Can journalists be objective on social media?

Recent warnings in Kenya to journalists using social media sites highlight the power of these online forums, and the growing difficulties faced by journalists as the boundaries between personal and professional life are blurred online. As social media sites become increasingly influential and increasingly accessed, issues of objectivity and professional codes of conduct are called into question.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | September 19, 2013

Media professionals in Kenya were yesterday warned to ‘stay objective, even on social media.’ Government officials were highly criticised for ‘failing to curb the wave of hate speech that spread over the internet’ after the 2007 presidential elections, as social media sites were used as means to transmit inflammatory messages, which were largely seen as one of the biggest causes of the violence which followed the election results.

In countries with the potential for such political violence, the prospective repercussions of misusing social media forums magnifies the severity of implications surrounding the sites. However, the caution given to Kenyan journalists today to remain ‘objective’ surely begs the question as to whether objectivity within social media is possible at all.

The presence and importance of social media is growing steadily, and events such as the Kenyan presidential elections or the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings highlight the efficacy with which such sites can be used to transmit information, in these cases to disastrous effect. At the 2013 Symposium on Online Journalism, Andy Carvin warned that ‘We are no longer the media we are used to being, and we don’t control what people see … our jobs have changed’. The main danger lies in the transmission of false information; when social media is used to spread rumours or fear-monger. To counteract this, Carvin argues that journalists must engage with their public, and in a more effective way than by simply retweeting or liking posts; ‘We need to recognise that social media is a powerful tool and use it to slow down the news cycle.’

Various media authorities and associations have published guidelines for journalists concerning their use of social media sites. Gannett released its social media policy earlier this month, which outlines various codes of behaviour, mainly focusing on avoiding anything which might harm the reputation of the company ‘as a trusted source of information and news’ or align with any specific political, social or religious views. This is followed by advice specific to journalists, which demands transparency and a respect of confidentiality. The guidelines also, however, state that: ‘While news staffers are encouraged to develop a public personality, that personality cannot cast doubt on the individual’s or the organization’s impartiality.’ It is withinin this criteria that real difficulty lies.

The use of social media sites, and the expectation that journalists and other public figures ‘develop a personality’, obscures the boundaries between what is personal and what it private. A Kenyan broadcast journalist who came under much scrutiny who posted a controversial message on Facebook in the run-up to the March presidential elections this year said that ‘there is a lot of burden, because there is a thin line between yourself (as a professional) and your political or tribal affiliation… This is what we are fighting with, trying to have a balance between you as an individual or you as a professional journalist.’ A journalist’s online persona therefore necessarily becomes a sort of hybrid between their private and professional character.

Arguably, however, this amalgamated identity is a phenomenon experienced by everyone through social media sites; our online status lying somewhere in between fact and fiction as individuals can present themselves in the way that they wish to be seen.

And it is because of this uncertainty of position or ‘truthfulness’ that social media highlights the problematic status of ‘objectivity’ within journalism at all. Perhaps what must be relied upon, as has been the case throughout history, is the discretion of the reader – although the proliferation of social media exposure can mean that more verifiable sources are overshadowed when a sensational comment goes viral and generates thousands of others like it in its wake.

Despite the problems surrounding social media for journalists, however, a recent survey by ECCO International showed that, after asking 1149 journalists in over 12 countries, 87% ‘viewed social media as ‘complementary’ and not a threat.’ Interestingly, an overriding feature of the survey is the variation in opinion from between journalists from different countries as to what the most useful social media sites are and how these are affecting journalism, suggesting, therefore, that ‘local knowledge stays an indispensible prerequisite of success’ as marketing director of ECCO International Lutz Cleffman said.

The prominence and popularity of social media sites means that they are evidently something journalists must work with, and develop ways of using effectively and ethically. As Business2Community states in an article about Hootsuite and social media’s effects on journalism; ‘journalists need to evolve with social media in order to retain their eminence as the go-to news source’.

In an attempt to combat the proliferation of unreliable information that is being spread across the web, news platform has been launched ‘to give people a full perspective of current events by allowing them to compare traditional media reports with social media posts’, the site’s funder Devin Dixon has said. CompuTimes has advertised the site as an ‘evolution of news where normal people can have as much influence as the media and events can be looked at both objectively and subjectively.’

Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the New York Times, has called social media a ‘“double-edged sword’ – something which ‘perpetuated inaccuracies but then quickly worked to correct them,” as if there were an “entire world of public editors.” Objectivity, clearly, is an indistinct criteria in any situation, and objectivity on social media sites becomes even more complicated. Warnings about journalists’ conduct in online social forums are of course understandable and necessary, however, more thought perhaps must so go into the difficulties faced by journalists when their professional and private lives are expected to merge, and we must tailor our expectations of their social media presence accordingly.

Share via
Copy link