Every few weeks, an off-colour or overly candid Tweet from a working journalist blows back into the newsroom in spectacular fashion. Over the last few weeks we’ve had the sacking of Octavia Nasr, CNN's Senior Middle East Editor, after she tweeted upon the death of Hezbollah’s Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fadlallah. "One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot". Predictably, this gave the US Israeli lobby a made-in-heaven talk-show talking point, and CNN swiftly gave in to demands for her head. Wisely, after the event, she remarked that this was "a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive subjects, especially those dealing with the Middle East".
There have been other swiftly dashed off, long repented compositions. Catherine Deveny, a columnist for Australian paper, The Age, joked about the death of a TV star's wife from cancer, while "live tweeting" at a TV awards ceremony. And Washington Post columnist, whose job was to report on the conservative grassroots movement, had to resign after his social networking messages mocking prominent Republicans were leaked.
But there is some hypocrisy here. Journalists are told by their news organizations that they should use social media to express their personality and develop a more intimate relationship with their readers; they should use the Public/Private divide that Twitter straddles to ingratiate themselves with their audience. That demand, combined with the snarky, clever-clever culture of the blogosphere, is a formula for a head on clash with the blandly corporate reputation of most media organizations. The Twitter tightrope that has to be walked by staff journalists is to sound jokey and informal while not saying anything that could be used by critics to demonstrate bias or flippancy.
Regular tweeters like Catherine Mayer from Time Magazine or Sophy Ridge, the Consumer Editor of the News of the World mainly retweet content in their publication or draw attention to their own articles. Rarely do they say anything controversial.
Thomson Reuter's official guide for their journalists on social media is worth a look. It warns against anything that could embarrass or disparage Thomson Reuters, tells its staff to resist the temptation to respond in anger and not retweet anything that might not be true. Journalists should be careful who they follow on Twitter (so as to avoid accusations that they are following just one side of a debate) and "where possible get someone else to check your Twitter posts". It's no wonder journalists feel inhibited about developing an outré Twitter persona when they get sobering guidance like this. RB
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