To Tweet Or Not To Tweet

Should journalists take positions on social media?

ByArunabh Saikia
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To Tweet Or Not To Tweet
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CNN’s Jim Clancy had worked with the organisation for more than three decades when on January 7, 2015, he got into a late night Twitter spat regarding the Charlie Hebdo episode. Clancy’s tweets (seemingly provoked by a vocal pro-Israel anonymous handle) suggested Israeli propaganda (Hasbara) in the anti-Islam discourse following the killings. An ostensibly riled Clancy then tweeted out that his opponents on Twitter should instead pick on “cripples”.

Soon after the row, Clancy quit from his position at CNN, though he appears to have forgotten to update his Linkedin profile. None of the parties concerned have as yet clarified the exact reason behind Clancy’s sudden resignation and whether it was voluntary or not.

In a statement confirming the development, CNN said: “Jim Clancy is no longer with CNN. We thank him for more than three decades of distinguished service, and wish him nothing but the best.”

Clancy wasn’t any more forthcoming either. He wrote a memo, which read:

After nearly 34 years with Cable News Network, the time has come to say Farewell!

It has been my honor to work alongside all of you for all of these years. This is one of the greatest news organizations in the world. It has truly revolutionized information delivery while driving technological advances in how we gather the news.

Through it all, CNN has been a family to my own family. That means something.

As I reflect on all of the great adventures and achievements of the past, I wish you great success in the future.

However, considering the timing and CNN’s past record of zealously guarding its position as a neutral observer of events in the Middle East, there is little doubt that there is more than a connection between Clancy’s spat and sudden resignation.

In 2014, the network reassigned correspondent Diana Magnay from Gaza to Moscow after she tweeted against a group of Israelis who were cheering a missile attack on Gaza.

In a similar incident in 2010, CNN had fired a long-time foreign affairs editor Octavia Nasr, following a pro-Hezbollah tweet by her.

It is, however, not just CNN that has issued pink slips to journalists following opinionated tweets. There have been multiple instances of the same. News organisations like the Washington Times, MSNBC, Time and KMOV (Channel 4) have all axed or suspended their journalists for their tweets.

As news goes more and more digital and new organisations increasingly push for Twitter bylines, it is perhaps time to question if a journalist’s politics is private at all.  In a space where credibility is the only legitimate currency, is a social media disclaimer of “views are my own and don’t reflect that of my organisation” enough?  Also, more importantly, in this context, how do news organisations view their employees indulging in political opinionating on social media?

News wires such as Associated Press (AP) and Reuters, which are reporting-intensive organisations, have fairly comprehensive policies.

According to AP’s social media guidelines, “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 organised action in support of causes or movements”.  The document also mentions that “employees may not include political affiliations in their profiles and should not make any postings that express political views”.

Reuters’ social media policy is less explicit.  It notes that “when dealing with matters of public importance and actual or potential subjects of coverage, however, Reuters journalists should be mindful of the impact their publicly expressed opinions can have on their work and on Reuters. In our Twitter and Facebook profiles, for example, we should identify ourselves as Reuters journalists and declare that we speak for ourselves, not for Thomson Reuters”.

NPR’S handbook on social media ethics caution its journalists to not do anything “that could undermine our credibility with the public, damage NPR’s standing as an impartial source of news, or otherwise jeopardize NPR’s reputation”.

The New York Times, in a memo, has told its journalists that their “online behavior should be appropriate for a Times journalist as readers will inevitably associate anything you post on social media with The Times”.

The Guardian’s “New social media guidelines for journalists” advises journalists to remember former editor CP Scott’s famous dictum of “comment is free, but facts are sacred”.

Back in India, not many organisations seem to have a stated social media policy in place – at least not in the public domain.

The Times of India allows employees to operate accounts in a personal capacity but on the condition that it shall not be used to post “any news and other related material”.  However, if journalists were to have an official account, the company would have the right to post on behalf of its journalists.

The Hindustan Times social media guidelines (of which Newslaundry has a copy) warns its journalists that if their “online persona is seriously in conflict with your work we may ask you to change the way you interact online”.

While most organisations seem uncomfortable with journalists taking positions on Twitter, it is perhaps an intriguing question as to how an opinion column by a journalist in support of a certain brand of politics is different from a value judgment passed on Twitter.

According to R Jagannathan, Editor of Firstpost.com, one of India’s first fully digital media ventures, reporters reporting on a story should ideally refrain from taking a position on that particular story. He, however, said that Firstpost does not have a formal social policy as such. “Individuals can tweet different opinions as long as it’s not from the Firstpost handle – we don’t control that as it’s against the basic idea of freedom of speech”, he told Newslaundy.

Naresh Fernandes, Editor of Scroll.in, another fully digital news outlet, said that Scroll too doesn’t have a social media policy for its journalists. Fernandes is supportive of journalists taking positions on social media. “It is not possible for a new organisation to legislate what its journalists will put up on their social media accounts,” he said.

The digital news space is a work in progress and any rules or guidelines will always be in flux. One thing, though, is constant – there will always be a thick line between being transparent with your politics and being a public relation professional.

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