As a journalist, do you represent your publication when you voice your unpopular opinion in the social media? Samantha Moolman looks at this growing dilemma in a story first published in The Media magazine.
An increasing number of journalists have recently found themselves in hot water for saying things on social media platforms without considering that their opinions would affect their integrity as journalists and the credibility of their employer’s brand.
Last year, former CNN Middle East Affairs editor, Octavia Nasr, was fired after one of her posts on Twitter portrayed deceased Hezbollah leader Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in a positive light. Similarly, Mail & Guardian intern Ngoaka Matsha was suspended and subject to a disciplinary hearing earlier this year after his superiors got word of an apparently anti-Semitic comment shared on Facebook.
They may have argued that these comments were written in their personal capacity and, therefore, not written as representatives of their brand. But the counter argument is that, being employed by a media brand, their bylines and opinions will always be seen as representing that brand.
These incidents have highlighted the online public behaviour of all newsroom employees and how employers should be dealing with this issue. When using social media, do journalists represent their personal selves or the brand they work for? And, do employers have the right to curtail what they say online?
“I think people in the media are quite properly under particular scrutiny,” says Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. “Social media establishes a permanent record of your comments on matters both public and private. We need to be careful because our credibility is at stake.”
Before Matsha’s suspension, Dawes had already begun the process of drafting a social media policy for his newspaper. “The entire newsroom was part of it,” he says. “We discussed social media as an annex to the new ethical code we launched earlier this year, and it was made clear to all staff that the main ethical code was considered binding on social media usage.”
Every news organisation has its own set of values and limits which dictate what can be said in public by their employees. This, according to Dawes, must provide the basic framework for any social media code. “Media brands offer varying degrees of flexibility in terms of just how much individual personality they can tolerate,” says Dawes, “and it is important that employees who use social media understand those boundaries.” In Dawes’s opinion, a journalist is permitted to express their personal opinions if they are able to defend those opinions in terms of the facts gathered as well as the values of the news brand they work for.
According to Paddy Clay, managing editor of Times LIVE, one of the most important guidelines that social media policies can offer, is to urge employees to question themselves before writing anything online. Says Clay: “You have to think, ‘would I be happy to say this or convey this in person and face-to-face with colleagues, bosses or contacts?’” One should also ask whether or not it is legally and/or sound to share the information in question, what one’s purpose and motivation is for sharing that information.
Avusa publications already have a social media policy in place which was drafted by Clay. She explains that it focuses on Avusa’s journalists who must develop and maintain contacts and those who use social media and microblogs for journalistic purposes. Says Clay: “Journalists need to be aware that what they say or disseminate may colour how they are perceived and that they need to be mindful of journalistic ethics and the accuracy and type of information they put out – especially if they are associated with a brand or known as journalists.”
News agencies are becoming increasingly wary of the sense of risk that their employees’ online presence might pose towards their brand. Earlier this year, the BBC published a social media guidance note with the aim to help their news employees use social networks optimally, and within the network’s core editorial values. Chris Hamilton, BBC News’ social media editor, released the statement about the guide, saying that they based the document on common sense. The section on personal online activity, which is “done for friends and family and not under or in the name of BBC News” starts with the simple phrase, “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Gus Silber, one of South Africa’s veteran freelance journalists and an avid tweeter, agrees with the BBC’s straightforward approach. “A good policy should be short, sharp, simple and to-the-point,” he says. “If you complicate policies you run the risk of not being taken seriously. Journalists tend to be maverick individuals. They don’t take kindly to being told what to do.” Silber also believes that a professional journalist should already know how to behave online. “You apply the same rules as you would in print – all the same principles should apply.”
A journalist should therefore maintain the same ethical principles regardless of the medium, but it’s still important to remember that news agencies have less control of the information that their employees disseminate online. “No media house can really have total control of something that is out of their hands,” says Clay. “The technology that is enabling all this is not theirs. Digital [media] has engendered a demand for greater transparency from the public, and journalists must be both more transparent, and more aware of what they are doing in that sphere of communication.”
But does this imply censorship?
“I don’t think censor is the right word,” says Dawes. “They should edit themselves, bearing in mind the parameters set by their professional responsibilities.”
Phillip de Wet, deputy editor of The Daily Maverick and FreeAfricanMedia.com, agrees. “Nobody can afford to do stream-of-consciousness on a mass platform,” he says. “Journalists just happen to have somewhat tighter restrictions imposed by the nature of the job.”
According to De Wet, while it is ‘almost always’ acceptable for media workers to express their personal opinion on Facebook or Twitter, it is never entirely possible to separate your personal identity from your brand if you are a bylined journalist or credited editor; nor can one separate private online comments from public ones. “Not unless you still live in a dream world where journalistic objectivity exists.”
“Here in the real world, though, our opinions affect our work which makes it all the more important to be upfront about our opinions, biases and prejudices. There is no such thing as a private tweet. Even protected tweets can be re-tweeted by an approved recipient, making the private public with the click of a button.”
Michelle Atagana, managing editor at memeburn.com, emphasises journalistic responsibility, and believes that the bar is set higher for journalists on social networks because of this responsibility. “Journalists and those in the media need to remember that they are custodians of conscience,” says Atagana. “What they say helps form public opinion and they need to be very careful about the opinions they make public. Writing on a social network is an act of publishing to a large audience with a wide range of backgrounds, sensibilities and contexts. Any tweet or Facebook status update is quotable because it is in the public domain, no matter how casual.”
Social networks are part of a volatile and unpredictable medium, which is why adherence to a formal policy is becoming increasingly necessary. But these policies are all a work in progress, and will respond differently to changes in the medium. “The policy isn’t the important part,” adds De Wet, “it just needs to make provision for disciplinary action when required. The important part is education around social media, the implications of using it, [and] the potential downfalls.”
In Clay’s opinion, disciplinary action must be responsive to changes in attitudes, behaviour, systems, functions and strategies within each publication. “It is up to the editors to implement, monitor or react to transgressions or to develop or adjust the policy to ensure it is workable and relevant to their needs and activities,” she says, adding that Avusa’s policy is a work in progress, and is subject to change.
While it can be argued that social media policies run the risk of restricting freedom of speech, everyone, journalist or not, can be held liable for what they’ve published online. Journalists should therefore view formal social media policies as an aid, rather than a limitation. “It is important to help staff to understand what an effective presence on social media platforms entails,” says Dawes. “This is more about enablement than about restrictions.”
Social media policies are therefore important, because they teach journalists how to use the Internet to their advantage, and not to their detriment. It also helps to remember that monitoring what we say online could be a safety net for our journalistic integrity, and our industry’s already crumbling credibility.
Follow Samantha on Twitter @SamMoolman