Journalists have been two-timing for a while, sharing their raw thoughts and impressions on social media, while publishing more polished versions in newspapers. Recently, I saw a video from the BBC College of Journalism. The speaker was Ramaa Sharma, the social media editor for the BBC World desk, explaining bullet points that BBC staff should pay attention to while using social media.
The first question she was asked: "As a journalist working for the BBC, what can we share on social media?"
Her answer was a simple yet encompassing one: "You have to ask yourselves something. 'Can I say this during the broadcast?' If the answer is yes without any hesitation, then most likely you are good to go. But if you have some reservations about uttering the same remark during a broadcast and believe that what you are about to share would be biased and unprofessional, then do not share that."
While Ramaa Sharma's words are on point, whether our colleagues in BBC heed them or not belongs to a different discussion. Nevertheless, these are universal rules for journalists. They should not use words and rhetoric on social media that they would be reluctant to use in their news pieces. Similarly, news they wouldn't give the newspaper shouldn't be in their micro-blogs, especially without editorial oversight.
Even if we were to exclude columnists and other journalists who provide articles that are basically commentary in nature, the situation still doesn't look too bright. We still don't have a normative set of rules that journalists should follow while using social media in Turkey. One of the reasons for that are problems with representation.
You have probably encountered the Twitter accounts of journalists with the name of their newspapers featured in their bio sections. However, even if they write the name of the paper there, it doesn't give them the right to represent their newspaper. Even though this is a technical and theoretical fact, it doesn't hold much water in practicality. Many of the opinions and photos they share aren't reflected to the public as "everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion" mentality as some claim, and newspapers are held responsible for such content in the public eye.
Therefore, our colleagues should do their utmost to prevent the blemishing of the names of the newspapers they work for while using social media. Even when they only use social media for relief or fun, we have seen too many examples where things can get out of hand quickly.
Objectivity and credibility
During the BBC College video, another question was asked of Sharma that sums up the discontent from journalists on this matter. The question was: "As journalists, why aren't we allowed to share and announce our personal and political opinions on our social media accounts?
I have to say that the question was a bit of a surprise for me. After all, if we look at the social media accounts of journalists from both the BBC and BBC Turkish, it would be impossible to guess that there are such restrictions. But first, let us look at Sharma's answer.
Sharma said that social media couldn't be considered as a private platform: "When it comes to politics, we have to be more careful. For example, let us say you are a journalist covering political news, but also share political content that can be considered partisan in your blogs or social media accounts. This will cause people to question your news articles as well. Since objectivity is an important point for us, this will have a problematic outcome."
BBC and BBC Turkish have credibility problems as far as Turkish readers are concerned. Not just the social media accounts of the journalists, but also many news articles appearing on their sites are untrustworthy.
Nevertheless, the principle here is also correct. If journalists use their social media accounts to act as a political party recruitment office or act as a representative of a special interest group, it will overshadow their objectivity, believability and credibility.
Threats and insults
Another reason that hastened the rise of social media was interaction. We see the popularity of artists or public figures rise quite fast when they engage with their fan base through social media. Journalist should also develop a similar attitude, albeit not for popularity, but to be transparent and accessible. We should be able to form a dialogue with our followers while following ethical rules.
We should do that, but reality has another way. Unfortunately, "trolling" has become an inseparable part of the Internet ecosystem. Our colleagues should be careful in this matter. "Do not feed the troll," as they say. But they also mustn't rise to the bait and "take matters into their own hands" when met with insults and threats. Instead they should ask for help from newspaper management and the legal team.
Since we mentioned the legal team, let us talk about the problems that fall under the purview of the law. Defined by their contract, journalists work for their newspapers first and foremost. Therefore, they are required to present news they have written to the editorial department since everything they produce resulting from occupational activity is a product of the media company they work for. In another words, journalists cannot share news that they haven't given to their newspapers. They also can't announce or share news that they have given to the newspaper before the newspaper publishes it.
Even though nobody seems to care, this is supposed to be the status quo regarding social media use by journalists.
The Media Association released a set of guidelines for blogger-journalists that include the following points:
- The writer of the blog should act with the principles of the company they work for while making sure not to write personal opinions he or she would not be able to say on television, radio or newspaper.
- Blogs must not have any form of hate speech or generalization with this purpose under no circumstances.
- Journalists must credit the source if they use material such as voice records, video clips, photographs and others. News thievery must be always avoided.
- Hiding the name of the writer or using a pen name is acceptable in some special circumstances.
- The truth must not be distorted regardless of the reason.
- The owner of the blog should be accountable. If he or she makes a mistake, accepting and fixing it is the only supposed course of action.
We discussed the alternative forms of journalism in this section on numerous occasions. We conveyed our reservations and hopes on the way forward as the inevitable evolution of the mainstream media is happening. Like every other change, it has its problems and setbacks but the end result is diversity. In the past a journalist had only one option in his or her career when moving forward. Even though media companies were interchangeable, journalists themselves juggled from one mainstream media organization to another without an alternative. After all, the equipment was expensive, coverage was hard to get and access to important public figures was limited. But most importantly, reaching the public was infinitely harder for a single person compared to today.
The Internet changed all that, and social media changed it even more. Now we have independent journalists with thousands of followers writing on their blogs whenever they want. The lack of oversight, however, is the downside, even if it seems like a bonus at first glance. Some of the reader base wants their content unfiltered as well, which it fills. However, the lack of oversight does not mean a lack of ethics, at least it should not be. It is also important to mention that we have begun to see blogs being taken over by mainstream companies. The writers of these semi-independent blogs can serve as a gap between the two types of journalism, and it is an effort that should be undertaken carefully since it might shape the future of the sector.
It is also important to note that travel, expat or gourmet blogs should hold themselves to similar ethical standards I will mention in this article, especially if they are generating content that can sway the decision of their followers in their respective fields, much like the blogs that feature reviews of various media products.
Honesty is usually the main reason blogger-journalists gain followers. Breaking that trust will not only hurt their endeavor but also alienate a sizable chunk of followers to this type of journalism. Thievery or plagiarism is another critical ethical issue. Even though content thievery is quite common, the wording pattern of popular writers is sometimes plagiarized as well in order to benefit from someone else's popularity. Blogger-journalists should remember that they are a reporter, designer, photographer, editor, copy editor and editor-in-chief all at the same time and fulfill each of these roles accordingly.