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.


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