Social media has become an integral part of journalism. Real-time updates, finding story scoops, or engaging with readers can all be done within a few swipes on a cell phone. For journalists of color, not engaging in online discussions about racial views can be challenging.
Has social media changed objectivity?
Since more than half of Americans expect for news on social media to be inaccurate, according to the Pew Research Center, the stakes are higher for reporters to maintain honesty and impartiality on social media accounts.
“If you are a journalist, social media should be treated exactly as you would treat anything you write, videotape, or record for your job,” John C. Watson said, associate professor of communication law and journalism ethics at American University.
“The exact same ethical standards have to apply,” he said.
Online news consumption through aggregators (i.e. reading an article on Twitter versus going directly to the news site) has made it difficult to discern a straight news article from an opinion piece. Traditional print newspapers clearly distinguish between sections, but on social media, readers only see a stream of articles multiple news sites.
The push for reporters to use online platforms in addition to traditional outlets has transformed the way the understand news. “It’s a lot harder now. Compared to years ago, everything is so polarized. The changing media landscape has a lot to do with it,” said American University’s student media advisor and instructor Christopher Young.
“Keeping your opinions out of your story, your social media, is going to help you stay more credible to a wider audience,” Young said. “When you begin to take sides, that’s when a whole section of an audience will completely tune you out.”
Jamal Jordan, a digital storytelling editor at The New York Times, said to “let the truth speak for itself” in a Twitter direct message. He noted that social media is an extension of journalistic voice, but it doesn’t have to be limited. “Just keep your comments to highlighting facts, just as you would for any of your journalistic work.”
I’m a minority reporter. Now what?
Following a racial incident last school year where bananas were hung from string in the shape of nooses around campus, staffers from The Eagle, American University’s student newspaper, voiced their opinions on social media. The issue? Some of these students were already assigned to cover these incidents for the paper.
Young said that from an ethical perspective, that should not have happened.
In some cases, students understand why it’s unethical for them to post their personal views online, he said. Others have pushed back saying, “things have changed, the world has changed, the media has changed, why can’t the rules change with it?”
Not giving up on emotions could be a motivator for reporters to dig deeper into stories that shed light on injustices faced in their communities.
“I give tons of credit to any reporter of color who is covering stuff like that, feeling like that, and being able to put their emotions aside and report it completely objectively and without their emotions injected in the story,” Young said.
Diversifying newsrooms means bringing in more people that can recognize more issues that often go overlooked in minority communities. Unbalanced media coverage was partially blamed for racial uprisings in black neighborhoods during the late ‘60s, according to a landmark 1968 document known as the Kerner report.
The National Advisory Committee on Civic Disorders found that media outlets must expand reporting of black communities “through permanent assignment of reporters familiar with urban and racial affairs, and through establishment of more and better links with the Negro community.”
The diversity factor grants newsrooms the ability to recognize more things that are important and to have more perspectives on the truth as possible.
Journalists of color covering cultural issues must “maintain a clinical and credible distance from stories we report,” Watson said.
Is it safe to post this?
Newsrooms are grappling with a generational divide where younger reporters are more inclined to share their opinions on social media and be a little bit edgier with their posts.
“Commentary is much more attractive than news,” Watson said.
Higher engagement with controversial posts leads to more clicks per article, and in turn generates more revenue for news outlets through increased subscriptions or advertisements.
Creating a personal social media page to express opinions in addition to the professional page can still get reporters and newsroom leaders into hot water. Denis Finley, former executive editor for the Burlington Free Press, was fired in January after tweeting on his personal account about Vermont potentially adding a third gender option on driver’s licenses.
Young advises journalists against creating a secondary online persona. “No one is going to make that distinction. Everything you do on social media is public,” Young said.
“Who you are professionally is the same who you are personally. There is no separating the two to an audience. They see you as one person.”