Firing journalists for stray tweets is a good way to ensure that journalism does not survive

For the practice of journalism, this should be the best of times. Reporters have instant on-screen access to a treasure trove of information, can connect with anyone interested in what they’re doing, and can speak to a global audience: wide reach, unhindered interaction, promise of mastery of facts and freedom of expression.

But instead of a promised land, our global social media networks have spawned a culture of communication in which speech is punished and speakers are flayed, where facts are distorted and deliberate falsehood is rife, where posts are scrutinized. , stored and militarized against their perpetrators.

Instead of wandering in a garden where reports and commentary flourish amid an unprecedented wealth of information, today’s journalists wander through badlands, dark and censored. They are torn between the pressure of joining a constant online conversation about daily events, which bolsters their public reputation and that of their news outlets, and the risk that they will pick a bad word or unsavory thought and arouse the anger of the crowd.

And professional reprisals. Take the Washington Post member who tweeted a reminder that professional basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, who had just died in a helicopter crash, settled a rape claim in 2003; her tweet infuriated grieving fans, and the Post suspended her because she had “undermined the work of her colleagues.” Or the Associated Press reporter in Arizona who tweeted criticism of the language used to describe Israeli actions and who was assaulted for pro-Palestinian protests at university. The PA fired her. Or the New York Times editor-in-chief who, after watching live coverage of Joe Biden landing outside Washington before his inauguration, tweeted, “I’m having chills. She was denounced for her pro-Biden sympathies, and the Times let her go.

It’s mean out there, in what Columbia journalism professor Bill Grueskin describes as “this new era of nervous Google trolls looking for excuses to put newsrooms on the defensive while blowing up the careers of journalists “.

The management of news organizations is of little use. The AP advises “to avoid expressions of opinion on contentious issues”. The Times says to “avoid posting anything on social media that undermines our reputation for neutrality and fairness.” USA Today’s instructions are not to publish anything “which could jeopardize the reputation of the company as a reliable source of news and information.”

These policies may cover news bosses when they fire journalists to appease online scum, but they don’t help their staff make good editing decisions so they don’t deny themselves access. to some of the most influential communications media of the day.

The point is, social media is a different world of discourse from the places journalists usually inhabit; the mother tongue is different. In the news world, reporters need to be measured and cautious, swallow hunches and soft-pedal preferences, stick to the facts, and contain the impulse to blurt out what might actually be happening. On Twitter, it is not the facts that interest the communicators, but their meaning; insight and perspective are what creates success. People are not arguing about what happened, but what matters and why.

So social media discourse is different, but the language of journalism has always been shaped by the channels it uses. When the telegraph offered a huge and ideologically diverse audience, colorful partisan polemics were dismissed by the laconic, so-called objective voice. When photography took over the front pages of tabloids later in the 19th century to support a big-city strategy based on street sales, sensationalism reigned and the prose turned sinister. The emergence at the end of the 20th century of urban glossy magazines and the alternative press prompted a new journalism that allowed journalists to become personal and use literary techniques.

Journalism has adapted to new opportunities in the past and can thrive in the midst of social media, although it will require some care. Online speculation that impairs a journalist’s ability to report – by dissuading sources from speaking to them, for example – is problematic. But the future of journalism is punishing journalists who use the most powerful media out there, so it has no future. The candor and self-expression that feeds social media can be a boon to journalists’ credibility, if they are trained to use these channels without losing their souls in casual chatter.

The challenge is to allow journalism to flourish while preserving what makes it irreplaceable among the modes of learning of contemporary realities. Amid a flood of messages calibrated for private gain, journalists are the only ones to deliver fact-based narratives that are not meant to sell or persuade, but to enlighten, for the public good. Social media can reinforce this core mission – if we’re wise enough to figure out how.

Edward Wasserman is professor and former Dean of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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