Journalists’ Facebook Pages Reveal Struggle with Neutrality, Free Speech

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There’s going to be a party in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Most Americans won’t experience it in person, but many will share their feelings about it on social networking sites.

How will journalists react when Barack Obama puts his hand on Lincoln’s Bible? If Election Night was any indication, some of them will be quite happy — and, like everyone else, they’ll say so on Facebook.

Journalists have taken to social networking. They post photos, find old friends, reach out to new ones, and tell them all what’s going on in their lives. Some use Facebook and MySpace to find sources and conduct interviews. Yet judging from the posts in November — and what they likely will broadcast on Tuesday to their Facebook friends — I’m not sure we’ve figured out how these sites fit into our identities as journalists.

Back in November, I asked my colleagues at Poynter to be on the lookout for fellow journalists’ Facebook “status updates” regarding the election. I suspected many would express happiness at Barack Obama’s victory, and that’s pretty much what I saw in the 50 or so status updates we collected.

Some were overt. Others were vague enough that it wasn’t exactly clear what people were so excited about; considering the historic event, though, the context was practically unnecessary. As I learned, that vagueness often was intentional.

I contacted most of those 50 or so people and interviewed about 15 of them. I wanted to know how they reconciled what they post on social networking sites with newsroom guidelines that discourage getting involved with or expressing support for political causes and candidates.

What I found was a disconnect between what these journalists said and what they did. Most agreed that journalists should accept some limitation on free speech so they don’t undermine their position as fair brokers of information. Almost all of them said they never would have put an Obama sign in their front yards or a bumper sticker on their cars.

Yet they posted status updates such as:

  • “voted for change”/”change is coming”/”yes we did”/”is thrilled.”
  • “is hoping the American people elect to leave behind the dark ages and step back into the hopeful light. It’s been a long time.”
  • “helped turn her state blue.”
  • “I live in the United States of America again.”
  • “is getting out the vote for Barack Obama.”
There’s no way to know if my unscientific survey reflects the journalism community as a whole. (Those 50 status updates come from a pool of perhaps a few thousand journalists with Facebook connections to my colleagues at Poynter.) But what it seems to show is that some journalists haven’t resolved how they behave online with ethical guidelines against supporting political campaigns.

They get the guidelines, but they haven’t figured out how to apply them to the digital world. Yard signs and bumper stickers matter when your car and your house are part of your public identity. Now that we do so much work online, our presence on Facebook and MySpace are our yards and cars. (Kelly McBride, Poynter’s ethics group leader, has developed a newsroom ethics policy that addresses this very issue. The New York Times also has a policy on social media use.)

As I contacted people, it became clear that this is a sensitive issue. Some of my colleagues remarked that they felt like they were ratting out their friends. One woman changed her privacy settings so Poynter colleagues couldn’t see her status anymore (which is one way to address this issue). A couple of journalists expressed regret about what they had posted and asked that I not publicize it. I felt like the J-school hall monitor.

I understand their sense of betrayal in learning that someone had saved screen images of their status updates. There is a presumption of trust among friends, even Facebook friends. But really, how much do you trust someone whom you met once at a conference? How much confidentiality can you expect from a group of 300 people?

“Facebook is both private and public,” said Tommy Tomlinson, a Charlotte Observer columnist who is doing a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. “How many people are going to drive by my yard in a day versus how many people have my Facebook feed?”

Moreover, how many of those drivers even know that a journalist lives in that house? In many ways, our physical presence is more anonymous than our digital one. Unlike on Facebook, you probably don’t have a sign on your house noting that you work for the local newspaper or television station.

“It’s so much more now than putting a bumper sticker on your car,” Tomlinson said. “Everyone, in some sense, has their diaries online. So I don’t know how you get along being a journalist and totally being objective in every aspect of your life.”

On Election Night, he told his 200-odd Facebook friends that “Tommy Tomlinson is still up at 3 in the morning, loving his country.”

“Facebook is both private and public,” said Tommy Tomlinson, a Charlotte Observer columnist who is doing a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.He told me he believes he has more latitude to express himself because he’s a columnist and he’s on leave from the newspaper. Other journalists offered similar explanations; they said they can express opinions more freely because they have gone back to school, or they don’t cover politics, or they don’t directly gather news, or they don’t deal with sources on Facebook.

But how many of these distinctions matter to our audience and our communities? Let me get this straight: If I cover high school football, I can support political candidates, but if I move over to city hall, I should stop. And should my audience forget everything I professed before? In reality, we don’t have the power to decide what people factor into our professional identities. Once it’s out there, it’s fair game.

That’s one of the reasons many bloggers and social media users advocate transparency: Admit our preferences and explain why they don’t matter.

Jim Ogle, general manager of WIBW-TV and its associated Web sites in Topeka, Kan., said he’s believed for years that transparency is a better solution than hiding one’s beliefs. Now he’s taking advantage of social networking to express them. On Election Day, he posted on Facebook (he had about 440 Facebook friends at the time) that he was “getting out the vote for Obama.” He said he’s also publicly supported candidates for local office.

That’s a bold position — one not taken by any of the others I interviewed. Most are still in this middle ground, anxious to express themselves but worried about what they can say. They type what they’re thinking but delete it before they click “post.”

“I think lot of journalists see that everyone else gets to be pundits and espouse their thoughts … Maybe some of it is, ‘I get to be me somewhere,’” said Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of CapitolBeat, an association of state government reporters and editors. “I wonder if we’re being archaic in holding on to these things or [whether] holding on to these things is the only thing we have left.”

Back on Election Day, Shackelford told about 940 Facebook friends, made up of personal friends and professional contacts, that she was “thrilled.”

“I think that was the most blatant that I’ve gotten,” she said, noting that while she considers her Facebook presence personal, she tries to avoid taking political or religious stands. Her updates “tend to mock on both sides, which is sort of my veiled way of protecting myself.”

That’s a common strategy: Don’t leave, as Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante put it, a “paper trail.” (When Obama was elected, Strazzante’s message to almost 900 Facebook friends was a simple “woo hoo!” He said that expressed happiness at the success of a hometown candidate.)

What we don’t know is how these revelations, whether it’s speaking in code or blatant opinionating, affect our credibility with our audience.

“You’re in great mood, a great thing happens and you want to tell the world,” Tomlinson said. “Facebook provides a platform for that. I can see in … context of events, that could really hurt someone’s career.”

Tuesday morning, I’ll be on the National Mall — my second presidential inauguration, the first for an African-American. I’m excited, for several reasons that I’ll refrain from describing here. I haven’t decided what I’ll write on my Facebook status that day. And Twitter? That’s another story altogether.

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