1 In the Limelight: Ethics for Journalists as Public Figures

Abigail McArthur-Self

Does journalists’ use of social media undermine the field’s commitment to objectivity?
Before reading: Think about the following question: Should newsrooms be able to restrict their reporters’ political participation or social media activity? Draw and label the scale below in your notes. Place yourself more toward the left side of the scale if you think journalists should be free to advocate for politicians and causes as well as post personal commentary on platforms like Twitter. Place yourself more toward the right side of the scale if you think newsrooms are justified in limiting the kinds of things their reporters can say and do publicly.


line with bisecting parallel lines at the start, end, and middle

Journalistic ethics are the evolving standards that dictate the responsibilities reporters have to the public. As members of the press, journalists play an important role in the accessibility of information, and unethical practices can have a detrimental impact on public knowledge and trust. But new and developing technology is changing the practice of journalism in ways that are becoming increasingly difficult to anticipate, detect, and address. The field of journalism as well as the ethical codes that govern it have been revolutionized. Now, journalists must navigate unfamiliar ethical dilemmas.

Increased access to social media and other public platforms of self-expression have expanded the role of journalists as public figures. The majority of journalistic ethical concerns focus on journalists’ actions in the scope of their work. As our understanding of privacy changes, more people feel comfortable sharing their lives online and journalists’ actions outside of their work have come under further scrutiny. Increasingly, journalistic ethics is shifting to include questions regarding journalists’ non-professional lives. What additional responsibilities and obligations might journalists have as public-facing individuals?

As a student of journalism, I am all too aware that there is no consensus on these issues. At the publication I write for, staff members are restricted from participating in protests for the duration of their employment. In a seminar class, a professional journalist discussed workplace moratoriums they’d encountered on publicly stating political leanings and one memorable debate about whether or not it was ethical for journalists to vote — especially in primaries, on the off-chance that their vote or party affiliation could become public. Each of these scenarios stems from a common fear that a journalist will be seen as untrustworthy due to the actions they take and positions they hold outside of work. With less than half of Americans willing to believe what major news outlets tell them (according to Gallup polls), journalists are facing intense pressure to prove themselves worthy of trust.

Certainly, journalists have a duty to be as unbiased as possible in their reporting — this is a well-established standard of journalism, promoted by groups like the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ). But how exactly are reporters supposed to accomplish this tall order? Must journalists ensure that all their personal opinions stay hidden and that they keep their private lives a secret? Must they refrain from any social media use, personal or professional, for fear that their particular convictions should get out? Where should we draw the line?

The underlying assumption here seems to be that it is the personal responsibility of journalists to combat biased reporting by either minimizing their own biases or concealing them. But at least a part of this assumption is flawed: people are inherently biased; a person cannot be completely impartial. Anyone who tries to pretend otherwise actually runs a greater risk of being swayed by these biases by becoming blind to them. The ethics code of the SPJ advises journalists to “…avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” I believe that that short, second sentence (“Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”) holds the key. Rather than hiding biases, it’s more effective to be clear about them. Journalists should be open about any connections or political leanings that intersect with their field. Only this would truly provide the public with all the information and the opportunity to judge the issues for themselves.

I don’t mean to say that journalists should be required to make all parts of their private lives public regardless of whether these details intersect with their work. However, journalists shouldn’t be asked to hide them either. While most arguments don’t explicitly suggest journalists keep their biases secret, they do typically encourage journalists to cleanse their public profile and purge those posts that might result in public perception of prejudice or bias — an unrealistic and harmful expectation. Expecting journalists to either pretend to be bias-free or to isolate themselves from the issues they cover results in either dishonesty or “parachute journalism” — journalism in which reporters are thrust into situations they do not understand and don’t have the background to report on accurately. Fostering trust with readers and being deserving of that trust can only be accomplished by being honest about one’s point of view as well as one’s potential blindspots.

These days, the divide between a so-called “public” or “professional” life and a “private” life is not always as clear as we might wish. Whether they like it or not, journalists are at least semi-public figures, and many post on social media to raise awareness for their work and the topics they cover, while at the same time using those platforms in more traditional, personal ways. In these situations, it can become difficult to draw a line between sharing personal thoughts and speaking as a professional.

In early 2020, New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote, “Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?” a piece that criticized New Yorker writer Farrow for his journalism, including, in some cases, the exact accuracy or editorializing of tweets Farrow had posted. Despite my impression that Smith’s column was in itself inaccurate, poorly researched, and hypocritical, it raised important questions about the role of Twitter and other social media in reporting. A phrase I saw numerous times afterwards was “tweets are not journalism” — a criticism of the choice to place the same importance on and apply the same journalistic standards to Farrow’s Twitter account as his published work. But is this true, is it obvious that tweets should not be considered journalism? Social media makes it incredibly easy to share information, opinions, and ideas. It is far faster than many other traditional methods of publishing. It can, and has been, a powerful tool for journalists to make corrections and updates in a timely manner and to make those corrections more likely to be viewed by people who already read a story and might not check it again. If a journalist intends them to be, tweets can, in fact, be journalism.

This brings us back to the issue of separating public from private. Labeling advocacy, commentary, and advertisement (and keeping them separated) is an essential part of ethical journalism. But how might these lessons be extrapolated to social media? Many individuals use separate accounts in order to draw this distinction. Having a work account and a personal account, typically with stricter privacy settings, is not uncommon. It does, however, prevent many of the algorithmic tricks people use to make their work accessible, and accessibility is an important part of journalism. Separating personal and public accounts effectively divides an individual’s audience and prevents journalists from forming more personal connections to their audience. It also prevents the engagement benefits of more frequent posting that comes from using a single account. By demanding that journalists abstain from a large part of what is now ordinary communication with the public, news organizations significantly hinder their journalists’ influence.

Tagging systems within social media provide powerful tools for journalists to mark and categorize these differences, but there’s no “standard practice” amongst journalists on social media to help readers navigate these issues. And so long as debates about journalistic ethics outside of work focus on trying to restrict journalists from developing biases at all, it won’t become standard practice. Adapting to social media means shifting away from the idea that personal bias can be wholly removed. Instead, it means helping readers and journalists acknowledge, understand, and deconstruct these prejudices by promoting transparency and dialog.

Respond to the following questions in your notes and through classroom discussion.
  1. Can you think of any compelling moral reasons for news agencies restricting their reporters’ political participation? What kinds of activities do you think should be allowed? Which kinds of activities should be discouraged?
  2. How would you describe journalism’s commitment to being unbiased and objective? Do these terms mean the same thing? Why is there so much focus placed on these two goals? Who might it benefit?
  3. Many newsrooms restrict social media use by their reporters, arguing that some individual actions have the ability to undermine the integrity of the entire organization and especially the work of one’s colleagues. Do you think these justifications are reasonable for limiting journalists’ freedom to post on their personal social media accounts?
  4. What kinds of biases would you say color your own worldview? Would these biases undermine your ability to accurately report on a particular topic? How can you tell?



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