Saturday 21 September 2019

Adrian Weckler: Journalists and social media rants

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Should journalists be allowed to rant on social media? Does it destroy objectivity, validating critics who say their media output is biased?

Or is it just part of a more nuanced media age, where firmly-held opinions are better off being displayed out in the open as opposed to in private?

Earlier this month, the world's most prominent newspaper drew a line in the sand.

The New York Times now says that its reporters may not express opinions on issues they write about, anywhere on social media.

"In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times' journalistic reputation," says the paper's new policy guide.

"Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that The Times is seeking to cover objectively."

In case anyone wonders about whether this is just noble aspiration without any meaningful enforcement, The paper's guidelines add: "Violations will be noted on performance reviews."

In an age of online 'hot takes', is this naive or noble?

In Ireland, Twitter is a journalistic free-for-all. There are no strict guidelines applied by major news organisations. Journalists are largely free to tweet any partisan view about any subject.

It is standard fare now for political, business, crime and other reporters, correspondents and editors to tweet personal views - often trenchant ones - about issues and individuals involved in news stories they cover.

The retweets, likes and quotes they get for doing this appear to serve as a metric of validation and 'community'.

Many on social media, including news junkies, campaigners and advocates, lap it up. Current affairs is a quasi-sport and junkies love the cut and thrust. The more people expressing personal views - either to applaud or vilify - the better.

But does it come at the expense of credibility throughout the sector? Or is it simply the same as newspapers publishing heavily slanted front pages?

Edelman's widely-quoted 'Trust Barometer' index shows that the media is at an all-time low (43pc) in people's regard.

"The cycle of distrust is magnified by the emergence of a media echo chamber that reinforces personal beliefs while shutting out opposing points of view," concludes the Trust Barometer. "The lack of trust in media has also given rise to the fake news phenomenon and politicians speaking directly to the masses."

In other words, journalist are circling the wagons and buttressing views that they and their base already hold.

Yet many disagree with the New York Times social media rules.

"Is an NYT climate reporter allowed to tweet 'climate change is real'?" tweeted Jason Abbruzzese, a journalist for Mashable.

"If you forbid journalists from taking sides in political disputes, you're also forbidding them from telling the truth when they see it," said Carlos Maza, a reporter for Vox.

Others that dispute the New York Times' strict rules on social media opinions argue that advocacy and good journalism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Passion drives interest in a topic, they say, which in turn motivates the person to uncover important details on matters of public interest.

In Ireland, this is apparent on issues as diverse as the uncovering of what happened to Savita Halappanavar to exposing bankers' behaviour on a range of issues. Journalists with strong personal convictions often dig harder and longer.

Commercially, those who favour loosening journalistic objectivity have the upper hand.

Indeed, it is ironic that the New York Times's own considerable boost in online subscriptions over the last year has arguably come about not because of its commitment to objectivity but because it is perceived as being a formidable opponent to Donald Trump. In other words, it is benefiting from exactly the climate it says it's against: having a bias on one side of the argument.

In US television, the middle-leaning NBC, CBS and ABC, which have historical allegiances to ideas of impartiality and objectivity, are being devoured by MSNBC and Fox News, both of which are partisan organisations with little care for balance and a mission to increase ratings by shouting loudest about how evil the other side is.

In the US, I have some experience with this genre of polarisation. Much of my family lives in Chicago, a heavily Democratic city. With the liberal-leaning MSNBC permanently on the television at night, my relatives shout and roar at their television sets as anchors Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes bring them the latest outrage perpetrated by the Republican villain of the day. Others in my family are Republican-leaning with Fox News constantly on in the background. They froth and fume at whatever the latest perceived crime by Hillary Clinton is.

I don't wish to come across a hypocrite. This is a column, expressing an opinion. I also occasionally share views on social media (although not as much as I used to and less often on topics I'm covering as news stories).

Even off social media, I regularly write 'explainers' or 'comment' pieces that accompany news stories (which I often also write). This is usually based on interpretations that may sometimes veer close to opinion.

Does this knock the reporting down? That's a good question. My own intention is usually to try and ask the most pertinent question I can about an issue and, if there isn't a clear answer available, to bring experience to its analysis.

That could certainly cross the line into opinion.

It's possible, so, that I may not get a job in the New York Times at any point in the future.

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