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July 6, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:08am

Social media ‘active danger’ for journalists yet also ‘integral’ to the job

By Andrew Kersley

Twitter and other social media platforms remain an “integral” part of the job for journalists despite the risk of getting into “hot water”, top industry figures including Sky News political editor Beth Rigby have told Press Gazette.

BBC, Guardian and Washington Post journalists are among those who have made headlines amid a spate of rows being held in public view on social media.

The BBC formally disciplined four staff in 2020 to 2021 who broke new social media guidelines that said journalists could not back any sort of campaign, post any criticism of colleagues or retweet or like anything that could indicate a personal view. They were also warned against using emojis as they can “undercut an otherwise impartial post”. 

More recently The Guardian issued new guidelines in the wake of a series of spats involving Guardian writers including Owen Jones.

And last month The Washington Post fired reporter Felicia Sonmez and suspended Dave Weigel after Sonmez repeatedly criticised him for retweeting an allegedly sexist post that claimed “every girl is bi” before beginning several arguments with other Washington Post journalists.

“I think we’re seeing a bit of a re-evaluation,” Nic Newman, a journalist, digital strategist and visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism told Press Gazette when asked about publishers’ changing relationship with social media. 

“Most news brands think some journalists have too much freedom on social media, and that there is real potential to damage their brands, so it’s better to just be cautious.”

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So what is the future for journalists on social media? And is it right for publishers to be trying to police their staff’s social media, or for journalists themselves to take a step back?

“I would never tweet anything I would not say on television,” Sky News political editor Beth Rigby (pictured, left), who has almost 400,000 followers on Twitter, told Press Gazette, explaining that in her social media posts she tries to follow the same Ofcom regulations that force broadcasters like Sky to be impartial on-air.

“And that is the way that I check myself to make sure that I’m not going to get myself into hot water when I tweet because that is an active danger for journalists now.”

Should journalists share opinions on social media?

Despite the dangers of journalists sharing opinions on social media, polling has suggested younger audiences are happy to see them do so.

A survey of more than 18,500 people by the Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism for the latest Digital News Report found that 46% of people worldwide aged between 18 and 24 and 44% aged between 25 and 34 think journalists should be allowed to post personal opinions alongside reporting the news.

Half of the UK’s ten most well-known journalists compiled in the latest Reuters Institute report were opinion columnists, sketch writers or other journalists with more leeway to show a personality than their counterparts.

Newman said there had been a “shift” in some countries and demographics in which “the relationship with readers is increasingly with journalists, not brands” – although he acknowledged this was less intense in the UK than in the US, Brazil or France.

“Having a personal brand is definitely a trend, and that’s obviously a double-edged sword for media companies.”

He went on to explain that the merging line between journalists and social media personalities poses an array of risks for news sites. For one, the journalist in question can leave and take all their followers with them, as has been the case with a flurry of reporters leaving to build an audience on newsletter platforms like Substack.

Newman also cited the problem of maintaining impartiality on social media: “The dangers are that the informal nature of social media means that you forget about impartiality; that’s it is harder to be impartial if you’re letting your hair down.”

But not everyone agrees that being informal and personable on social media means you have to break impartiality guidelines.

Vice World News’ Sophia Smith Galer has more than 400,000 followers on Tiktok, which makes her one of the most followed UK journalists on the platform. She built up much of that audience while working as a producer and religion reporter for the BBC, which is governed by Ofcom rules.

“It’s not been a problem for me personally – I was able to navigate and get big on Tiktok whilst being a BBC journalist which arguably has the toughest restrictions on impartiality online… Being informal and human doesn’t suddenly mean you’re being heavily opinionated,” she said. “The style of your delivery is up to you but those who emulate the enthusiasm and easy-going nature of a lot of successful content creators have found success.”

Are journalists too focused on Twitter?

Enforcement of often excessive social media guidelines also risk alienating staff, said Smith Galer. “What is realistically the problem with some of these news organisations is that they have one rule for one journalist and another for another, so the whole employee base isn’t treated fairly.”

She added: “If you’re young and talented on social media, you won’t want to work for somewhere which unfairly polices their reporters’ social media because you witness the injustice of it. Journalists of colour and journalists from marginalised communities in particular in my experience have been unfairly policed for their social media usage.”

Is abuse forcing journalists to leave social media?

A 2021 Unesco survey suggested that around 75% of female journalists worldwide had experienced hostility of some sort online, while a quarter had been threatened with sexual violence and death. The likelihood of attack increased greatly if the women belonged to a minority, and was often found to spill over into day-to-day life. 

The Guardian’s Owen Jones was physically assaulted after a night out in 2019, while last month BBC Newsnight political editor Nicholas Watt was in court testifying about his experience when protesters chased him at an anti-vaccine rally in June 2021.

Press Gazette previously reported that eight BBC Monitoring journalists quit in the space of one year to 18 months due to the daily abuse they faced. And in 2018, thenBBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said she almost quit social media (she currently has 1.3m Twitter followers) due to the scale of abuse she faced each day. 

Rigby told Press Gazette she first started to notice the scale of abuse after Boris Johnson announced his plans to stand for leader of the Conservatives. “I asked him quite a pointed question about some of his colleagues asking the question about whether he was fit to be Prime Minister, which was a difficult question but was a question MPs were talking about,” she recalls. “But that really triggered a camp within social media that had become really anti-me.”

Since then, she said, the abuse has been a constant stream she keeps in control using filters and controls on Twitter.

“But it’s a shame in a way because when I started on Twitter, over a decade ago, it felt like a much more benign place where you could perhaps have a conversation with people or you could discuss things,” she added. “Whereas now it’s just different echo chambers. And it’s very abusive.

“The way I handle it now is I accept it as part of doing business, that is a sort of nasty underbelly of public discourse. And that you just have to rise above it, and you carry on doing your job.”

She went on: “For some people, and I think it’s not necessarily conscious, it’s still hard to accept that a woman, a woman with my accent perhaps as well, is in a position of authority challenging a very senior politician.”

Smith Galer said: “Generally speaking, I’ve only experienced abuse with particular kinds of content (normally about gender equality) or when I’ve gone super viral for something and it attracts people from very strange corners of the internet.”

She told Press Gazette the worst problem she faces is when seemingly innocuous pictures of her are shared on porn sites.

Should journalists stay on social media?

Despite the torrent of abuse, both Smith Galer and Rigby said that being a major presence on social media was not really a choice for journalists but a necessity. According to the Digital News Report, the proportion of people mainly getting news from websites and apps was 34%, in contrast to the 39% who went to social media for news. 

Newman added that beyond just reaching new audiences, social media gives journalists an unrivalled ability to meet new sources, build networks and develop more loyal audiences.

Rigby said: “I don’t think there’s an option for journalists like me. I don’t think it’s an add-on optional extra for my job, I think it’s integral to my job.

“What I really want as a journalist is to tell interesting stories, break lines and do interesting interviews… If I don’t put that information out, not just on Sky News terrestrial channel, but on the Sky News digital app, and on social media on Instagram, then my journalism won’t have the impact or the reach that I would like it to have.”

Smith Galer added: “It’s not that it’s important to be on social media, it’s that it’s existential. News media is haemorrhaging younger audiences and often younger staff too, and we need to make sure that we’re on the platforms that young people are on to ensure they’re getting good quality news and are able to make informed choices in their lives.”

Pictures: Sky News, Vice World News

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