Can journalists use social networks to express opinions or advocate for causes?

The short answer is “not really.” Unfortunately.


onyourmind

When I decided four years ago to pursue a career in journalism, I honestly didn’t take into consideration how much my personal online presence would need to be pulled back. I, like most liberal millennials, have some strong opinions when it comes to certain topics, be it politics, religions, or whatever other topics you’re not supposed to discuss over dinner. However, now I also can’t, or shouldn’t, discuss any of these opinions over social media at the risk of losing my credibility as a journalist.

Currently, because I am only a freelance journalist, I am not held under any specific rules or regulations by my employers. However, given that I am actively pursuing a full-time job in journalism once I graduate, I am still cautious about what I post. According to Eric Carvin, social media editor of the Associated Press, “It’s usually best to avoid the most controversial topics no matter what, though there might otherwise be some wiggle room.”

However, when it comes to Carvin’s employer, there isn’t much wiggle room for expressing opinions, at all. A 2013 AP employee handbook stated, “AP staffers must be aware that opinions they express may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news. AP employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum and must not take part in organized action in support of causes or movements.”

This isn’t uncommon. Other major news organizations  have adopted similar policies, including the New York Times, which tells employees, “Be careful not to write anything on a blog or a personal Web page that you could not write in The Times –­ don’t editorialize, for instance, if you work for the News Department. “

The Wall Street Journal is no exception either, explaining to employees in a 2009 bulletin, “Sharing your personal opinions, as well as expressing partisan political views, whether on Dow Jones sites or on the larger Web, could open us to criticism that we have biases and could make a reporter ineligible to cover topics in the future for Dow Jones.”

According to the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, “the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.” One of the ways in which to do this is to, “avoid conflicts on interest.” By making a social media post containing an opinion or act of advocacy with your name attached, it creates a conflict of interest as your name is also attached to material which is meant to be, by definition, unbiased. If journalists are considered biased, their work will be judged the same.

In today’s internet-obsessed age, it’s difficult to give up your identity on social media profiles as they become almost extensions of ourselves. However, as we’ve learned, nothing is really private, even if your account settings say so, and anything you post online as a journalist can be considered a reflection of your publisher. Because of this, unless you’re an advocate journalist, working for an advocacy-driven news organization, you’re opinions can’t be made public, and thus cannot be posted on social media profiles.

To see why these policies are often out-of-date, check out this article by social media expert JD Lasica.

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The First Amendment: what it means to a student journalist

As stated by the constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment is nothing new to a journalism student in her fifth year of college. Most journalism courses I’ve taken have even begun with an entry quiz, “name your first amendment rights.” Despite how much I’ve studied journalistic laws and ethics, I’m constantly reminded of just how valuable they are to me as a journalist (and budding photojournalist), and why as a student I’ve been ingrained to know my journalistic rights, and realistically, limitations.

This lesson in particular drove home the lesson that the First Amendment doesn’t make a journalist untouchable by the law — not by a long shot. It doesn’t give a journalist the right to manipulate the truth (also an ethical issue) or interfere with a story. Even if you are directly obeying your First amendment rights, you run the risk of police interference, as we’ve learned from countless examples including the Lima tank plant incident involving Toledo Blade reporters. This was also seen with the journalist arrests during the Ferguson unrest. Good journalists are still arrested in 2015, and police may overstep their legal boundaries. In these cases, knowing your journalistic rights and freedoms is not only an academic suggestion, but a legal necessity.

Another point driven home by this week’s lesson was the ethical responsibility of journalists to cover the truth, regardless of how downright depressing the content may be. We do this because journalists have a fundamental responsibility to the public to accurately report information. Why? To give the public all the information they need to make informed, responsible decisions. Photographing a brutal drunk driving car crash seems crass and invasive, but it gives the public the truth and when presented with the disgusting truth of drunk driving, maybe they’ll think twice.

So, I’m still a student — why am I choosing a path that could lead to such headaches, heartaches and potentially life-altering consequences? Because, as put by Lori King, “Depressing news is the price we pay for democracy.” A free press is not the product of democracy, but the requirement. There is not a democratic nation without a free press.

Who’s that girl?

Lexi Trimpe has spent the last four years studying journalism and combining her passions of writing, food and entertaining. While writing for Hour Detroit Magazine, beginning in 2015, she worked with a variety of talented, Detroit-based food entrepreneurs and writers. Her article entitled “Food Porn Illness,” which featured local food photographers are blogger’s tips and suggestions for amerature food photography, appeared in Hour’s August 2015 “Foodie” edition, and was eventually featured as a segment on Fox 2 Detroit morning hour.

She has also covered various events for the magazine, as well as her university newspaper, The South End. Trimpe began freelancing as a production assistant for major Detroit art-based events in 2012, working with the Detroit Creative Corridor Center. A self-admitted foodie, Trimpe documents Detroit’s emerging culinary playground through her professional blog, as well as her experiences and visual observations while living in the city. She can also be found on Instagram @thewestvillageidiot or contacted at ltrimpe@gmail.com.