To tweet or not to tweet?

12 December 2011

Written by: Matthew Smith

The primary responsibility of journalists has always been to be the eyes and ears for those who are unable to witness newsworthy events for themselves, despite the variety of roles that have evolved over the years.

However the role of journalists has become more complex due to developments in social media, namely Twitter, Facebook and the Blogsphere. Many have found these a useful tool to develop their online identity, but as some have found over the years, the Internet can be fraught with danger.

Journalists use social media at their own peril, as more often than not political and corporate sensitivities prevail over freedom of speech.

Case in point: In July of 2010 Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fadlallah passed away in Beirut.

Despite being particularly vocal on the issues of United States interventionism, Fadlallah was a renowned moderate, with his beliefs on women and Islam considered to be liberal for a member of Hezbollah.

In the wake of Fadlallah’s death many used social media to pay their respects.

The then British ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy, wrote on her blog, ‘If I was sad to hear the news I know other people’s lives will be truly blighted’. At the same time, CNN‘s senior editor of Middle East affairs Octavia Nasr tweeted, ‘Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect’.

Unfortunately the statements weren’t well received by both of the authors’ employers.

The British Foreign Office requested Guy to take back her statement. Guy issued an apology soon after saying, ‘I recognise that some of my words have upset people. This was certainly not my intention.’

Nasr wasn’t so lucky, and was fired 48 hours later.

Soon after the incident The New York Times published a memo sent from CNN senior vice-president, Parisa Khosravi, which said, ‘We have decided that [Nasr] will be leaving the company.’

Khosravi went on to say, ‘At this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.’

The news giant condemned Nasr, saying that her tweet ‘did not meet CNN’s editorial standards’.

The perils of social media aren’t restricted to those journalists involved with politics.

Popular sports columnist and Editor-in-Chief of ESPN‘s Grantland website, Bill Simmons, has also found himself in a less than desirable situation due to an errant tweet.

In his amusing tale, ‘The case of the accidental tweeter’, Simmons recalls the day he mistakenly broke the news that New England Patriots linebacker, Randy Moss, was being traded to the Minnesota Vikings.

While he didn’t suffer any major repercussions, the unfortunate incident led Simmons to reflect on how Twitter affects the way journalists operate. According to Simmons, the media’s compulsion with breaking news first has been intensified by the development of Twitter.

He believes social media has successfully blurred the lines between ‘reporting and postulating’, adding to the culture of immediacy created by the not so recent development of the 24 hour news cycle.

There is no doubt that the evolution of the Internet has caused media companies to rethink the traditional roles in journalism. The Nasr incident illustrates the cloud of uncertainty under which both media companies and journalists are engaging with social media.

It is due to the nature of the Internet, and more specifically social media, that journalists are able to forgo the editorial process and publish their unedited opinions.

By encouraging their employees to interact with new social media, media companies such as CNN are asking journalists to walk a fine line between presenting the news as a monologue and engaging in dialogue with their audience.

Despite encouraging their employees to engage with the Internet, many media institutions are evidently uncomfortable with journalists using social media to impart their own bias on the news.

For a new generation of young journalists who have grown up in the age of the Internet, the ethical issues surrounding social media are less confusing.

‘Is it an ethical dilemma to have a story, know you shouldn’t tweet it because it’ll be illegal or outside the law, but do it anyway? Not really,’ says Teo Pellizzeri, a 25-year-old journalist with Fairfax and SEN sports radio station.

‘Inevitably someone will screw Twitter up for mainstream media by getting into court and having a judge lay the smackdown,’ Pellizzeri says.

‘The journo that ends up screwing Twitter for everyone will be a peon totally comfortable with going to court and making a name for himself by fighting the system.’

Pellizzeri has grown up with the Internet and is a prolific tweeter and blogger, using both mediums to assist with research and to build his online profile.

‘Twitter has come through for me with information I’ve used for a story on half a dozen occasions, be it via searching for a key-word or someone tweeting a tip-off directly at me,’ Pellizzeri says.

‘So in that respect I think it’s useful. I am still working out the best way to use Twitter for things other than my own amusement, self promotion and throwing cheapies.’

Pellizzeri views Facebook a little differently to most users.

‘I see Facebook as little more than a surveillance tool for journalists. I don’t know of anyone who has been able to unearth a story or generate leads using Facebook unless they have 2000-plus friends.’

‘Facebook is basically a cynical tool for sourcing photos of average joes and janes when they are thrust into the news spotlight,’ Pellizzeri says.

However, one of the main obstacles for journalists when using social media to break stories isn’t necessarily story accuracy, but how closely they’ve followed their employer’s protocol.

Some media institutions, such as ESPN, require all breaking stories to be filed to the news desk before being broken to the public. This was the specific problem Simmons faced when he accidentally broke the Moss scoop.

Pellizzeri can see this as a problem as well.

‘Cutting your employers’ lunch is the main problem for me, rather than reporting something that shouldn’t be, or is illegal or not in the code of practice.’

Contemporary journalism is multifaceted, ranging from hard hitting news headlines, to investigative documentaries, to someone simply recording their opinions on an internet blog. While opinions are important in journalism, there is a fine line between reporting the facts of an event and recording opinions on an event.

It is the responsibility of journalists not to disguise opinion as fact, which with the emergence of social media has become considerably more difficult.

Jonathan Wilkinson is studying a Graduate Diploma of Journalism at La Trobe University and is a former deputy editor of upstart. You can follow him on Twitter: @JonoWilkinson.