layer of protection between the anchor and the viewer. With Facebook, and even more so with Twitter, no buffer zone exists—the criticism is there for all to see and to share with friends. “It’s easy for people to forget how wide a reach social media outlets can have,” said Mike Cavender, executive director at the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), a trade organization. “That includes people you don’t know, people you don’t want to know, and people you don’t want to know you.”
Jenni Hogan, former KIRO Seattle anchor, is often held up as a paragon of social media mastery in TV. With nearly 57,000 Twitter followers, 47,000 tweets and a celebrity-worthy “Verified” check mark next to her name on Twitter, she was called the nation’s “most followed local female TV journalist” on social media last year by Forbes. Hogan exudes the same warmth on Twitter that she did on the air before resigning in December to work on a community service initiative with Target. She mentioned recent tweets that show a distinct intimacy with her legion of followers, including those signed with an affectionate “xo,” and another featuring a photo of her infant daughter.
Hogan said she has, thankfully, never encountered a stalker. “Are these things right to do?” Hogan wondered via email. “My comfort level is yes, but you have to remember, I’m Australian, and we are huggers. I made the decision to be the same me online as I am in person.”
Ground Rules for Groups
Several leading stations and groups would not discuss their social media protocols or confirm if they have such guidelines. A poll of station leadership indicates that regulations for social media usage are, at best, evolving. Time-honored checks and balances, mandatory for onair and online news, are much less prevalent when it comes to social media transmission.
“When some [social media trend] hits, we all follow it,” said one GM at a leading large-market station. “We say to our talent, ‘Go do it.’ But the ‘Go do it’ part does not come with an instruction manual.”
Hogan said while she was at KIRO she had access to a social media consultant, who specialized in celebrities and high-profile athletes. “There wasn’t really a TV journalist model yet as my account was taking off,” she said.
The Raycom station group’s “Online Content Policy,” part of the employee handbook, will tackle some security matters in its next iteration, said one insider.
Often looked upon as a pacesetter in local broadcast news, Belo is poised to unveil its “Social Media Policy,” a collaboration between corporate officers, news directors and the legal department, to its stations. The guidelines are designed to ensure the company’s journalists uphold the same standards on social media as they do on the air.
“Our CEO and our management want there to be a consistent approach on all platforms as to how we do business and how we are viewed in the community,” said Michael Valentine, Belo VP of content. “It’s designed to help employees and the company maintain the journalistic integrity we’ve had as long as anybody can remember.” (Valentine said the policy is geared toward upholding journalistic standards and is not related to staffer security issues.)
Another respected journalism shop, Scripps, also has guidelines in place. “As much as we appreciate our journalists who embrace social media and have figured out how to grow their audiences on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we also realize that participation in social media is very much a reflection of an individual journalist’s level of personal comfort,” Chip Mahaney, senior director of local TV operations at Scripps Digital, said via email.
Other station groups are slowly but surely hashing out their own playbooks. “For a long time, station groups—I wouldn’t say ignore, but—have not concentrated on those kinds of guidelines,” said RTDNA’s Cavender. “But I’m seeing much more attention to that now. It helps the social media manager react better and set parameters that, in the end, are helpful.”
That the social media manager is increasingly becoming an established staff position at TV stations indicates that broadcasters are keen to elevate their digital strategy. KING Seattle, for one, converted veteran newsroom writer/editor Evonne Benedict to social media manager, with oversight of the Belo station’s activity on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and others. Last year, Richmond, Va., market leader WWBT tapped Ray Daudani, a former metro reporter, as the Raycom station’s director of new media, while KPRC Houston hired local blogger Sara Patterson to be social media producer at the Post-Newsweek station.
Resistance in the Newsroom
Yet some think that rules from corporate clash with the very nature of social media—that it’s meant to be spontaneous, freewheeling and, at times, heartfelt. Talent can’t truly be themselves while adhering to the parameters set out by the stiffs in legal. “Some employees don’t like rules on how to behave that come from the station,” said Bill Hague, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates. “But that’s the reality.”
Moreover, some media watchers said the concerns over personal security stemming from social media participation may be overblown, and talent must make the most of social media opportunities if a station is to succeed in its 24/7 multiscreen approach.
“The upside vastly outweighs the potential downside,” said Steve Safran, a social media consultant to TV stations. “People like to know that you’re a real person, same as them. I don’t see the worst-case scenario as a reason not to do it.”
While it’s hard to find something positive about a TV anchor being haunted by an unhinged viewer, industry watchers are hopeful the recent incidents, which made headlines well beyond the markets in which they occurred, will spark management and talent alike to emphasize better judgment when extending professional and personal brands through social media.
“These kinds of things bring issues to the fore,” Cavender said. “If there’s a benefit, it’s that hopefully others see how it happens, learn a lesson from it and pay more attention to the ramifications of social media usage.”
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