Social media has effectively become a professional resource that many journalists use to research stories and sources, publish and promote content and engage with the audience – sometimes replacing the comment section of a publication’s website, altogether. However, as personal platforms designed for sharing, social media has also become a challenge for journalists’ neutrality, especially when it comes to discussing politics and current affairs.
Last month, after the New York Times announced the hiring of tech journalist Sarah Jeong, right-wing media caused online outrage, unearthing inflammatory jokes about white people that Jeong, of Asian heritage, had tweeted years ago. Both The Times and their new hire later condemned the language used in the posts, explaining that the reporter had been responding to abusive comments, but the incident is just the last one in a series of similar cautionary tales.
It partly comes down to the individual, the context and the news organization involved. Before joining The Times, an established mainstream media outlet, Jeong worked for Vox Media’s The Verge and VICE’s Motherboard, two tech-focused digital outlets with an outspoken attitude and a younger, niche audience that is more acquainted with a certain type of provocative online rhetoric.
As a rule of thumb though, incivility, name calling or hyperbolic and reactive comments should be discouraged, especially among journalists, according to Shannon McGregor, professor of political communication at the University of Utah.
“It does seem that for the most part journalists are allowed, and in some cases encouraged, to partake [in discussions] on [social media], and that sometimes involves sharing their opinion,” she says. “Of course, that potentially opens them up to charges of bias, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Journalists have always had opinions and yet strive for objectivity in reporting. They’re humans.”
Still, impartiality continues to be a crucial value in journalism and many news organizations — The New York Times, the BBC, NPR and Reuters, just to name a few — have implemented policies that encourage employees to be mindful of the company’s reputation for integrity, when interacting online, at all times.
“At least, it means [they are] thinking about it, and it’s important for them to be thinking about what role social media should play in their journalists’ day-to-day cycle,” McGregor says.
Anthony Adornato, an Ithaca College professor and author specializing in social media journalism, believes it’s important that journalists apply the industry’s traditional ethics and principles to social media, too. “[They] should not share their personal opinions about politics on their social media accounts, not even those that are considered ‘private,’” he wrote in an email.
He suggests using judgement even when sharing, liking or following any profile or post of political nature: “When a journalist retweets something from a political candidate, it should include a sentence that explains why the post is relevant. If you simply retweet without providing context, users may question whether you are endorsing the view expressed in the tweet.”
Adornato goes as far as to say that journalists should only follow pages or accounts of political parties and politicians for purposes of information gathering. “In other words, to keep track of what someone is posting that could potentially be newsworthy. If you follow one candidate or party on social media, you should also be following the other(s) as well,” he says.
Better to be cautious then, but many journalists have already realized that. A study from 2013 on political news journalists reported that very few reporters — unlike commentators — “are comfortable sharing political opinions or blurring the boundaries between the personal and the professional, indicating that traditional journalistic norms still stand.” Those who found sharing their views the least problematic only made up 12 percent of the total journalists included in the research.
What would be a constructive way to engage with news and events on social networks? McGregor suggests sharing the ongoings of the reporting process: “We’re seeing declining levels of trust in the news — really, across the world — and so I think one of the strategies that the press can use to counter that is to be more transparent about reporting.”
She points to the case of David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post, who won the Pulitzer prize last year for his reporting on the Trump administration, as an example of that. “[He’s] sharing live on Twitter as he’s discovering new things, [and talking about] his investigating process,” she says.
Disclosing how stories take shape, though, doesn’t mean disclosing personal opinions on the facts or the people they expose, and should it? That depends on how journalists and media companies intend to uphold accuracy and fairness: Whether they strive to achieve impartiality and objectivity or acknowledge that biases are inevitable and are open about it.