Social media, journalism, and expressing opinions

Our class was visited by NPR’s Richard Harris today. What followed was a fascinating look at what makes radio different from print, and some inside looks at how NPR does such great science reporting for radio.

But that’s the subject of a whole different post.

Towards the end of his talk, I was struck by his response to a question about social media. I thought it brought home some of the issues that we as journalists need to be aware of.

As journalists we’re expected to maintain a fair and balanced approach to reporting.

In most cases that means we need to be careful expressing opinions in public, lest it undermine our credibility. (Op-eds are a different matter, but I’m talking about regular news reporting).

It used to be harder for people to find out what your private opinions were. But with social media, the line between public and private can get fuzzy. You really need to be aware of what information is public on social media.

One of our textbooks, Tim Harrower’s “Inside Reporting”, has some guidelines that I found interesting, and hadn’t thought about before.

For example, as a journalist you need to think about what you ‘Like’ on Facebook, regardless of whether it’s a friend’s strong opinion, or some political party’s Facebook page.

One of the guidelines was to ‘Like’ the Facebook pages of parties on both sides of the spectrum. Or you could explicitly state on the page that you ‘Liked’ a particular party only because you were a reporter wanting to get their latest news updates, not because you supported them.

(This is nothing knew, it’s just the medium that’s different. The textbook also states that sports reporters shouldn’t cheer a team they’re covering, and certainly shouldn’t wear team colors and apparel. If that’s the case, I think I’d make a terrible sports reporter.)

When tweeting too, it’s just something to think about. Tweets are a part of the public record (and in fact, they’re archived by the Library of Congress.)

Harris also pointed out that it can be hard to get a lot of followers in social media without expressing personal opinions. He said he just preferred to stay away from it. Especially since NPR had fired people for injudicious tweets, he said.

That’s not to say I don’t know a lot of journalists on Twitter and Facebook, but this was one aspect of social media and journalism that I hadn’t really thought about, and I thought it was worth pointing out.

What do people think about this line between private and public, and how much opinion we can safely express in social media without undermining our credibility as reporters?

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About SandeepR

I’m a freelance science writer based in New York City. I can be contacted at gro.wsan@rpeednaS. You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. Here are my clips, resume, portfolio and photos I’ve covered a variety of science and technology topics for outlets such as NationalGeographic.com, Popular Science, Wired.com, Nature News, The Verge, and Backchannel. I’m particularly interested in life sciences and technology and the intersection of the two. I’m also trying to cover more news related to India, particularly environmental issues and new advances in tech/research. I received a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology from Stanford University, and also studied Science Communication at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I’ve interned at a number of magazines and newspapers, and worked as a science writer for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for two years.
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One Response to Social media, journalism, and expressing opinions

  1. sly says:

    I think the line between private and public in social mediums like Twitter and Facebook is darn near invisible. If Twitter is like a cocktail party, then it’s a cocktail party where your employer is a also guest. The harsh responses to the gaffes you mentioned above suggest SocMedia users need to wash a lot of the color and opinion out of their comments. But , what a shame! To my mind, SocMedia is great for getting lots of different perspectives on our world. If we can’t share our real feelings and opinions, won’t it be a lame party?

    I toy with the idea of getting a second Facebook account so I could have one for personal use (friends and family) and one for work-related connections. Problem is, I have a lot of work-related friends! Which account would “friend” my funny but very outspoken scientists buds? Their science-related comments could very well be relevant to my journalistic work, but they are also capable (some of them quite frequently) of making passionate political statements that I personally wouldn’t bring up around a future employer.

    It’s a tricky line to walk, for sure.

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