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.