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Updated: August 7, 2010 13:15 IST

Media Matters: Shackles in a Twitter world

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Octavia Nasr: An error of judgment?
Octavia Nasr: An error of judgment?

Journalists all over the world are active social networkers. But what happens when they give vent to personal views on these sites?

How do news organisations separate public perception of the journalist from the individual on social media? Journalists all over the world are tweeting away, presumably acquiring a following that helps build their brand. They comment on stuff happening on their beat, and occasionally offer cute personal takes on kids or gardens. That should be good for the newspaper or TV channel.

But sometimes things go wrong. When a senior editor at CNN lost her job last fortnight for expressing personal admiration for a Hizbollah leader, it revived a debate in the West on policies regarding social media. The New York Times reported that CNN removed its senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs, Octavia Nasr, from her job after she put out a Twitter message saying that she respected the Shiite cleric the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who died on Sunday. CNN felt the heat after there were sharp reactions from Israel. The broadcaster said it was an error of judgement on Nasr's part and announced rather quickly that she was leaving the company.

Harmless so far

In our blithe, rule-free media universe, blogging or tweeting by journalists has not become an issue yet, partly because much of what is on Twitter is harmless, even vacuous. There is a lot of “watch such and such programme” from our TV anchorpersons, or “read such and such” from our editors. The rest is comments that feed a fan following. Star News anchor Deepak Chaurasia's Twitter feeds have such profundities as “When Delhi will find the solutions from rain trafic jam” or “Hope the Delhi govt is not treating the games like ghar ki shaadi”. That is, when his tweets are not about the Star Anchor Hunt. Sagarika Ghose tells her followers what the topic will be that day on her programme Face the Nation or offers opinions on a movie or book.

But elsewhere a rulebook is evolving on the use of social media. There are some interesting readings on the subject on the Net by both academics and journalists. News organisations are keen to have their staff use Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter as reporting tools but have reservations about their expressing personal views on these, especially political ones. The New York Times policy on social networking sites explains why: “If you have or are getting a Facebook page leave blank the section about your political views, in accordance with the ethical journalism admonition to do nothing that might cast doubt on your or the Times's political impartiality in reporting the news.”

Other publications such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have also formulated policies on social media. The Post came up with guidelines last year after Raju Narisetti (formerly founding editor of Mint, currently one of the managing editors of the Post) expressed views on his Twitter feed on US government spending on the war. And on another occasion, on a retirement age for politicians. The paper's executive editor gave a reason similar to that of NYT: Reporters and editors should not express views that can be considered as political. Narisetti closed his Twitter account. Writing on the subject, the paper's ombudsman had a column titled “Print era shackles for a Twitter world?” which pretty much summed up how critics see restrictions on social media interaction.

What makes this odd is a parallel media ethics trend which says it is perfectly alright for media outlets to be ‘committed' in their coverage, or coloured shall we say, by an ideology. Newspapers have always been identifiable with specific political leanings, both here and abroad, broadcasters with the exception of the Fox network are expected to be impartial. But Guy Black, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, said recently in an interview that given the multiplicity of satellite TV channels there is really no reason why channels with different political leanings should not be on air. (In his previous job he was director of the Press Complaints Commission in the U.K.) The distinction seems to be that a media group can be identified with a leaning or a sympathy, an individual employee, however senior, should not be. That would invite charges of inherent bias.

Kashmir online

But there are places where such self censorship does not apply, and Kashmir is one of them. Last fortnight's events in Kashmir saw the state go without newspapers for two days, because curfew passes of all local reporters were cancelled. But TV crews and reporters from Delhi were brought in and taken by the army on its flag march so that there could be ‘reporting' on the state for the rest of the country despite the curfew.

So social media came into play in two ways. A local journalist with a blog called lashed out at the ‘take' offered by the national media and commentators, calling it embedded journalism, and did so on Facebook. He offered his own take for the solution of the Kashmir crisis. Yet another Kashmiri journalist wrote on facebook that embedded journalism had been introduced for the first time in Kashmir. What’s more, correspondents of national papers posted photographs that were not carried by their newspapers on their Facebook pages.

And in a throwback to Kosovo in 1999 which saw citizens reporting a war that journalists could not access, Kashmiris, including students, went online in the days that newspapers were closed to describe what was happening in various parts of Kashmir. In a state where smses remain banned from the end of June this year, social media now provides the only outlet for Kashmiri citizens and journalists alike. And on it, they are defiant in the views they express.

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