By David Sheets | July 10th, 2012
It’s amazing the things that we see people tweet about. Personal beliefs. Private conversations. Elicit behavior. Groundless criticism. Uneducated perspective.
Yes, I’m talking about journalists, too.
Sure, some genuine news seeps through to the Twitterverse — the brilliant coverage by Andy Carvin of last year’s “Arab Spring” foremost among the examples. (Remarkably, a year later, his work still sets the standard.) Otherwise, what remains on that social network largely amounts to boorishness and self-aggrandizement, impugning and assuming, snobbery and effrontery.
When I came up through the journalism ranks, any sort of spotlight-hogging was frowned upon as ethically dubious, if not forbidden by company policy. Today, a persistent and effusive social media presence is considered essential to one’s employment, if for no other reason than to continually trumpet a media “brand.”
This deep bow to branding waxes ominous, thanks largely to such popular social media measuring sticks as Klout assigning a manufactured importance to digital socialization — an importance weighted in favor of quantity instead of quality. If we agree to hold up these sticks as accurate, then news reporting via social media is bound not to be.
Why? Because there’s a certain assurance news consumers get from a journalist’s professional detachment, and we see that assurance petering out now as news providers strive to be heard above the loud partisan polemic drowning rational thought — a polemic they help stir up.
The solution, short of wiping social media off the map, is greater attentiveness toward distinguishing personal from professional content. Though there are claims that a personal touch demystifies media and as a result makes news more consumable, personalization also blurs the line separating judgment from fact. And when journalists apply it, they put their profession at risk of being marginalized by “citizen” journalists who insist they’re merely following the example.
So, then, make that example an admirable one:
Separate personal from professional tweets — If this means creating separate Twitter accounts, so be it. And try not to use the company logo or any derivative as a personal avatar.
Exercise care with criticism — Do you love “50 Shades of Grey”? Do you hate the movie remake of “Spider-Man”? That’s fine, but keep those opinions off all professional social media accounts, unless it has a discernible job relevance. Otherwise, inserting opinion only waters down what little objectivity a journalist can muster.
Keep company matters inside the company — There may be discord between management and staff, or personnel matters that prove irksome, but venting discontent via veiled insult on social media not only undermines others’ faith in you, it also could prove actionable in a court of law. In the same vein, honesty regarding one’s own reporting or editing errors may evoke pangs of guilt and frustration, but it reinforces credibility and respectability as well.
Rein in the urge to be defensive — By its nature, journalism invites criticism, warranted or not. Certainly, some of that criticism can be mean-spirited and vindictive, instead of constructive. Avoid driving a conversation further down the same dark road. As humorist Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”
Resist posting vacation and food photos — It’s always good to get away from it all when possible; it’s bad to drag readers and viewers along. That beach picture with Diamond Head in the background, while pretty, smacks of braggadocio, and may even suggest to others a laxity at work — especially if the picture puts you in one place while the calendar says you should be somewhere else. Food photos, on the other hand, pose a different problem, one rooted in esthetics. Put simply, food never looks as good in social media as it does in person.
Avoid posting sales pitches — Ensure personal brand integrity by not promoting other brands in tweets through sales pitches or links to special deals. Leave that up to the sales people who are supposed to market those products.
David Sheets is a content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, a candidate for Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.