In the contemporary world, social media platforms seem to present a conundrum for the journalists and their jobs.
As journalism evolves globally, Journalists, on the other hand, have had the need to rely on social media to improve their jobs.
To a very large extent, social media help journalists to connect with potential sources, to interact with audiences, to promote their work, and to find solidarity among fellow journalists.
But on the other hand, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook present a dizzying array of problems, from the growing variety and intensity of online harassment — hostility, trolling, doxing, etc. — that especially targets women and journalists of color, to the constant threat that one wrong tweet might incite a mob or cost a journalist their job.
BBC and Gary Lineker saga
Recall that the British Broadcasting Corporation suspended the ex-England international over political issues as he supposedly breached the guidelines of the firm.
Lineker had made a comment on social media, where he condemned the UK’s government’s new asylum policy and compared the language used to Nazi Germany.
Following the suspension of Gary Lineker from hosting matchday duties, key staff at BBC have protested against his suspension. This has led to cancellations of multiple shows that ordinarily hold on the station.
Insight from Nieman Lab report
A recent report by Nieman Lab examines what the journalism and media as well as stanewsroom leaders are doing to support and protect their journalists facing the increasing risks and challenges of social media.
A new study in Digital Journalism examines this question. Its author, Jacob L. Nelson, conducted in-depth interviews with 37 U.S.-based reporters, editors, publishers, freelancers, and social media/audience engagement managers, covering current and former employees at a wide array of outlets (local and national, for-profit and nonprofit, legacy media and digital media).
Interviews focused on journalists’ experiences with and thoughts about their newsroom’s social media policies. Women and journalists of color made up a large share of interviewees because such journalists are more likely to encounter online harassment.
So, what did the journalists interviewed say about the value of social media policies and their organizations’ support mechanisms? The research article’s title provides a hint: “Worse than the harassment itself.”
“I find that although journalists face both external and internal pressure to devote considerable time and effort to social media platforms — primarily Twitter — they encounter little in the way of guidance or support when it comes to navigating the dangers inherent within those platforms,” Nelson writes.
“On the contrary, journalists feel newsroom social media policies tend to make matters worse, by offering difficult to follow guidelines focused primarily on maintaining an ‘objective’ perception of the organization among the public rather than on protecting journalists from the harassment that many will inevitably receive.”
Journalists interviewed for this study seemed to be “one step ahead of their newsroom managers,” argued Nelson (who, full disclosure, does collaborative research with Seth, though not on this project). The journalists realized, in a way their bosses didn’t, that “the very behavior that social media most encourages and rewards — being active and personal — is the same kind of behavior that brings journalists their biggest frustrations.”
That is, journalists understood that being authentic and acting like a “real” person on social media was more likely to bring more professional opportunities and improved interactions with the public. Sounds good, right?
But, at the same time, such an approach to social media, journalists realized, also made them more vulnerable to recurring personal attacks from harassers, and it increased the odds that they would inadvertently say something that would get them accused of bias and thus punished by their managers for failing to abide by strict policies on neutrality.
The overall result is that journalists feel they are walking what Nelson has elsewhere called a “Twitter tightrope”: “They spend a great deal of time engaging with the public on social media platforms, while constantly wondering if and when that engagement will come at their professional peril.”
So, what do journalists want? For their managers to do more to help them mitigate the challenges and risks endemic to this work. (Indeed, as other research has found recently, news organizations are doing little to protect their journalists from online harassment.)
The “fluidity” of the social media audience — its unpredictability, particularly when some posts “go viral” and spread widely while others get little attention — was a key part of journalists’ frustrations with their managers.
“Traditional journalistic values privilege audience perceptions of professionalism, independence, and neutrality,” Nelson writes, “each of which is easier to predict when focused on a fixed audience for a specific news outlet than for the much larger, more amorphous audiences found on social media platforms.”
On top of that, some of the study’s interviewees questioned whether audiences were really so firmly committed to old-school ideas about total objectivity and neutrality, “which many journalists see not only as impossible aspirations on their own, but also as wholly inconsistent with the performed authenticity privileged by social media.”
Future research could help untangle this puzzle. Because while research suggests that people generally want journalists to present the news without a point of view, it’s still unclear whether rules and expectations apply the same to social media postings as they might, say, for news articles on legacy platforms.
As Nelson writes, “Perhaps news audiences hold seemingly contradictory preferences, where they value both accurate, opinion-free news stories, as well as the political opinions of the journalists behind them. If this is indeed the case, then it might be in newsroom managers’ best interests to give the public a bit more credit when deciding what those audiences want not only from journalism, but from journalists as well.”