To tweet or not to tweet?

February 9, 2021 11:00

Navigating the newsroom benefits and ethical pitfalls of social media

Social media can be a valuable tool for both news gathering and news publishing, but newsrooms are increasingly reckoning with the shortcomings and ethical pitfalls of social platforms.

Reach tool or road to misinformation?
On the “pro” side, using social media can help newsrooms connect with audiences at a more personal level and find sources that might otherwise be hard to reach.

More Americans than ever use social media as a source of news. But research also shows social media users are not necessarily representative of either news audiences or the information environment. The demographics of people who use Twitter, for example, skew younger and more educated than the population as a whole, and the gap widens when looking at the most prolific tweeters. In other words, virality, particularly on Twitter, does not necessarily equate to importance among your own audience. In addition, mis- and disinformation online is now so prevalent that nearly 60 percent of people who use social media for news at least sometimes say they expect to find inaccurate information there.
Video Training:
Ethics Guidelines to Stop the Spread of Misinformation and Disinformation
Ellen Crooke, Vice President for News at TEGNA and member of the RTDNA Board of Directors, and First Draft News, an organization on the front lines fighting disinformation and working to support truth in journalism, review new coverage guidelines from RTDNA offering strategies and best practices for journalists to identify misinformation and disinformation and deliver truthful and accurate information in our service to the public. 

Connection tool or risk to reporters and newsrooms?
News audiences appreciate seeing reporters for their authentic selves, which the more causal and personal feel of social media can provide. Majorities say their news sources don’t value, understand or represent people like them, so showcasing what members of your news team do have in common with your audience can build trust.

However, displaying personality can be at odds with objectivity, which both newsrooms and news audiences value. A recent Morning Consult poll, The New York Times reported, showed audiences split on whether they trust journalists who are open and honest about their political views or those who keep their opinions to themselves. The same poll, though, showed a majority agreed that “have a responsibility to keep their opinions private, even on their personal social media.”

How much leeway newsrooms give their journalists to express themselves online can become problematic too, as the Times also points out. Social media standards and policies can be applied unevenly and subjectively, often less enforced for high-profile or publicly visible “stars” than for lower-level or behind-the-scenes team members. Besides creating confusion and uncertainty about what is acceptable and what isn’t, the star power effect can have wider consequences, too. Workplaces who place widely divergent value on different team members, according to research from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, are at increased risk for toxicity, harassment and discrimination.

Harassment is also a significant risk to any journalists engaging online, particularly women. The IWMF has found that “a third of women journalists have considered leaving the profession due to online attacks.” Online harassment can also quickly escalate to physical threats, and the risk of bad actors online is a good argument for limiting sharing personal photos or activities online.
Video Training
Lunch & Learn: Guidelines for Social Media and Blogging 
Members of the RTDNA Board of Directors and Ethics Committee, Sheryl Worsley of KSL NewsRadio in Salt Lake City and Kimberly Wyatt of WEAR-TV in Pensacola, review the newly updated social media coverage guidelines and discuss strategies to apply them in your newsroom

One correction/clarification from the training: Facebook does allow for comments to be turned off on station posts, but only in Groups. Unfortunately, the tool is not available on page accounts right now. It was formerly available. The functionality does exist in a roundabout way on Facebook personal accounts, by adjusting the privacy settings on the post.
Strategic investment or just one more task on the to do list?
Navigating these pros and cons, on top of all the other tasks required for news gathering and broadcasting, can be a lot to manage for strapped newsroom teams trying to be on all platforms. It can take a toll on digital managers and leave staff at risk of burnout.

Some engagement specialists suggest sticking to owned platforms like station apps and websites to avoid the comment moderation hazards and limitations of social media giants.

RTDNA’s own research shows many newsrooms are cutting back on frequency of social media use, especially Twitter, and getting more strategic about which platforms to use and how. Strategically saying “no” to trying to maximize every available platform and instead investing time and effort on specific platforms or goals can pay off, especially for small teams.

Part of a strategic approach to social media must include thinking through the risk, hazards and ethical pitfalls of social media tools. Effective, ethical engagement on social media should be a perpetual work in progress for any newsroom. RTDNA’s newly updated guidelines for social media can help newsrooms apply the core principles of the Code of Ethics when developing and updating newsroom social media policies.  
Feedback Needed:
Is authenticity replacing objectivity as pathway to trust in journalism? You are invited to participate in a research study to better understand the views of working journalists. The huge news events of 2020, from the pandemic to Black Lives Matter protests to the November election, have stimulated overdue conversations in newsrooms across America about the role of the reporter’s voice and experiences. They’ve amplified the need to understand and bridge generational differences around the idea of objectivity and what’s appropriate to say and share in reporting and on social media.