To opine or not to opine: Social media proves fertile ground for a discussion about journalists and social media
By Holly Edgell | October 22nd, 2012
There’s quite a discussion going on among members of the Society of Professional Journalists group on Linkedin.
It started more than one month ago when Lisa Eramo, a freelance journalist in Rhode Island, posed a question about the ethics of journalists posting their opinions on social media pages, specifically those managed by their newsrooms. To date, there have been 82 comments, with a few heated exchanges!
For me, the thread that follows Lisa’s post raises several issues SPJ members might want to consider: both philosophical and practical. More on that in a moment.
First, here is a selection of the two cents being offered. Please note: The SPJ Linkedin Group group is members only, which implies a degree of privacy, so I am not including the names of the posters. (Lisa gave me permission to include her name and comment above). If you’d like to join the SPJ Linkedin Group, click here.
- “In my opinion, my opinion should be kept out of everything I write or edit in my professional role as a journalist. That would include an employer’s social media page. Yes, I have opinions. But my job, unless I’m a columnist, isn’t to share them.”
- “It is up to the general public to form their own decision about a matter based on the information as laid out. And for a journalist to post an opinion on their newspaper’s Facebook page, (directly or indirectly) affects that process.”
- “I’m hesistant to share my personal opinion on my own Facebook page – because nearly everyone I’m connected to associates me with my job – it’s the downside of the social media for reporters….”
- “Frankly, I’m not sure. I’ve been researching how bias is expressed rhetorically, and I think it’s mostly unconscious. It comes out in things like choice of adjectives, parenthetical remarks, etc. It might be better if reporters had their opinions on record somewhere – or maybe not. Sorry, all I’ve got is honest confusion. For practical reasons, their publications FB page might not be the best place to state where they’re coming from.
- When we as journalists step away from this mindset, we dilute the news process and step into the realm of telling people WHAT and HOW to think. And in my opinion, that is no longer journalism. Expressing one’s opinion as you’re hanging out with friends (in person or on your PERSONAL Facebook page), is fine.”
- “Does the paper itself have a policy? Seeing Courtney’s comment really helps. She appears to be engaging in a discussion rather than monitoring comments. I ran into this a lot at my previous job. When readers would engage me via company email about stories I edited in the magazine I stayed very neutral. I would explain myself, but not take sides. When they engaged me about the column I wrote, which was supposed to have a point of view, I had no problem issuing my opinion. Either way, however, I was very cognizant that whatever I put in writing could then be forwarded, re-posted, etc., so I never went beyond the line that I’d established in my column.”
So, back to the philosophical and practical thoughts.
What does the SPJ Code of Ethics say about social media and the personal opinions of journalists? SPJ Ethics Committee chair and past SPJ president Kevin Z. Smith wrote an eloquent post about this very question in September. It acknowledges that SPJ members have raised the issue of whether social media matters should specifically be addressed in the Code.
While the term “social media” does not appear in the Code, I think we can refer to these points to guide us:
- From “Seek the Truth and Report It” — Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
- From “Act Independently” —Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived; Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
We might actually interpret the Code to actively use social media to fulfill our mission as journalists.
- Again, from “Seek the Truth and Report It” — Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant; Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
- From “Be Accountable” — Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct; Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media; Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
On the practical side of things, it occurred to me that professional and student chapters could use this discussion and the issues it raises to develop programs that would provide timely forums for frank talk about an issue that continues to fascinate and frustrate us.
1. A panel discussion could feature a journalism ethics professor or a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee, a local news manager whose organization has progressive and evolving social media policy, and journalists who effectively use social media to engage with the community. Invite the general public, perhaps?
2. A Tweetup on campus or in a local public space where the social media and journalism conversation might evolve more organically
3. An Twitter chat or Google+ hangout about the subject
Whether we as an organization ultimately incorporate special social media language into the Code, or use it as a starting point for discussion and decisions is a matter that members can actually influence. That’s the beauty of membership in the Society. Let’s talk.