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Blurred lines of social media in journalism

Blurred lines of social media in journalism
Jenny Rudd, Head of Content at MOSH, New Zealand’s top social media agency comments on the role of social media in the life of a journalist.

Some years ago I went to see the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell in London. Jeffrey Bernard was a racing journalist for British publication Sporting Life and wrote a weekly column called Low Life in The Spectator. He was self destructive, irresponsible, a chronic alcoholic as well as dour and exceptionally rude. He was also witty, intelligent, and despite many jokes about his feckless life inhibiting his journalistic output, he produced a weekly column for 14 years. He behaved appallingly, inhabiting the underworld of Soho, working through four wives of his own as well as a great deal of others.

I was entranced by the seedy glamour of the play, the entirety of which was a monologue by Bernard in his favourite haunt, The Coach and Horses in Soho. I have been thinking about this acceptance of journalists in the eighties as belligerent drunks, cynically churning out copy whilst sloping off for lunchtime gins compared to what is expected of the profession today.

The more experienced journalists writing for our dailies completed their degrees and training during a time when exposure through social media was barely a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. They would have gone into their career presumably with a passion for investigating hard hitting news and developing their writing style for a consumer base interested in reading thought provoking opinion pieces. I assume their training would not have included the management of themselves as a brand, as they were a byline for the main brand - the newspaper.

Last week Dana Johannsen, sports writer at The Herald, wrote an article about the performance of the New Zealand Olympic team, berating the proliferation of rad Instagram pics and Twitter feeds. She received a barrage of personal abuse on her Twitter account as well as across the comments board in The Herald and many other websites who picked up the piece and wrote about it. A few days later she wrote a response in The Herald detailing some of the abuse and arguing that she was merely exercising her right to free speech and shouldn’t be subjected to such aggressive and abusive views.

Among the comments underneath the article were some salient points, amongst which one reader pointed that although she appeared shocked and disappointed in the passionate responses, it was probably all a ruse and she had actually succeeded in her job to provoke the public, invite responses to keep The Herald’s readership and Google ranking pretty toppy and then provide an opportunity to write a follow up article, again keeping The Herald’s revenue as the number one priority.

Johannsen’s Twitter profile says ‘ Sports Writer for @nzherald. Thoughts are my own (someone told me to write that).’ Looking through her tweets, she updates general info about her activities, chats about news items and and also responds to comments about her writing for The Herald. When I first read her article about the Olympians being on a skiing holiday my immediate thought was that it was unlikely to be her view, more likely the product of a meeting discussing copy for the week. ‘Write an incendiary piece, Dana, then do a follow up next week. That should bump up readership for the paper.’ Essentially, her sports column could have been an article in PR. Because of the importance of her presence in social media (I would imagine journalists are encouraged by their employers to be on Twitter), she then had to defend her writing on her personal account, where she has been told to explain all thoughts are her own.

I would clarify that I’m not saying this is what happened. It’s possible I am getting cynical after witnessing this behaviour in other publications and that Johannsen’s article was merely her opinion which then got slammed. Whether it was an honest piece or a PR nudge, it does not seem fair to encourage journalists to use their personal social media accounts to promote an article they have been paid to write and whose sole purpose is to generate revenue for the paper, over which they have very little control and then ask the journalist to protect the newspaper through a disclaimer. Instead of the onus being on the journalist to protect the newspaper, perhaps opinion pieces should carry the disclaimer, ‘These are the views and opinions of X writer acting as journalist for the commercial benefit of Y publication and are not necessarily shared with X the individual.’

David and Victoria Beckham have made a truckload of cash by promoting themselves as a brand. It’s unlikely that Johannsen went into journalism with the same ambition and just as likely she’d have hoped there would be a healthy balance between articles being commercially driven and the product of an experienced, intelligent journalist. Over the years at MOSH, I have come across a number of large multinationals with detailed social media policies, many of them encouraging their employees to use social media but asking them to be explicit that their views are their own. Although Johanssen didn’t link to her article on Twitter, she has had to use it to defend herself from a tirade of vile comments brought about by her professional role. I wonder if the young, ambitious journalist could have foreseen that on her first day at university.

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