'All views are my own, not those of my employer' is an oft-seen disclaimer on journalists’ social media profiles but these days hardly anyone buys it.
Even when it is not the intention, our online activity has an impact on our news outlet’s public image. Some journalists self-censor and do not share their personal opinions on news, or at least they think very, very carefully before hitting the “Tweet” button. Others follow their employer’s social media guidelines that provide at least some framework for what is and is not acceptable behaviour on social platforms. But for most, finding the right balance is a true minefield.
To help you navigate the choppy waters of Twitter storms, we invited four experts to Newsrewired (10th December 2020) to talk about the pros and cons of getting personal on social platforms.
Many organisations have recently tightened their social media policies for journalists. But the BBC took this one step further with its new social media guidance that tells employees not to 'express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or controversial subjects' on online platforms.
Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism, Cardiff University, spent 30 years at BBC News as a producer, editor and director of Global News and the World Service. Earlier this year, he led an independent review on how the corporation maintains impartiality on social media and he also advised on the new rules, although he was not the one drafting them.
As a public broadcaster, the BBC is required by the law to be impartial in its news coverage. Expressing, say, political allegiance or judging public policies on social media goes directly against this. And once a journalist has the BBC brand in their bio, users may easily consider individual views as those of the corporation and feel that their public news service is biased.
"A lot of journalists and organisations are still thinking about social media as it used to be," says Sambrook.
"Some think it’s informal, some think it’s quite fun, a way of getting closer to your audiences but things have moved on. It is now a significant channel of communication."
He encouraged organisations and journalists to use social media as a professional output tool rather than a personal media channel.
"In many respects [social media] has become toxic," he adds.
"There is a lot of abuse and criticism, and both organisations and individuals’ approach to social media need to wake up a little bit to how it works now."
Objectivity vs impartiality
Robyn Vinter, founder of the independent news outlet The Overtake, spoke of the challenges to navigate different social media guidelines when working with several outlets.
"My goal is to serve the reader," she said, adding that it can be difficult to be careful and diplomatic when posting something a journalist has strong feelings about.
"But you can do both of those things; it’s about finding the right balance."
Vinter, who has been a prolific Tweeter for a decade, added that she sometimes realises that sharing strong views may have alienated some people. On the other hand, speaking with an authentic voice helps her audiences to see her as a real human being and not a “corporate robot” who just shares her stories.
There is another advantage to this human relationship. When she was a freelancer, Vinter would often get commissioned after she has shared strong views on a news topic at the right time.
Finally, when the readers can identify themselves with the journalist, they are more likely to share story leads.
"I had people who told me: 'I don’t speak to journalists but I will speak to you'," she concluded.
Why objectivity matters
Jo Adetunji, managing editor, The Conversation UK, provided a contrasting opinion on the need for impartiality within journalism.
"You have to show that you can be objective, of course we all have opinions, but I think it’s not enough - especially in an industry that suffers from trust issues - to say ‘you just have to trust us’," she explains.
As an editor you have to be able to commission people with different views, she added, especially as we are seeing a rise of "activist journalism."
Social media is a great way for journalists to engage in debates on topics that may not normally be relevant or interesting to the wider audience.
Therefore, journalists can find it challenging to keep their personal and professional online lives separate, as seen by Adetunji, who shared her own experiences of social media and upkeeping her professionalism. She says:
"I remember thinking Twitter is where I’ll do professional stuff, Facebook is where I’ll do personal stuff, and then you just end up getting very confused about where you’re putting anything."
But more than that, journalists often get too sucked into Twitter storms and online debates, forgetting that there is a much wider community who does not engage with or care about online debates.
Challenging the norm
Adriana Lacy, senior associate for audience and growth, Axios, spoke about how the Black Lives Matter movement and the US presidential elections tested the notions of objectivity and impartiality in US newsrooms.
"Whose objectivity are we following?" she asked, adding that both events prompted many black and also immigrant journalists to become vocal about their experiences on social media.
"For many people, these are not our opinions, these are our lives."
Since working on audience growth, Lacy saw how important it is for reporters to be online and share their stories. Sometimes when journalists share stories they are personally connected with, these perform much better than when they are shared by the official outlet account.
Whilst understanding of the way in which journalists use opinions, she also acknowledged how incredible the power of social media is in reaching audiences that are traditionally not acknowledged by the media.
"Social media has been a really great tool for journalists to spread their work and reach communities who are often not reached,” she said. “I’m hoping that social media continues to be a healthy and more productive way to share thoughts online."
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