Nisha Chittal

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Journalists share arguments for, against using same-sex marriage symbols on social media profiles

Yesterday, as the Supreme Court began to hear the case challenging California’s controversial Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage, the Human Rights Campaign organization launched a social media initiative encouraging marriage equality supporters to change their Facebook profile pictures to a red version of HRC’s logo, an equal sign, to show their support for marriage equality.

The campaign quickly went viral, with thousands of Facebook and Twitter users changing their avatars to the red HRC logo over the span of the few hours on Tuesday.

Some journalists changed their avatars to the HRC logo to show their support for those they know who are unable to get married. In doing so, they blurred the lines between personal views and professional objectivity in social media.

Does changing your profile picture constitute taking a stance on a political issue — and does it compromise a journalist’s credibility? Will it antagonize readers or sources who engage with the journalist on social media platforms to see such a personal opinion displayed in such a prominent way on a journalist’s Facebook page?

The answer is a multi-layered one: it depends on the journalist, the outlet they work for, the social media platform, and whether the journalist is covering this week’s Supreme Court hearings.

I reached out to several journalists about the issue. Many of those who changed their avatars were reluctant to comment on the record. Those who didn’t change their avatars explained why. Here are some of the factors that have influenced journalists’ decisions…

Reporters who cover the cases vs. those who don’t: When it comes to journalists actually covering this week’s Supreme Court hearings, few — if any — have changed their avatars in support. Chris Geidner, a reporter for BuzzFeed who regularly covers LGBT issues & marriage equality news, told Poynter why he chose not to change his avatar:

“While I obviously have views about the issues involved in the cases, I don’t find it particularly appropriate for me to support specific efforts of organizations I regularly cover by changing my profile picture,” he said. “I can understand, however, how and why others might feel differently. It’s just not my thing.”

Journalists I talked to who don’t cover the marriage equality beat were more willing to publicly show their support for marriage equality. Of those who did change their avatar, many were opinion journalists and bloggers — whose credibility is enhanced rather than undermined by taking a stance on a contentious political issue.

Sara Morrison, an assistant editor at Columbia Journalism Review who changed her Facebook profile photo to the HRC logo, explained her decision to Poynter:

“I don’t think changing my avatar compromises my objectivity since it wasn’t there to begin with. I have opinions about things. We all do. So the question really is, does it affect the perception of my objectivity and my reporting? Possibly, and absolutely not,” she said. “The fact is, I’m capable of reporting a story objectively despite my personal views or opinions — I’ve done so many times. Both my readers and my sources trust me to do this, and I take that trust very seriously.

“If a few potential sources feel antagonized by my avatar, well, of course that’s not good. But I feel strongly enough about this — and know and love too many people affected by this — that it really would’ve been dishonest for me not to do it.”

Morrison’s reasoning is similar to the reason other journalists gave: they feel that same-sex marriage is not a political issue but an issue of basic human rights and equality, and that supporting equal rights does not compromise their journalistic objectivity.

New media vs. traditional media: In looking through the social media profiles of journalists who have changed their profile pictures, I noticed that many are affiliated with entrepreneurial, digital, and nontraditional media outlets. Journalists from traditional media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and others largely appeared to refrain from participating.

In many cases, legacy media organizations have created social media policies that prohibit journalists from sharing personal opinions in social media. NPR’s ethics policy clearly addresses this in a section on social media usage:

“Our standards of impartiality also apply to social media. Refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog). Don’t express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on”

The Associated Press also appears to prohibit this sort of activity in their standards & practices: AP employees “must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum, whether in Web logs, chat rooms, letters to the editor, petitions, bumper stickers or lapel buttons, and must not take part in demonstrations in support of causes or movements.”

Journalists from the AP and NPR declined to comment for this article; however, we did not observe any journalists from these organizations changing their social avatars in support of same-sex marriage.

Private on Facebook vs. public on Twitter: Very few journalists I talked to changed their avatars on Twitter to the HRC logo. Far more did so on Facebook, where they have the option to block personal profiles from public access. The public can still see profile photos, however, even if the rest of a journalist’s Facebook profile is on lockdown.

“I think journalists need to realize they’re in public wherever they are now, including Facebook. But some chafe at that,” tweeted Liz Heron, director of social media and engagement at The Wall Street Journal.

A human rights issue vs. a political issue: Journalists who changed their avatars and were willing to talk about it generally said they view same-sex marriage differently from a regular political issue in which both sides must be presented fairly and objectively.

Matt DeRienzo, an editor for the Journal Register Company in Connecticut, tweeted: “I don’t have a problem with journalists who work for me voicing support for basic civil rights for gay people. Or kids, sunshine, etc.”

Jose Antonio Vargas tweeted: “I’d rather journalists be transparent about their opinions than hide them under cloak of “objectivity.” He added: “You call it objectivity, I call it the complications and complexities of life–my life. #journalismindigitalage.”

O’Reilly Media’s Alexander Howard did not change his avatar, but he shared this thought with Poynter:

“There are a number of social issues that may have had ‘sides’ in past public discourse but have now become viewpoints that few journalists would find tenable to support today. How many journalists were able to remain neutral or objective in their coverage of slavery in the 1860s? Womens’ suffrage in the early 20th century? Civil rights in the 1960s? Child slavery, sex trafficking, so-called ‘honor rape’ or the impression of child soldiers in the present?”

Howard raises an interesting point — LGBT rights has been discussed as the modern civil rights issue of our times. Does that make this issue an exception for journalists on Facebook to share their support? Declaring allegiances via Facebook picture is one issue that journalists of eras past never had to contend with. Read more


How to decide what can be published, what’s private on Twitter and Facebook

As more journalists rely on social media to find ideas and sources, there is increasing confusion about what’s acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to using material not originally intended for publication.

Recently, a college journalism professor found himself in the spotlight after he included a student’s Facebook page among documents he brought into a class on public records. Deadspin linked to the Facebook page of a Packers fan who seemingly took her cheating boyfriend’s game tickets in revenge. (Her page was deleted shortly after the Deadspin article, possibly because of the unintended attention).

And last year, a Tampa woman tweeted details of her sexual assault, within minutes of the attack, leaving reporters wondering whether to identify her.

Are tweets and Facebook posts from ordinary citizens fair game for reporting if the writers didn’t intend for them to be public? What about private individuals who find themselves at the center of a news event?

Twitter as a public platform

Most journalists agree that Twitter is inherently public, and anything said on Twitter is generally fair game to be reported upon. This is evident with the rise in popularity of tools like Storify, which allows reporters to aggregate public tweets around a breaking news event or other story.

“I consider everything on Twitter fair game and as long as I am confident that the person and the avatar are one and the same, I use it comfortably,” said New York Times media columnist David Carr by email. “Twitter is a village common and everything said there, however considered or not, is public. If I think something needs context, I will report it out, but I assume that if someone is saying something on Twitter, they want it to be known.”

Reuters has a similar policy. “We link if possible and cite the source. If it is public, it is fair game. If it is private we would ask them to go on record,” said social media editor Anthony De Rosa in an email.

However, Jacqui Banaszynski, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and editing fellow at Poynter, suggested that even though Twitter is public, seeking permission to use tweets is key.

“If I’m going to quote someone, the smart journalistic thing to do is to be in touch with that person beyond what you pulled off that site. Journalists should let people know when they’re performing journalism,” Banaszynski said by phone. “I also think that pulling something off a site without contacting [a] person further doesn’t allow the journalist to do deeper reporting or put the comment in context. It’s very easy to take just 140 characters out of context – and that’s bad journalism.”

Some celebrities and politicians use social media platforms, most commonly Twitter, because they expect to be quoted. In those cases, rather than simply being a mouthpiece for the individual, journalists also need to bring more reporting to the statement, to provide context and show motive.

Facebook, however, is a more complicated social network and a number of factors must be considered when taking material from an individual’s page.

Facebook can be private

While Facebook does offer privacy options for users, the complicated range of options for Facebook privacy settings also means that some users may not realize their page is public, or ever fathom a moment when something they post could be of interest to reporters. In these cases, some journalists make the case that public posts are fair game – but others disagree. Although a social media user may publish something that is technically “public,” that does not necessarily imply informed consent for that to be published in the media.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on the hiring of Rachel Sterne as New York City’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer, and included several posts from her personal Facebook page in the story. The article cited posts Sterne’s friends had written on her page that were critical of her new boss, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor’s office responded: “Her personal Facebook page is for her and her friends.” Sterne also changed her profile settings to private after that, and the reporter in question could no longer view posts on her page.

Banaszynski noted the difference between sourcing from Facebook fan pages, personal Facebook profiles, and invite-only Facebook groups. Deciding whether to use material from areas of Facebook considered more private – and whether to seek permission to use said material – is usually made on a case by case basis.

“If it’s a public fan page, I have no problem looking at that and pulling from that. But if it’s a post between friends, I would hope a good journalist would contact the person, verify their identity and let them know they are using that info,” Banaszynski said. In the aforementioned Wall Street Journal story, in her opinion, the reporter should have sought Sterne’s permission before quoting posts from her personal Facebook page.

De Rosa agreed. “We’d definitely be mindful if someone said something in our personal network that was meant to be in private,” De Rosa said. “This isn’t yet a policy set in stone and I think it might be more of an individual journalist’s protocol. Personally I would not share something in a private network without permission. We may look to have something formal in our rules for this in the future.”

Craig Kanalley, soon to be senior editor at the Huffington Post, emphasized the value of public Facebook posts in reporting but did not comment on the issue of quoting from personal Facebook pages or closed Facebook groups. “The amount of public posts on Facebook that can help us in our reporting is fantastic, and it’s often easy to reach out to sources and get more information. You can also immediately learn much more about sources found on Facebook based on what information they share publicly, who they’re connected to, and what they like,” Kanalley told me by email.

All of this begs the question: on Facebook, what is considered “private”? What is off limits for reporting? Are comments on a personal page, such as Sterne’s, considered private? Are comments within a closed Facebook group considered private? Or as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself has said, is privacy gone altogether?

Journalists are stepping into gray territory with no widely agreed-upon standards.

Between individual decisions and accepted practice

De Rosa told us that at Reuters, they “don’t currently have any specific guideline for sourcing from social media but I hope to have something formal put together soon.”

No hard-and-fast set of rules can encompass all the various scenarios that may occur – circumstances matter. For instance, Banaszynski said, “In breaking news, if you’re using Storify to display tweets about Whitney Houston’s death or a snowstorm or other developing story, I think it’s fair to use tweets that way … the circumstances really do change the situation. But if you have an opportunity to contact someone further, and give them the respect of letting them know you want to use their info, that’s just good journalism.”

As Facebook and Twitter become more integral to basic reporting, news organizations and social media editors need to consider what, if any, guidelines they will put in place for how their reporters source from social media; they will also need to discern what is public and what is private and off-the-record on Facebook.

Until those policies are established, here are some questions you can ask about what’s fair game in social media:

  • What was the author’s intent? If shared in a closed group or personal profile, was it intended to be kept private?
  • How did the source respond when you asked about including the information in a story?
  • Is the author a public figure? How public? There is a difference between a school principal and a professional athlete.
  • What harm could come to the individual if the information is made public? Is that harm justified by the public benefit of the information?
  • What alternatives do you have for getting similar information?
Read more

Are long and short form writing mutually exclusive?

In today’s publishing world, Twitter and the blogosphere are the new breeding grounds for many book authors, yet some writers express frustration when trying to strike a balance between the demands of both short and long writing. Some simply bow out when it comes time to write a book.

Yet, audiences want both short and long writing, often from the same writers. While many writers walk up and down that continuum, some find that certain content demands a certain length.

Forbes’ Lewis DVorkin earlier this month examined the strategies of two different Forbes writers on his blog. Each writer creates high quality content, generates conversation, and generates thousands of page views for, but each focuses on either long form or short form writing and excels at their chosen medium.

Forbes staffer Eric Savitz, DVorkin wrote, focuses on short form content — churning out 10 posts or more a day and keeping all posts “short and punchy.” Medical writer Matt Herper, on the other hand, focuses on long form and writes less frequently than Savitz, but writes in-depth, long form pieces. Dvorkin points out in his analysis that both Savitz’ and Herper’s strategies are equally successful, yet each one has to focus his energy on either long form or short form to be able to create truly excellent, original content.

Today, it is often the shortest of all writing, a hyperactive Twitter feed or a blog with a quirky and unique theme, that opens the doors to the longest of all writing, the book. But some new media stars who land book deals seem to put their Internet activity on hold – indicating that even in a world where an original Twitter feed can elevate you to stardom, writing a book is still sought after as the most serious achievement for any content creator.

Two months ago, Twitter star Andy Carvin issued his 100,000th tweet – to announce that he would be temporarily stepping back from his now-famous Twitter activities to pursue writing a book instead.

During the Arab Spring this year, Carvin became famous for using his Twitter feed to curate live first-person accounts of the revolutions taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere. Carvin has often been credited with reinventing journalism as curation. On an average day he might tweet 200 times. Currently, Carvin has amassed over 58,000 Twitter followers.

Managing the @acarvin Twitter feed became his full time job, and his unique style of reportage – curating the tweets of citizens in the Middle East as they experienced the revolutions in real time – was noted by journalism experts and readers alike as pioneering a brand new style of reporting driven by the use of Twitter.

Writing the book, however, demands putting his Twitter curation on the backburner – which is the very thing that led to his book in the first place. Carvin told me over email, “If I have something longer I want to write, I shut off Twitter until I feel like I’ve accomplished something… Multitasking short-form and long-form writing isn’t easy, so there’s no shame on concentrating on one at a time.”

I wanted to start this sooner, but it was hard to find a decent amount of time to dive into it until after Tripoli fell – and even since then it hasn’t been easy. So I figured the best thing to do was to force myself to take a week off of work just to see if I could come up with something that’d be worth pursuing further. It’s not like I’m gonna crank out an entire book in a week; if I wanted to do that, I’d just copy and paste all my tweets into a Word document and call it a day.

Dan Sinker started out writing the @MayorEmanuel Twitter feed, a hilarious and wildly creative fictional Twitter feed that imagined Rahm Emanuel’s inner thoughts as he campaigned for Mayor of Chicago. As the Chicago elections intensified, writing the @MayorEmanuel tweets required almost constant attention to keep its hundreds of thousands of followers supplied with original, creative content under 140 characters several times a day. Once Emanuel won the race, Sinker shut down the Twitter feed – and promptly landed a deal to publish a book with Scribner, inspired by his tweets.

Sh*t My Dad Says is another original Twitter feed that led to a book deal. It started with 29-year-old Justin Halpern sharing the quirky things his dad said on a daily basis. The Twitter feed exploded in popularity, gaining millions of followers and landing Halpern a book deal and a CBS sitcom deal. The sitcom has since debuted and been cancelled. Now, Halpern still maintains the Twitter feed, but posts new updates only once every few months.

This trend raises the question: are long form and short form writing mutually exclusive? Can writers do both successfully at the same time?

Of course, many successful long form writers still maintain Twitter feeds even as they write books – but what they do on Twitter is far different from what Halpern, Carvin or Sinker do.

Maintaining a creative, original, highly active Twitter feed that amasses thousands or even millions of followers is far different from tweeting a few times a week about what one is doing.

Poynter recently interviewed author Jennifer Weiner, who is very active on Twitter while also writing books;  but the way she interacts on Twitter is very different than the way Andy Carvin or Dan Sinker do. Weiner tweets daily updates and interacts with her readers; Carvin and Sinker are curating original content on Twitter. This kind of shortform writing demands singular focus and attention to create completely original content at such a high frequency each day, or to monitor a broad swath of the Web to curate first-person accounts of protesters the way Carvin does – it requires so much full-time maintenance that talk has begun of “how to scale @acarvin.”

Kate Lee, one of the first book editors to seek out bloggers and new media stars, says: “I look at how often they post, the amount of engagement their content inspires (number of comments/reblogs/retweets), their overall platform (traffic/twitter followers/outside recognition as an expert), and the kinds of people that link to them (influential/meaningful in their field).”

“A book is a way for anyone – a blogger, a professor hoping to get tenure, etc. – to be seen as an expert or credible source on a topic,” she added.

What all of this suggests is that long form and short form writing are, at the end of the day, mutually exclusive for writers to create simultaneously. Writers can’t do both at the same time – something has to give. Writers have to alternate between long form and short form or phase them in and out. Creating original and truly exceptional and valuable content, whether long form or short form, demands a journalist’s complete focus — excelling at both simultaneously is near impossible.

Also making it difficult to excel at both long form and short form is the fact that in the last couple of years, blogging as a medium itself has evolved tremendously.

Blogging used to be the cutting edge of “short form” writing, and was a medium that wielded incredible power and disrupted the world of journalism. But now, Twitter, Tumblr, Storify and others present a whole range of short form mediums that have made blogging less relevant.

For some journalists, blogging is too long form; why blog when it is faster to break news on Twitter? Or aggregate first person accounts on Storify? And for others, blogging has become too frenetic — like journalist-turned-blogger Marc Ambinder, who announced he was ditching blogging to go back to focusing on long form reporting and who this week announced he was leaving daily journalism to work on longer projects. With the growing amount of information and tools that are out there, blogging simply isn’t as attractive a short form medium as it used to be.

But long form is still attractive. New media-bred writers still seek the credibility and gravitas that can come from publishing a book or other serious long form work. Twitter, Tumblr, and blogs can win them accolades and followers – but even today, long form writing can allow them to gain the expert status they seek. Short form writing – creative, smart, and original – can be a stepping stone to a successful writing career.

At the end of the day, you can’t put a Twitter feed on a bookshelf. Read more