In less than three weeks since she started her journalistic career at The Associated Press (AP), Emily Wilder, a graduate of Stanford University, was fired for her social media posts on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The AP took this drastic decision following a campaign by conservatives against her for her activism as a student. Ms. Wilder, who is Jewish, was an active member of the pro-Palestinian groups ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ and ‘Students for Justice in Palestine’ at Stanford University. The Guardian revealed that she was “terminated for violating the company’s social media policies” during her brief stint. She wrote a tweet about objectivity, which read: “‘Objectivity’ feels fickle when the basic terms we use to report news implicitly stake a claim. Using ‘Israel’ but never ‘Palestine’, or ‘war’ but not ‘siege and occupation’ are political choices — yet [the] media makes those exact choices all the time without being flagged as biased.”
Social media policies of newsrooms
This raises many questions about the professional space for journalists, where one has to negotiate many contending and often conflicting interests. Where does one’s right as a citizen end? Can institutions veto someone’s considered positions? I have been arguing for long that journalists should express themselves in their journalism rather than in their social media posts. The reservations about the social media policies of news organisations are not over the sections that deal with professional conduct but over the sections that fail to grant space for ethical choices concerning major developments, whether the Israel-Palestine issue or the mismanagement of the pandemic in India.
Interest groups often stigmatise journalists for their viewpoints through organised bad faith campaigns. Emily Bell, Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, feels that newsrooms are clueless in confronting this malaise. She tweeted: “If news organisations cave in to pressure from bad faith campaigns, if they cancel workplace contracts on the basis of student activism or errors of judgment, then the field will miss out on some great reporters. Newsrooms are too often unprepared for this predictable onslaught.”
Diversity in the newsroom
Every media scholar acknowledges that a diverse newsroom serves the community well. The American Press Institute (API) has argued that diversity is both a business imperative and a journalistic imperative. On it being a journalistic imperative, the API said: “Without accounting for the range of lived experiences, we fail to serve parts of our communities. Journalism, in its truest form, should be produced for the benefit of all, not only those who wield a particular power, class or authority.” It is important to note that diversity is not restricted to known categories such as race, gender, caste and class. It also includes a range of viewpoints. People who advocate peace and justice instead of the cold geopolitical calculations of strategic establishments create space for humanity. At a time when the deep state spreads its octopus-like tentacles and glosses over human suffering, people who believe in peace dividends are central to the public good.
Let’s remember that young men and women come to journalism because they are idealistic and despite many limitations: they earn less money in journalism than they would in the corporate world and wield less power than they would in bureaucracy or diplomacy. The fact that there is space to articulate diverse ideas is what acts as a magnet for them. This space cannot be surrendered to the relentless bad faith campaigns orchestrated by powerful vested interests.
I have often been asked about the relationship between objective journalism and the personal political views of individual journalists. If journalists do not stray from journalistic principles, especially the act of verification, their personal viewpoints as citizens are not in conflict with the public good. I have often cited the example of one of the most respected political journalists, Walter Lippmann. The journalism programme at Harvard University is housed in a building called Lippmann House. Lippmann is known not only for his outstanding journalism but also for his role in advising President Woodrow Wilson on defining developments such as the creation of the League of Nations and granting voting rights to women.
In order to preserve their independence and vibrancy, newsrooms need to take motivated campaigns to task.