The critical distance between a journalist and those in power is often explained this way: as in the case of fire, don’t get too close as you may get burnt, but don’t be too far as you may not notice what is happening. Is it possible to quantify the distance between journalists and their social media engagements? Major media organisations have a social media policy that defines how their journalists should behave on these platforms, where the focus is more on protecting the reputation of the organisations. Some journalists see these policy measures as an infringement of their individual right to freedom of expression.
A grey area
As a media ombudsman, I have always batted for self-regulation. I prefer a broad advisory to a binding policy for issues that have a large grey band rather than the obvious hues of black and white. Journalists may like to believe that there is a clear line between their professional writing for their respective publications and their personal opinions on social media. However, the virtual space does not see any distinction between professional writing and personal opinion; it always conflates the two. It fails to understand that journalism represents the written tradition; that what is carefully researched is meant for the public sphere, unlike social media posts that mimic oral exchanges in private domains. The point to remember is that none of the usual caveats are spelt out when we speak among our friends. Social media platforms are not a closed circuit. There is toxicity in these fora that defies our understanding of civil conversation and has the potential to harm journalists more than our Teflon-coated politicians.
I have been attempting to come up with a formula for journalists to engage on social media for nearly four years, but in vain. A suggestion for self-restraint is viewed as self-censorship, and proposals to ignore obnoxious posts is seen as lacking in courage to expose banality. Absolute yardsticks like freedom of expression and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have been invoked to sidestep the crucial idea of keeping social media platforms free of vituperative attacks.
I am forced to revisit this issue because of a recent incident. There was an obvious contradiction between a column by a journalist and some of his posts on Twitter. Farhad Manjoo, a tech columnist for the New York Times, wrote a piece on March 7, “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned.” It dealt with the problems of information overload, false claims on social media, and the right way to consume news.
The columnist claimed that he had been unplugged from social media for two months and his three-pronged suggestion (“Get news. Not too quickly. Avoid social”) was a result of his abstinence. However, the problem was that Mr. Manjoo did not unplug himself from social media. A report in Columbia Journalism Review ( CJR ) points out that he “remained a daily, active Twitter user throughout the two months he claims to have gone cold turkey, tweeting many hundreds of times, perhaps more than 1,000.”
Perils of social media
The CJR story explains the perils of social media. What Mr. Manjoo meant by unplugging from Twitter was this: “I think it’s clear that I meant I ‘unplugged’ from Twitter as a source of news, not that I didn’t tweet at all.” However, many on social media platforms were not willing to buy his definition and only saw a massive contradiction. Mr. Manjoo got a major reprieve when a New York Times spokesperson said the paper doesn’t view his assertion as a falsehood, and won’t be issuing a correction. If the paper had retained the office of Public Editor, an internal ombudsman post that it abolished nearly a year ago, the reaction may have been different.
The Public Editor too may have come to the conclusion that Mr. Manjoo was not deliberately lying. But as a news ombudsman, she would also have pointed out that what he wrote was not a fact, and issued a correction, probably with a clarification. There is no private meaning or special understanding between the writer and reader in the social media space. It is surprising that journalists who write and talk extensively about Cambridge Analytica fail to see their own undermining role in social media.