Bias on social media undercuts trust in news

October 26, 2017 11:00

Author's NoteTwo weeks ago the New York Times released updated social media guidelines for its newsroom employees. A journalism colleague of mine in Russia was debating the value of these guidelines with other Russian journalists. There was wide disagreement over whether they were useful, or too heavy handed. I was asked if I would share my opinion. My response is below:
 
For the most part, I support the rules The New York Times has put in place for its reporters. It is very similar to the NPR guidelines that we follow and similar to the Michigan Radio social media guidelines we give to all our programming staff.

Journalism in the United States has a long tradition of being non-partisan and unbiased. While that tradition is being challenged by the growth of extremely partisan media such as Brietbart and Occupy Democrats, and generally partisan media such as Fox News and MSNBC, in my opinion the best and most valuable news is provided by mainstream media outlets who adhere to traditional ethics of fairness and balance, and whose reporters attempt to present all relevant and credible sides of important issues.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics advises journalists to “…avoid political or other outside activities that may compromise integrity, or impartiality or may damage credibility.” In a similar way, the RTDNA code of ethics states “political activity and active advocacy can undercut the real or perceived independence of those who practice journalism. Journalists do not give up the rights of citizenship, but their public exercise of those rights can call into question their impartiality.”

 

RTDNA code of ethics states “political activity and active advocacy can undercut the real or perceived independence of those who practice journalism.

In the past this has meant that there are certain things journalists should not do, including signing political petitions, marching in protests, putting signs supporting candidates in their lawn, donating money to political candidates, and working for political advocacy groups. (This is an incomplete list, but you get the idea.) For most journalists, this made sense. How could a reporter claim to cover the mayor’s race fairly, if he had a sign supporting a mayoral candidate in her front lawn? How could a reporter cover foreign policy in an unbiased manner, if there were pictures of him marching in anti-war protests?

In my opinion, these ethics that journalists follow in real life must also be followed (as best we can) on social media. If a journalist changes their profile picture to a “resist Trump” meme, or “Pro-Life,” it also clearly demonstrates their position on a political issue and hinders their ability to be impartial in their coverage.

So when The New York Times code states: “If our journalists are perceived as biased or if they engage in editorializing on social media, that can undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom,” they are following in that ethical tradition. They are asking their reporters to act like journalists and follow journalistic ethics not only in their real lives, but online as well.

 

The ethics that journalists follow in real life must also be followed ... on social media

The reality is that I, and my reporters, and my station, are accused of bias all the time. Listeners and readers will often write or call to accuse us of liberal or conservative bias depending on their own politics and the particular story they didn’t like. While we are always happy to defend our coverage, it doesn't help if the reporter who wrote the story also has their own personal opinions about the issue on their personal Facebook page. We have a vigorous editorial process at our station designed to keep individual bias out of our stories, but the audience is not likely to believe us if we have staff members displaying a bias in public on social media. As The New York Times points out, those types of statements on social media undercut a media outlet’s journalistic reputation.

 

Does this mean that journalists must be devoid of personality and secretive on their social media pages? I don’t think so.

Anyone who studies my Facebook page would quickly discover I’m a white, straight, married, Irish-Catholic, middle-class, over-educated father of three daughters who works in public radio, has black belts in two martial arts, and likes travel, photography, teasing my friends and wearing my tuxedo. I certainly don’t think it’s unethical to have a life and share it with friends on social media.

I realize people could take some of that information and try to guess where I stood on certain political issues. In some instances they would be correct, in other instances they would be wrong. But I believe it would be inappropriate for me to say, “This proposed legislation is exactly what we need,” or, “Governor X should be in jail,” on my Facebook page.

Friends of mine on Facebook will also know I’m not a purist on this policy. There are issues which I believe it is permissible for journalists to share their opinions.

I don’t think it is unethical for journalists to defend the industry against attacks on a free press, or defend attacks against the First Amendment, or call for transparency. These are issues we clearly have professional opinions about as journalists, and I don’t think defending our rights as journalists or reminding people of the importance of a free press, hurts our credibility in any way.  

I don’t think it is unethical for journalists to defend the industry against attacks on a free press, or defend attacks against the First Amendment, or call for transparency. 

This can make us seem adversarial with President Trump, because he so frequently attacks the press, but journalists should be careful to keep their social media discussions strictly about press issues, and not make partisan statements about immigration policy, Obamacare or tax reform.

Many media outlets have an additional qualifier to their social media policies (including Michigan Radio where I work) requiring staff members not to post anything that would jeopardize the news outlet’s reputation. In my experience, more journalists have been disciplined about this policy than the one discussed above.

Because of our positions in a very public industry, everything we do or say in real life or on social media can reflect on our employers.

This is even more true on social media because the racist joke you shared, or sexist or homophobic comment you made, or the picture of you doing something illegal, or the rude argument you got into on someone else’s page can be quickly copied and shared widely. I am aware of more journalists who have lost their jobs over this type of Facebook post than sharing political thoughts.

 

Because of our positions in a very public industry, everything we do or say in real life or on social media can reflect on our employers.

At Michigan Radio we have not had to officially discipline anyone for social media posts. Most of us in the newsroom are Facebook friends with each other, and we tend to police ourselves. I have pointed out to my reporters when I thought something on their Facebook page crossed the line, and they have done the same for me. (Yes – it happens, we’re all learning.) In all instances the potentially unethical or offensive post was immediately taken down. Fortunately we have never been called out by the public or another media outlet for something on one of our personal social media pages.

Do these ethics and rules limit our free speech and First Amendment rights?

Well, they do not threaten our First Amendment rights at all. The government is not telling us what we can and cannot say. The restrictions are placed upon us by our employers and our chosen profession. I could post all kinds of racist garbage on my Facebook page or say President Trump should be impeached and the government is not going to tell me to stop or put me in jail. The First Amendment protects me from government actions against my speech and these social media guidelines in no way infringe upon that protection.

But what about my “free speech?” Aren’t these ethical codes and social media policies inhibiting my ability to say whatever I want without consequences? Yes, they sure are. But this is a trade-off journalists are aware of when they accept a job at a non-partisan media outlet. Being a journalist can be an amazing job that gives you access to places and authority figures many other people don’t have. Journalists can be witnesses to history, can ask questions of anyone, be sharers of truth and slayers of dragons (well, figuratively – I don’t want to be accused of “fake news” here). But practicing our craft well does have a cost. As NPR Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen said, “In choosing to become a journalist, one gives up a certain degree of participation in the public space because journalists' credibility is their most important asset.”

 

“In choosing to become a journalist, one gives up a certain degree of participation in the public space because journalists' credibility is their most important asset.” - NPR Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen

My views on these issues are fairly traditional views in the United States. There are journalists who believe that the best way for our industry to inform the public is for journalists to be completely transparent in our political views. They believe this knowledge will provide better context for the audience to judge our reporting, because they will know exactly where the journalist is coming from. I understand their argument but don’t agree with it. As the person at Michigan Radio who deals with most of the audience complaints and claims of bias, it is much easier to defend the content of a story without having to also defend the politics of the reporter. Our station is much more politically diverse than most people would think (but not as diverse as it should be) – but I think our audience is better served if we cover the process, not participate in it.
 
Does your newsroom have a social media policy for employees? How do you address audience accusations of bias?