Nothing personal: social media must remain opinion-free zones for journalists

Declaring personal opinions on social media can cost a journalist their career [Image: Andreas Eldh / Flickr]

Declaring personal opinions on social media could cost a journalist their career [Image: Andreas Eldh / Flickr]

Journalists must resist posting personal opinions on social media to avoid tainting themselves – and their employers – with credibility-destroying bias.

Doing so has claimed more than a few careers.

CNN correspondent Diana Magnay was recently reassigned from her post covering the Israel-Gaza war after tweeting that a group of Israelis, who were cheering missile attacks on Gaza, were “scum”.

Another casualty was CNN Mideast affairs senior editor Octavia Nasr, who was sacked following her tweet in praise of a Hezbollah leader.

The Age columnist Catherine Deveny was also fired after her controversial Logies night tweets, including one about child star Bindi Irwin.

Declaring an opinion opposes the aims of fourth estate journalism, which demands journalists inform without bias, and be neutral and objective in reporting the facts. The public trusts this impartiality.

So although it’s impossible for journalists to be completely objective, publicly taking sides calls into question the journalist’s ability to fairly report the story.

And it’s even worse when this opinion is aired on social media.

Twitter and Facebook have become integral to reporting news. Journalists have been encouraged to engage with readers on social media to promote their stories, break news and gather information. Fairfax Media even set Twitter targets for their entertainment reporters.

The problem is that social media makes it easy for journalists to unburden their thoughts free from editor scrutiny. They fall into the trap of thinking personal accounts with disclaimers are “safe”.

But because journalists and social media are so integrated, a journalist’s personal views aired in public cannot be divorced from their work. Not only does it erode public trust in the journalist, but also in their employer.

And news outlets have been fiercely protective of their reputation.

An internal CNN memo said Nasr was sacked because her “credibility” as Middle-East affairs senior editor “has been compromised”.

To mitigate the risk, most media organisations now have social media policies in place.

The ABC guidelines urge employees to assess their “risk” before using social media. CNN’s policy only allows their journalists to “write about something CNN would not report on”.

Any behaviour at odds with these standards has become legitimate grounds for dismissal.

This media self-regulation recognises that journalists have a strong influence on public debate through social media. A journalist helps others form opinions, which is why they must be careful when expressing their own.

But for the sake of reputation – theirs and their employer’s – it’s better to say nothing and avoid the damaging smear of bias.

The stakes are too high.


This article was also published on City Journal Online on 12 September 2014.

4 thoughts on “Nothing personal: social media must remain opinion-free zones for journalists

  1. Great post Nadia – I think it’s really difficult to get that balance. Like you said, news organisations expect their journalists to have a certain number of followers, and you can’t get followers without interesting tweets. I often wonder about us as budding journos – as we need an online presence to get a job, but want to be seen as being professional and un-biased. Perhaps it’s similar to how we have to use our discretion when deciding if something’s fit to print or broadcast – put our tweets through the journalistic process…though it’s a lot of effort to go to for 140 characters!

  2. I agree. People, especially journalists, need to be careful with Social Media. Posting something on Twitter or updating a status on Facebook is like writing on a wall in real life: everybody can see it. The solution might be to have separate accounts: one professional and one private. It’s one of the rules: journalists don’t give their opinion.

    Saying that, I also think that it depends what field you are working in. For example, I’m interested in gaming news and I follow quite a few journos from the industry and they often say whatever they want on Twitter. They also often use their account as a personnal one: they post and retweet stupid things, funny pictures and sometimes give their opinions.

  3. If personal opinion goes into writing why shouldn’t tweets be thus personalised?
    I think you only run into trouble when journos go so far as to – as you point out – impinge on the reputation of the organisation. But a bit of flair in one’s Twitter account, a sharp wit expressed respectfully is fine in my opinion.
    It’s so competitive out there these days, that a bit of personality might attract more Twitter followers to a journalist and then lead to more views of the publication.

    • You make a good point, Lincoln – I definitely agree where columnists such as Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt or The Australian’s Chris Kenny are concerned. They are, after all, being paid by their employer to express an opinion. But I think it’s different in the case in the case of journalists working solely to inform the reader of the facts. Yes, there’s subjectivity involved for sure. The journalist needs to exercise judgement as to what the relevant facts are in the first place. But I think that’s different to actually taking a stance on an issue. But as you say, news is so competitive these days. And it’s never been more obvious it’s a business too. Maybe the publications do to differentiate themselves through clickbait-type opinion-slinging Twitter grabs to survive the digital age? But then, what about quality objective journalism? Is this op-ed stuff the new journalism? One thing I know for sure is that it’s definitely a complex topic!

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