I am also hoping that when you do get into those newsrooms, you rewrite these ethics policies and demand a restructuring — or a least a rethinking of what it means to have a private life and a public life as a journalist in the age of social media.
First, Some Newsroom Realities
Please note these parts I have quoted from the article:
Since the rise of social networking, it has become common for managers to review publicly available Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and other sites to learn more about candidates. But many users, especially on Facebook, have their profiles set to private, making them available only to selected people or certain networks.
Companies that do not ask for passwords have taken other steps — such as asking applicants to friend human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during an interview. Once employed, some workers have been required to sign non-disparagement agreements that ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.
At the very least, students, please go immediately to check your Facebook settings. Make sure your social and political activities are set to private. Please go to your tweets and consider deleting any that might suggest either inappropriate behavior (yes, pot smoking is illegal) or anything that might demonstrate that you are politically active (especially if you have any interest whatsoever in being a mainstream political reporter).
Some newsrooms are notoriously invasive regarding one’s off-work activities. Check out this apology from Gannett
this past week when the company discovered some of its reporters had signed petitions to recall the Wisconsin governor. They believe this practice of zero political activity to be essential to their maintaining credibility among their mainstream constituents:
The principle at stake is our belief that professional journalists must exercise caution and not become involved with issues that may cause doubts about their neutrality as journalists. Political activity is foremost. That belief is even more critical in an era when journalism is under a microscope and our credibility is routinely challenged.
It’s a balancing act and losing one’s balance can result in “discipline,” as the Gannett press release makes clear. By the way, this balancing act is one professional strategic communicators need to know how to perform as well, as this recent madison.com article
about the UW-system spokesman, who had also signed the petition and then had to publicly apologize.
Demanding a Re-Conceptualization
I think this issue is especially sticky for college journalism students. We have heard of editors extending these newsroom policies to past behavior on the part of the students even before they get the job.
How does one participate fully in the college experience, experimenting socially and politically while also reining in one’s youthful fervor? I regret the move toward investigating people’s past civic and social actions (that are not illegal) as a requirement for a job — any job. And I understand the outrage on the part of students
and others who suggest that newsrooms and communication offices are going too far in these mandates to be unbiased. Objectivity, most contend, is an unattainable goal in the end. So journalists are not allowed to be active citizens? Doesn’t free speech — in all of its manifestations — apply to people who work in these places as well? Such are the common rhetorical questions.
The professors in my department, the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication, recently weighed in on this issue, particularly the Gannet action against its politically active reports, in a private email exchange on our list serve. I’ve received permission from some of the professors to quote from that exchange. Here is what these world-renowned professors of the industry had to say:
My reaction is that this is carrying the impulse of political correctness to an insane dimension. I think signing petitions should be taken as equivalent to voting and thus part of citizen responsibility…
I also wonder if the alternate response, that is not signing the petition, isn’t also political in nature…
It is absurd to think journalists do not have political views. It is more dishonest to pretend they don’t than to admit they do. The point is that they strive to adhere to professional standards whatever their views. Of course, that is a difficult concept to sell to the public, and most of us would prefer not to try…
It is a fundamental mis-application of the notions of conflict of interest and independence which is NOT (!) based on the fact that you can hide your views…
And people who didn’t sign this petition have undoubtedly signed others. It’s just that this one became a searchable database…
Note that last bolded point. A difference exists between signing a petition that is publicly searchable and checking a ballot behind a curtain. To me, this issue revolves around public versus private declarations of ideological bias within an age of social media. As another professor noted:
This is actually a moment that calls for people to redefine their conceptions of, not throw out, the idea of independence and impartiality in one’s professional life…
Being Journalists in a Digital Age
The key is how these policies should be refined. If I were an editor I would be cautious about revising a policy to include the allowance of something like signing a petition or sign holding. As the SPJ
The SPJ Ethics Committee gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity. The simplest answer is ‘No.’ Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.
Rather, any new policy should consider digital “activity” on the part of reporters in terms of realm-specific production. Today our physical-world social networks extend into virtual places where we maintain and nurture all kinds of personal relationships. Are Facebook political status updates public only to a circle of close friends fair game for company policy (and if so, will the managers stoop to wiring the employee at a coffee shop)? Today our conversations occur more and more in widely networked online spaces; and so does our professional writing. Digital technologies allow us to work from home, during “off” hours. The cross-pollination of social-media platforms bleed any kind of private-public distinction, any kind of personal-professional distinction we may even try to maintain. Will the newsroom consider Twitter ephemeral, episodic, informal speech or more definitive, archival, formal text?
Today what used to be a quasi-private act in the sense that few bothered to actually expose “regular” people’s actions is now easily unveiled. Because of their blogging, tweeting and status updating, reporters are encouraged by their editors to build individual brands (and gain followers/audiences/page views). Is signing a petition that could end up in a searchable database online equivalent to marching at the Capitol for everyone to see? Should reporters consider any content they produce in online spaces as part of their professional branding?
Where does it end? If our journalists are going to remain sane (and not burn out), we simply must carve out space for a personal life that helps re-invigorate them for the hard work of watch-dogging.
At the same time, I also fear that in the age of citizen journalism where everyone with a computer and an agenda can disseminate “news,” we forget one reason some of us like journalists to maintain, if not objectivity, at least the balance and fairness needed to have some “neutral” political work. Transparency is part of the solution here. But also a measure of restraint on the part of journalists.
Students, being able to report and write stories that uncover wrongdoing, that highlight societal problems, that suggest solutions and spur people to action is a significant and incredibly rewarding form of civic engagement. As many public policy scholars have noted, acts of citizenship can transpire in many different ways; petition signing is just one of them. For all those years I was a journalist, I certainly considered the investigations I did, the problems I uncovered, the solutions I researched and published to be my own kind of political action. That work was not ideologically spurred, but rather, propelled by a more significant desire to see democracy succeed.
After all, one of the main reasons we want our young people to be politically engaged is to demonstrate their commitment to the world they live in, to care about it and improve upon it by the main power a democracy hands its citizens (that is, via ballots, signs and assembly). Reporters have additional tools for that kind of action toward making the political process as fair and effective as possible.
Dear Students, Making oneself into the best journalist you can be is the very best kind of status update, the very best kind of signature.