Are journalists hurting their credibility on Facebook?

logo_facebookAs student journalists, you are taught to be fair and impartial, to balance your stories with both sides and to reflect diverse viewpoints. Yet as more and more journalists join social networking sites like Facebook, many have become fairly open about sharing their views as private citizens. Steve Myers points out in a story on the Poynter Institute Web site that many journalists expressed joy in their status updates when Barack Obama won the election. The same thing happened on Inauguration Day. Were journalists simply exercising their right to free speech and right to be engaged citizens?  Or can a journalist’s comments on Facebook hurt his or her credibility? Is there a perception problem if nothing else? Does it make a difference if the journalist covers politics or if the beat he or she covers is unrelated to politics?What if the journalist is an editor?  Kelly McBride, also of Poynter, worked with the newsroom at the Roanoke Times to develop an ethics guideline for journalists using social networks.  She said it was a thorny issue. And some might argue that it’s better to be transparent about your personal views as long as you are committed to fairness in your reporting. What do you think?  Follow the links and read both Poynter stories. Then answer my questions and tell me what you think in the comments section below.  Do you agree with the ethics guidelines? Post your answers by the beginning of class on Thursday, Jan. 29.

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15 Responses to Are journalists hurting their credibility on Facebook?

  1. William Whited says:

    Using online social networking sites such as Facebook is a double-edged sword. While journalists can use such networking sites to communicate quickly and seek faraway sources, they should be wary of placing their opinions online. My take on this issue is that readers should judge journalists by his or her stories and investigate sources. Readers should not take opinions seriously and should see past the writing. However, journalists do not live in a world where every person is highly educated.

    If a journalist puts a blatant opinion or slant on his or her writings, the journalist is taking a risk and should be held responsible for conduct and possible resulting changes in how the journalist is viewed by readers.

    My advice to up-and-coming journalists would be to say, “Post anything you wish, just don’t complain about losing credibility. Your private life should not cross into your professional life.”

    I myself do not have a Facebook or MySpace account. I do not post to journalism Web sites outside of this blog, except to complete assignments or to obtain necessary information. I suppose one could say I try to keep my personal life private. If I need to talk to someone, I use e-mail and make phone calls and personal visits.

    While I believe I am missing out on racking up social contacts to use in the future, I think I am better-protecting myself in the long term from mass scrutiny. As a private citizen, journalists should share private views in private. This is especially true for political perspectives.

  2. Nate Pohlen says:

    While all journalists have a right to free speech and to be engaged citizens, I know I would never read a journalist the same way knowing their biases and that they are open about them. I prefer journalists to be mediators in terms of relaying information to the public. Just as mediators in arguments should not express bias toward either side, journalists should not be openly rooting for a political candidate. To me, a Facebook status rejoicing over an election result hurts the journalist’s credibility.

    However, I think it does make a difference if the journalist covers a beat totally unrelated to politics. For example, if a local sports reporter celebrated Obama’s win, I would not care, because odds are good that the writer will never be writing an article on Obama’s politics. I disagree with Steve Myers on this point. It does matter what reporters cover, because that is their area of expertise most likely. In the same way, I would be disturbed if a Husker football beat writer was cheering for Nebraska on Saturdays, but if Colleen Kenney was, I couldn’t care less.

    Political reporters and editors should stay away from open bias because readers will remember. And every time that reporter writes an article or the paper publishes an article praising the job the president has done – even if he has done amazing – readers will remember that bias and take the article and paper lightly.

  3. khaslett says:

    I think journalism is a way of life. It requires an individual adopting a skepticism, an open and curious mind, a diligence for detail and a desire for voices and facts. More importantly, journalism is never about the journalist: it’s about the source, the issue, the story.
    Facebook, on the other hand, is about the individual user. It is about the connections you want to make, how many friends you have, how many photos are tagged and how many people write on your wall.
    As a lifestyle, journalism requires sacrifice. In some countries, journalists are target No. 1 by both terrorists and governments. Here, not so much. Journalists in the United States can expect low pay, high turnover, a dying industry, a uninterested readership and bad hours.
    Journalists, it seems, are taught to care about OTHER people’s biases and conflicts of interests. How hypocritical is it if they don’t take pains to keep their own in check?

    On Election night and Inauguration day, journalists around the United States exercised their right to free speech as individuals, but demonstrated negligence as a profession who lives and breathes their occupation. Bias on facebook, on a bumper sticker and on a yard sign all hurt a journalist’s crediability equally. I believe this is a blanket statement for all journalists, whether they report on sports, business, education or politics, edit or design. This is because in my experience, the public views the paper as one cohesive whole and doesn’t understand the internal divisions within the editorial staff. So when Joe Sports Reporter reveals a bias for Obama and a hatred for all things Palin, it’s akin to Sally Government Reporter saying she avidly supports the rivals of the hometown football team. Editors need to hide their biases from their reporters, reporters need to hide it from their sources. They all need to make sure the opposite side has equal play time.
    Each reporter probably knows what he or she thinks about an issue or candidate – why do others need to know?
    The ethics guidelines were interesting because I felt they had a lot of classic journalism truths: verify everything, gather consent, make sure you have diverse sources.

    I would add to the list that journalists need to live to what they aspire to be and to be unafraid of the sacrifices that must be made. That might include forfeiting the celebratory Facebook status update, but I think everyone will somehow manage.

  4. Rob McLean says:

    I think both these writers are correct when they say myspace and facebook are the new front lawns and car bumpers for journalists. These are the first places where people are going to look for any personal views or opinions. Yes, the journalists mentioned in the articles were exercising their freedom of speech. However they were doing it in a way that diminished their credibility as reporters. Journalists are obligated to keep opinions to themselves, and not color reporting with rhetoric from either the left or the right. If they proclaim on facebook that they both intend to vote for Obama and get out the vote for him, that obligation is shattered.

    It does not matter if a reporter covers politics, theater, business, or sports. The illusion of objectivity is a very important tool. A journalist covering the high school football game may not have a direct link with the local political scene, but those he is covering may. If that reporter is famous for being a democrat, and a high school football coach is a staunch republican, that could influence the amount of access. Editors have an equal responsibility in keeping their opinions to themselves, because they decide what goes into the news coverage. That gate-keeping role can easily be politicized, and it’s important to keep that objective.

    I agree with the proposed social-networking guidelines. Posting potentially embarrassing information is very important to a journalist. I’m not sure people always realize that what they post on the internet is out in the open for all to see. I also think “friend management” is an action that journalists need to continue to do. If a journalist has Obama, Bush, or another deeply partisan figure as a “friend,” that reporter needs to make adjustments. The bit about being aware of privacy settings is also important. Not everyone needs to know a reporter is on facebook. If a journalist really wants to use the website to vent personal feelings, then this act is essential.

  5. Amanda Borg says:

    Reporters of any beat, technology, business and even sports, must be careful with what they present to the public. Maybe I’m being a little paranoid here but I believe that even in a social network such as facebook, users may take anything a journalist says out of context and apply it to the credibility of the journalists and their place of work. Journalists should remember that their job requires them to stay unbais, open, willing to accept all sides of an issue, and to also make sure their readers view them this way.

    All journalists must make sacrifices to ensure the safety of their credibility. Reports, editors, page designers and the like must temporarily forfeit their individual opinions to the public, unless of course they are willing to take the risk. However, even if a journalist does make sure their social page contains no evidence of opinion, the issue of sources as friends brings up questions. Would there be a conflict of interest if a journalist became a sources friend? Would the source still be reliable if their friendship offer was denied? I think it would be safer for journalists to stay away from social sites, but giving up a social pool is a difficult thing to do.

    Ultimately, the choice is up to the journalist; credibility or public opinion.

  6. Ivana Jackson says:

    I think if your honest with you readers than they will respect you. As technology allows us new platforms such as Facebook, it will become harder for a journalist to hide their opinions from their readers and I don’t think they should.

    I don’t disagree with the fact that journalist should give away some freedoms. For instance they should not be involved in events or activities that may conflict with things that they report for their news organization. However Facebook accounts should be like phone conversations private. For news organizations to restrict what people are saying on their status is like saying when you’re on your phone in public don’t say how you feel about certain issues because someone in the public might hear you. During the election I would admit that many of my Facebook friends expressed the way they felt on their status. However I heard some of my colleagues in the J-school expressing feeling regarding the election as well while on their telephones. I don’t see the difference between the two because both of them are private conversations. Journalist should be able to say whatever they want in their status, especially if their accounts private.

    On a different note, I think journalist should be able to use Facebook as a tool to become better at what they do, but that has to be done wisely. Facebook, MySpace and other social networks are great ways to get story ideas, find information you can’t find anywhere else, and/or to find sources. However you have to draw a line somewhere. Journalist should not become friends with their sources on the sites. That does not require them to reject them but to simply say my editor or news organization would like me to keep my work separate from my private life. In addition when using these sites as a tool for work always check the facts. New mechanisms for obtaining story ideas and finding sources shouldn’t be exempt from the old mechanisms of checking the facts. When journalists seek information they should be able to verify regards of the source.

    In the end it’s all about being a responsible journalist.

  7. brittneylynn1 says:

    I believe there should be a code of ethics in the workplace for employees who have accounts on social networking sites.

    The first two portions of ethics listed in the second Poynter story, were just ethics to me. They should be applied at all times-not just in social networking. The last part however, regarding a balance between the personal and professional, really struck a key note for me.

    I think people are putting way too much of their personal lives online these days, and I think people can and should be judged based on the substance of their profile in professional settings.

    I am an advocate for social networking in the sense that it is a unique communicative means and a creative journalistic instrument. I am against Facebook and other social networks when people display any of the following on their profile page: private information, personal views or pictures that are inappropriate for a workplace.

    In my mind, there are discrepancies between exercising free speech and publishing your thoughts online.

    Still, there is a huge gray area filling the space between my opinions. This gray area involves the privacy settings and controls available to people with social networking accounts. Personally, if I want to put information on my Facebook profile that others may use against me, I’m going to take full advantage of the strict privacy settings that are available. This way, only I can see that content.

    I agree with the ethics guidelines. My beliefs are reinforced when I consider journalists and their views of a subject potentially covered in their beat. Journalists are to be fair. Exercise free speech, but be careful what you publish.

    As a disclaimer, my knowledge and opinions concerning these types of sites is largely based on my own experience with Facebook; I am not as familiar with the privacy settings, applications or content on Twitter or MySpace.

  8. Allyson Felt says:

    Journalism is, in essence, freedom of speech. One of the many great things about this country is the ability to have that right. However, this does not mean reporters get the freedom to always say what they think.

    We, as journalists, are instilled with the right to believe what we wish and have personal preference. Yet, we cannot let those wishes and thoughts interfere with our writing and reporting. One of the things we are taught in class is to think through the lense of the common public and don’t let opinion and person preference interfere. This can be very difficult, especially when it comes to something like Facebook or other social networking sites.

    I agree that places of employment, journalism related or not, should have rules regarding these sites. For example, groups around campus have started doing Facebook checks because they do not want their organization to be misrepresented by one person making one comment or posting a bad photo.

    People need to realize that as journalists, whether we like it or not, we are held to a higher standard and can easily be discredited if we aren’t careful. The excitement of social sites can make people forget this.

  9. Sara McCue says:

    Personally, I feel it’s impossible to completely separate personal opinion from work. Journalists can exercise free speech and be engaged citizens without being irresponsible employees.

    Regardless of what beat you are covering, pretending that you don’t have an opinion won’t make your writing any less biased. In the same manner, stating your opinion on a social networking site won’t automatically make your professional work biased. However, I’m not saying that you should be able to say anything and everything about yourself via Facebook. Being rude or condescending about your viewpoints can ruin your credibility.

    I agree with the ethics guidelines, and I feel that the majority of the social networking tips are pretty obvious. The things on the lists are things I practice even now. Students should be aware of all information that appears on their profiles–even if they aren’t looking for a job. You aren’t just representing yourself in the job market. You’re representing yourself as a human being.

  10. Liz Gasaway says:

    I think whether you express your feelings freely on facebook or not is irrelevant. sure, the world may not know your thoughts, but you still have them. If a journalist was overjoyed that Obama won, it would have come out whether or not he or she posted it on a social networking site, just by their actions and deeds. I work at the Lincoln Journal Star, and election night was almost like a party up until the time that people had to work. Yet, the paper endorsed John McCain publicly. Which is more harmful? That secretly these journalists are Obama supporters or that the paper endorsed a candidate for reasons that weren’t exactly true? True, I didn’t have a chance to talk to the editorial board of the Journal Star on election night, but it is still enough to make a person think. In the end, facebook is just a site, one more way to use your voice and reach out. It only has as much power over anything as an individual is willing to put into it.

    In that respect, a person should use common sense in how they express themselves in everyday life, and that carries over to networking. Don’t post drunken pictures of yourself cavorting with your friends any more than your would post intolerant political diatribes. In a world run by editors, journalists should be able to do a little self-moderation.

  11. Cassandra Thomas says:

    After reading the articles about journalists using Facebook and MySpace, I am still perplexed as to how best solve the problem. Journalists have been battling (and sometimes crossing) the line between their professional lives and personal lives for years. In a sense, I think every job has a similar line. Remember a few years ago when the cop was fired for posting information on a Nazi site? It was later proved that he supported the Nazi regime.

    I tend to believe that journalists have an opinion on everything—and they have a right to. The question then becomes “How public are they allowed to make this opinion?” I agree when the article said you can make your political opinion public if you cover the high school football team. But once you change your beat, you can’t let it be as public. Even if you don’t cover the political section of your paper, I think journalists should refrain from putting supportive signs in their yards and bumper stickers on their cars. No matter what your affiliation with any candidate or issue, a journalists should always try to refrain from sounding biased in the story.

    As for Facebook, I think if the journalist’s site is secured with the highest privacy settings, there is no problem with posting info about yourself and your views. However, you may be forced to reject friendships with sources. Facebook is your private life and as long as you keep it private, there is no problem. When reading the article, I did have a major problem when both articles mentioned using Facebook and MySpace to find contacts and conduct interviews. The other article quoted it as a “reporting tool.” I think Facebook is a good source to find article ideas (such as the water pipe breaking or the principal having cancer). But no interviews should EVER, be conducted online. Sources can be found through these sites but I would try my hardest to not let it be known that you found them on a social networking site. You also have to verify everything you find on these sites because a lot of it might not be factual.

  12. Katie Steiner says:

    I think that it’s definitely a fine line that journalists walk. How much of your personal life are you allowed to share with the public. Of course, it’s your right to be able to be open about your beliefs. But at the same time, your beliefs can affect the way not only that a source or the public view you, and as a reporter it’s your responsibility to stay objective. That can be difficult when your opinions on display for all to see.

    I do think that what you cover and where comes into play when choosing whether or not to post your information on Facebook. For example, as an editor I chose to let my reporters and fellow editors post how excited they were about Obama as I thought it was such a large issue that it wouldn’t really affect how their sources would perceive them. I honestly don’t think sources at the university care whether or not a reporter voted for Obama. That policy would probably not be the same at the Washington Post or New York Times. However, I do have a problem when DN employees show favoritism toward a certain ASUN party, as that is right here at our university.

    Overall, I think that it something that reporters and editors need to be aware of and be cautious of. The last thing a newspaper wants is to have their readers thinking that its employees are all biased on different issues.

  13. Adam Ziegler says:

    Social Networking sites like Facebook are things reporters have to be really careful about using. The most important part of being a journalist is remaining impartial, because otherwise people can’t be totally sure if what your telling them is actually the truth, or just something your saying to further some type of agenda. While every journalist will obviously still have an opinion on what’s going on in the world, keeping that opinion out of the larger public eye is very important to maintaining credibility. Even if your opinion hasn’t influenced your work, when people know how you really think about certain events it can still color their perception or your reporting, which can definitely hurt you. With something like Facebook, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about putting up a status about how happy you are about the election, you just need to be careful about who it is you let see that status, and be ready to accept any kind of backlash that may result from that opinion getting out.

  14. Tawny Burmood says:

    I don’t believe there should be any opinions put up for everyone to see on Facebook if you’re a journalist. If it was me, after reading an article on the election and looking back at the reporter’s opinion on Facebook, it wouldn’t bother me so much. I think everyone should be able to express their opinion, and as long as the article was not one sided I don’t see it as a problem. But I know for a lot of readers out there this is a problem, and it may hurt the credibility of the reporter.

    As for myself, I don’t post political opinions or any opinions for that matter. While I’m pretty moderate on most views, I know for a lot of reporters it’s hard not to voice their opinion. But professionally, as a reporter, we sort of have to be moderate.

    I think this goes especially for your beat. If you’re covering the election I think it’s definitely going to matter what you post on your Facebook. Like these two writers said, social networking is like the new yard signs and bumper stickers. Not many people are going to know by seeing a Obama yard sign in your front lawn or bumper sticker on your car that you’re a journalist. But posting these opinions online leaves it for the whole world to see.

    As a journalist I think we have to follow these ethic guidelines. Journalists are constantly losing credibility with just misspelling a name or getting a fact wrong. We always hear that people think of one news source as too left or too right. So as journalists it’s important to keep the credibility intact.

  15. Johnna Hjersman says:

    I think social networking sites like facebook are often double-edged swords requiring ample amounts of caution and discretion, especially for journalists. On one hand, facebook–when kept private–provides an outlet for expression of personal feelings and opinions that can’t be expressed in more public settings. Journalists cannot avoid the human instinct to form opinions about issues, political or otherwise. Facebook allows journalists the chance to connect to friends, family and coworkers as themselves. Facebook is, as one article said, like a personal diary.
    On the other hand, even with privacy settings, facebook, like anything else published on the World Wide Web, is never completely private. Therefore, anything personal or “private” posted on facebook becomes open to the interpretation of all who can see it, which is often more people than anyone wants or expects.
    I agreed with all the guidelines, and I think every journalist–news reporter, sports reporter, arts reporter, editor, or what have you–should adhere to these in an effort to maintain their own reputation as well as that of their respective publication.

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