What’s at stake for journalists who use social media?

By Sydney Jones for The Signal

On the morning of Halloween, 2014, adults disguised as ghouls and witches carried briefcases and purses as they walked to work, crunching across the leaves in front of Stephanie Domet’s house.

Normally by this hour on a Friday the CBC Radio Mainstreet host would be getting ready for work, but a particularly ruthless bout of autumn allergies kept her home. As Domet puttered around on her laptop, sticking close to the warmth of the electric stove in her North End Halifax home, she was drawn to a frenzied conversation on social media. Days earlier, the well-known radio personality Jian Ghomeshi was fired by CBC for allegations of violence during sexual encounters. It was blowing up on Facebook and Twitter.

Some online comments were sympathetic towards the alleged victims, but many were vile, castigating victims of sexual assault for not coming forward earlier. Suddenly, with fury burning through her ribcage, Domet felt she needed to be part of the conversation.

Within 15 minutes she hammered out a 1,200-word blog, Now is the time for all good men to get out of the way if they can’t lend a hand. “I’m fucking outraged,” Domet wrote on stephaniedomet.com. “I am so fucking tired of educated, privileged men (yes, of course, god help me #notallmen) trying to shoulder women out of the way.”

Within 24 hours her post—confronting the “suffocating culture of silence around sexual violence”—was read 30,000 times.

When Domet entered CBC on Monday, she was giddy—until ushered into the office of program manager Kathy Large. “That’s when I knew that I was pretty much in for it,” says Domet. (Large, now retired from CBC, declined to be interviewed, writing in an e-mail, “I don’t feel that I can share my role in that conversation.”)

CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices cautions journalists not to “express their own personal opinion because it affects the perception of impartiality,” and to “avoid swearing and coarse, vulgar, offensive or violent language.” These are major ethical rules—both of which Domet broke.

Domet says she was told she could no longer “conduct any interviews about gender politics.” She left the office feeling “disciplined.” Her conversation with Large that day forced a “little door to swing open” in Domet’s mind—one that grew wider with each passing month. One year later, she left CBC.

“Not being able to express my opinion in public became a deal-breaker for me,” she says. “I couldn’t be myself at work anymore.”

Twitter is the monolith of social media. With 317 million users, and the freedom to follow anyone without “friend requesting,” journalists and their audiences have unrestricted access to each other’s thoughts, stories, and opinions. The urge to share is irresistible, like plunking a six-year-old in front of a gooey chocolate cake and telling him not to touch.

Journalists, increasingly, engage with their audiences online. According to a February-April 2016 study by public relations database Cision, 57 per cent of Canadian journalists post original comments on social networking or microblogging sites, and 52 per cent reply to comments received in relation to their work on social media.

Posting, re-tweeting, and replying to online comments can help journalists build a fan base, promote content, and produce news on a massive scale. It also poses risks, including making the journalist vulnerable to exposure and harassment. Some journalists play the game a little riskier than others.

Dealing with online criticism

“This is a world where news, information, and opinion all travel at lightning speed,” says Jack Nagler, CBC’s director of journalistic public accountability and engagement. “It’s a fantastic advantage. But of course, it’s not always a positive experience either— depending on how people react to your story.”

Before newsrooms went digital, readers expressed criticisms with a handwritten letter or over the phone. If content was inappropriate, the journalist could simply not read it, or hang up. Now, journalists deal with criticism and harassment online—24/7.

In 2010 Twitter partnered with the U.S. Library of Congress and created the world’s largest library, digitally archiving every public tweet posted since Twitter’s launch in 2006. (The data—about 70 billion tweets— was meant for researchers, and has yet to be released.) Journalists need to be mindful that criticisms against them, and their reactions, are forever part of the online universe.

“Now you can actually just start blasting the journalist in public in front of everybody, and sometimes that’s good,” says Jesse Brown, founder of the Toronto-based podcast Canadaland. “Sometimes somebody knows that the piece is wrong.”

Brown started Canadaland—which focuses primarily on media criticisms and media reporting—in 2013. He “couldn’t get anyone to pay” him to do Canadaland as a TV show or newspaper column, and says making the podcast a success would have been difficult without social media. “It’s a really integral tool for the profession (of journalism).”

Part of Brown’s success with Canadaland comes from being hardnosed online. “You can kind of embarrass people and you can challenge them in public,” says Brown, who calls people out online who ignore his requests for interviews. “You can demand transparency in a way that I think gives more power to the press. The danger there is that you can abuse that as well, if you are not being fair to people.”

Think before you tweet

Some journalists use the power to re-tweet to their advantage. Rosemary Barton, host of CBC’s television news program Power and Politics, is no stranger to social media—or its foibles. Barton has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and describes herself online as “Freckled. Loves all the politics. Heavy on the coffee and the high heels.”

When she encounters a “particularly vile” comment on Twitter, Barton re-tweets it to expose that person. Often she adds her own remark, like: “Wow, you must not be very fun at a dinner party.”

Her followers will do the “clean-up”—tweeting in Barton’s defense—and the harasser will typically stop. While social media makes her vulnerable, it also provides a platform for fans to support her—in 140 characters or less.

“Be smart,” says Kathy English, public editor at the Toronto Star. “Just as you wouldn’t go marching in a pro-life rally, or an anti-abortion rally, or a rally against Trump … if you’re a reporter, you’re not going to put that kind of information out on social media.”

Twitter followers aren’t the only ones perusing your online profile. Bosses, other journalists, and people you interview have equal access to your information.

If she won’t say it in a public interview, English won’t post it online. Her advice for journalists on social media: know what you post is “part of your public image” and “use common sense.”

Online comments from readers are inevitable, and should not be ignored. “That’s when they turn into a big cesspool,” says Gina Chen, assistant journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Engaging with an online audience is a fine-tuned art—something many journalists aren’t equipped to deal with. And online comments directed at journalists can be enraging—especially if malicious or provocative.

“It’s a very time-consuming part of their job,” says Chen. “They don’t learn how to do that in journalism school, so they’re learning it on the fly.”

Chen is teaching a new class—Online Incivility and Public Debate—in the spring of 2017. It aims to teach students how to prevent and tame vulgarity online, and how to apply these skills to a journalistic career.

Her best advice when attacked online: “Moderate the comment, delete it, or have maybe somebody who is not that particular journalist jump in and say something kind of calming.”

Jake Batsell is an associate journalism professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He requires his students to be on Twitter.

Batsell assigns a weekly “power-tweet” to help journalism students “get in the habit of tweeting in a way that shows you are savvy about using social media.”

In 2015, Batsell published Engaged Journalism; Connecting with Digitally Empowered News Audiences. Researching his book, Batsell interviewed more than 100 journalists from 30 newsrooms in the United States and Europe. A key finding: journalists are shedding “traditional reporting habits.”

The mentality of, “‘I am the expert, I am the authority, I determine what news is’,” Batsell says, is evaporating. In its place shines a new breed of journalist: an active participant in today’s media ecosystem.

Still, no matter what your privacy settings are, social media is public. For Stephanie Domet, this became starkly clear.

“I was so … naïve,” she says, lingering over the last word. “I didn’t think very hard about the repercussions of (the blog post) before I pressed Publish.”

Despite realizing her mistake, Domet stands by her decision to share it. On that crisp October day she “wasn’t thinking of herself as a journalist.”

She was “just being a human.”

This story was originally published on University of King’s College The Signal, and is republished here with the author’s permission.