Why journalists should be careful with what they tweet now more than ever

November 21, 2015

phone-coffeeTo tweet or not to tweet? Media experts weigh in on why journalists are better off not sharing opinions on Twitter. For some journalists, “think before you speak” is not just an expression, but a rule to live by, especially while using social media. Five years after CNN fired journalist Octavia Nasr for sharing her opinion on Twitter, media professionals are still cautious, and rightfully so. CNN suspended its Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott for posting an opinionated tweet Thursday about Congress passing a bill that could limit Syrian refugees’ entry into the United States, according to CNN Money. Butch Ward, senior faculty and former managing director at The Poynter Institute, says social media isn’t a place for journalists to share their viewpoints on issues. “I think once journalists express an opinion about an active or political international controversy -- one on which people are divided -- then they have taken a side, and taking a side for people who are in the business of covering all sides of the story is just risky business,” Ward says. USA Today’s Social Media Editor Mary Nahorniak says, “It’s certainly better to be safe than sorry.” She says the way journalists talk to their audience has changed in recent years, and Twitter is one of the reasons why. Journalists are more likely to share information conversationally, Nahorniak says. “It’s important to sound like who you are and be human, and not just be a link generator. Use social media the way that you talk to people,” Nahorniak says. Although Nahorniak says talking to people conversationally is effective, NPR’s Mark Memmott says it’s not easy. “Everyone is trying to find that right balance between being conversational and engaging while also being responsible,” Memmott says. As NPR’s Standards and Practices Editor, Memmott regularly writes notes on ethical issues journalists face for his column “Memmos,” which is an extension of the NPR ethics handbook. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned, maybe in some ways NPR is old-fashioned, but we still think that there’s a place for the objective journalist who keeps his or her opinion out of the news,” Memmott says. Memmott says his guiding rule for journalists using social media is that if you wouldn’t say something on the air, don’t say it on the Web. Monitoring tweets for journalists is becoming more prevalent as debates unfold leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. Ward says, “Not only should journalists be watching what they tweet, but I think they have to know that others are watching what they tweet.” He says campaigns devote personnel to watch how journalists behave so they can discredit them when they need to. Nahorniak adds that a journalist saying they support a candidate on social media is like putting a campaign sign on their lawn. “It’s not something that we do,” she says. “We translate those same ethical guidelines on social media.” If a journalist is unsure about what they can say about a certain issue, Nahorniak suggests they talk to their editor about it, and Memmott agrees. “I would proceed as if what you are saying is going to be on the front page the next day -- or on the radio the next hour -- and pause, get a friend to read that before you send it. Turn to the person at the desk next to you or ask the old, grumpy editor,” Memmott says. “We are journalists 24/7. You’re never quite off duty,” he says.