Boston Herald Guild Members Boycott Twitter After Reporter Suspended

The protest is in response to what guild members say is an antiquated social media policy at the newspaper.

Breaking news on social media can apparently be risky business for reporters at the Boston Herald, and the union isn’t happy about it.

Members of the Herald’s editorial guild are boycotting Twitter this week after reporter Chris Villani was suspended without pay for three days for violating the company’s social media policy. Villani’s misstep? An April 20 tweet stating, “The notes found in #AaronHernandez cell were letters to his daughter & fiancee, saying he loved them & would see them in heaven, per source.”

It was a legitimate scoop in the highly competitive national news cycle that followed Hernandez’s suicide, and it got noticed: Villani’s message was retweeted 219 times and liked 246 times. Other outlets later reported the same news. But because Villani didn’t seek approval from editorial brass to tweet out the news, which was attributed to an unnamed source, he’s now out three days pay.

A copy of the Herald’s social media policy shared with me specifically states: “Do not tweet, re-tweet or otherwise post ‘breaking news’ or share work in process without the express approval of the Executive Editor or his designee.”

The guild is now taking aim at what it considers an outdated policy. In a statement, the guild notes that the current social media policy dates back to January 2013 and has never before been enforced:

Herald Media Inc. has had a social media policy in effect since January 2013. 

For the first time in four years, it was used to discipline a member of the Boston Herald, who was suspended without pay for violating the letter of this policy with an accurate, timely and competitive news-related tweet.

The company is now enforcing a policy that says all news-related tweets and posts must be cleared by an editor. This is not workable for media in a technologically sophisticated and competitive market, when reporters are at a press conference, covering courts, sports or a breaking-news event such as a fire.

By enforcing this policy, editorial employees are rightfully in fear of tweeting or otherwise posting to social media. The Herald has put itself at odds with innovative news organizations across the country that embrace social media and use it to boost their digital and print products, as well as the profiles of talented people on their staffs.

When asked over email if the Herald will review its social media policy in light of the dispute, editor Joe Sciacca provided the following statement:

Like most major news outlets, the Herald has a social media policy and breaking news protocol to protect not only the news organization’s interests but to keep faith with readers that all of the content we present across all platforms is credible, having been vetted for accuracy and reliable sourcing by editors. Particularly in this era of fake news and unattributed speculation, the media must do all that it can to earn the trust of those who depend on its reporting. We’ll continue to ensure that the Herald remains the news organization that it is—an organization of excellence, on which our readers can rely with confidence, and of which we can continue to be proud.

Villani did not return multiple requests for comment for this story. For now, dozens of Herald guild members have turned their Twitter avatars black and are abstaining from the platform until their colleague returns to work.