Social media trap for journalists

By | June 2, 2021

Associated Press’s decision to fire a young reporter for allegedly infringing their social media codes raises a number of complex issues about fairness, natural justice, freedom of speech and the use of cancel culture in ideological warfare.

But most importantly, it goes to the heart of media ethics and understanding their codes of practice, what they say and what they are meant to achieve.

I’ll come back to these issues later, but as background Emily Wilder is a 22-year-old reporter who started at Associated Press in Phoenix covering news in Arizona. Just over two weeks later, the AP said she was being fired for violating the news agency’s social media policy.

While at this time AP hasn’t said what in particular she had written that violated the policy, it was generally agreed by observers that the news wire’s decision started with tweets written while Wilder was a student advocating for the Palestinian people and opposing the actions of the Israeli government.

According to Tom Jones at Poynter, Wilder graduated from Stanford in 2020 where she had been a member of pro-Palestinian activist groups. Wilder is herself Jewish. After she was hired by AP, she was targeted by conservative media and figures such as Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who repeated an unproven claim that AP had shared office space in Gaza with the proscribed [by the US] militant group Hamas.

Although right-wing objections to Wilder’s student social media posts sparked the controversy, according to Eric Wemple at the Washington Post these prompted AP management to review her social media content posted after she joined the organisation, so it seems not to be a case of Wilder being punished for her past comments, only for those made while an employee and, therefore, subject to the company’s News Values and Principles. It is unlikely though unstated that Wilder’s critics gave a fig for this distinction anyway.

There does seem to be some ongoing confusion in the reporting of this controversy about exactly which part of AP’s codes were violated. They are, however, related documents presumably meant to be read in conjunction: AP News Values and Principles and the AP social media guidelines.

Emily Wilder has attempted to give some perspective to the controversy in an interview with #democracynow, though it is clear she too finds AP’s action incomprehensible, as does her Stamford tutor Janine Zacharia.

Zacharia tried to put the complaints and AP’s reactions in a broader context of hard right campaigns against independent objective news coverage of Israel’s attacks on Gaza by creating very tenuous linkages between an apprentice journalist in Arizona and the claim that Hamas shared a building with AP that was destroyed by the Israeli military. Zacharia, a former Middle East correspondent, felt the AP’s social media policies were little more than a way in for the right’s wider aim, in this case to defend the Israeli action, a gambit she believes AP management fell for.

However, to stay with the codes issue a little longer, I should say in this article I’m using the terms “codes”, “guidelines” and “policies” interchangeably, unless they are otherwise specific. There are small semantic differences between each – guidelines, for example, are probably regarded as less firm and formal than codes that have been ratified by the organisation’s board or an oversight authority. To people outside the organisation and the media sector, however, they will appear similar whatever they are called and will therefore be treated as official policy of the organisation itself.

Most responsible media organisations have codes of practice – either their own or adopted from an umbrella body – and in many countries codes may be imposed and monitored by a government authority. They exist to guide media practitioners and give citizens some assurance that there is consistency, rationality and ethics in the services they read, listen to or watch for their news and information … and even entertainment.

That is to say, they are important documents.

Internally, codes are useful instruments reflecting corporate values that are often deployed as blunt management tools.

Having been involved in the formulation of codes for a public broadcaster and in subsequent arguments about their application, I’m fully aware how the vaunting expectations of their creation can be brought to nothing in their application.

They set out a frame of ethics the organisation wishes to live by; that is the easy part. Applying those ethics in day-to-day decisions in the real world can be fraught with ambiguity.

In the early days of the modern media’s development, decisions about right and wrong and about which behaviour was to be encouraged and which discouraged were made by the experienced heads such as editors, often acting from personal wisdom gained from decades long experience. The understanding distilled from their experience was expected to percolate down through the staff structure to the lowliest of interns just embarking on this long journey of accumulating wisdom themselves. In those early management practices, editors were not expected to explain why a particular action was judged right or wrong, and journalists and others were expected to accept management’s decisions.

But such a system itself could never survive in modern worlds where staff turnover is constant, corporate memory is short and media organisations no longer just have audiences but also a diverse range of “stakeholders”, all eager to understand and then utilise the rules governing their relationships.

Thus unifying codes were formulated, often based on common templates. They were discussed internally then exposed to public comments before finally being finessed and sent to governing bodies for approval. They were meant to head-off and resolve arguments within organisations and with what are now called “external stakeholders”. Unfortunately, while staff and contributors are required to abide by the codes, anyone in the community outside can utilise them for any purpose they like and without any need even to agree with them.

Codes are like bombs kept inside a explosives factory with a fuse that can be lit by anyone outside.

The case of Emily Wilder and AP is a good example of how a media organisation’s own codes can be weaponised against them. Conservatives who got the young reporter fired from Associated Press for her social media activity used AP’s own codes against her and, ultimately, her employer, ironically in the process demonstrating that so-called “cancel culture” is not a weapon only of liberals.

Putting this in historical context, going to war against an individual because of their views or behaviour has been practised within societies for centuries. It is a way of defending and stabilising existing social norms by attacking people who appear to transgress them. One of the first things I knew about Coventry when growing up in Britain was that people could be sent there (metaphorically) because they had offended their group. Being “sent to Coventry” meant being ostracised as a form of punishment and correction.

Today, with social media so effective in mustering people to respond to perceived transgressions, it is called “cancelling”. The online phenomenon we now call “cancel culture” is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Codes cannot be ends in themselves

Media commentator Tom Jones writing on the Poynter website said the controversy raised a number of important issues, such as: “Can journalists weigh in on certain issues with their opinions and yet still be trusted to report with facts, fairness and context? Are journalists, particularly those of color or those who have had certain life experiences, expected to erase who they are for the sake of ‘appearing’ to be objective? Are news organizations even clear in what their social media policies are and what constitutes a violation of those policies?

“Does this all mean that a victim of sexual assault can never write about sexual assault?” he asked. “Should Black reporters not be allowed to cover issues that impact Black people? Should someone who has been a victim of gun violence not be able to report about gun laws?”

Jones pointed out that Wilder said she was “one victim to the asymmetrical enforcement of rules around objectivity and social media that has censored so many journalists — particularly Palestinian journalists and other journalists of color — before me.”

Jones article closed with the prediction: “We are going to continue to see more controversies like these if news outlets don’t revisit and then clearly define what their social media policies are, as well as be consistent with how they enforce those policies.”

While attacks from the right are usually aimed at the so-called left-wing, most media proprietors and senior executives even in “liberal” media are fiscally and/or socially conservative, yet – with some obvious exceptions such as the Murdoch family’s News Corp empire – they manage to navigate the multiple, oft-conflicting demands of running free-speech, open-minded news businesses without too great a degree of moral conflict or hypocrisy.

One is reminded of the fictional news anchor Will McAvoy, who leads the day-to-day navigation through ethical arguments in the TV series The Newsroom. Like many real-life editors, anchors and publishers, McAvoy is a registered Republican, which he admits to during controversial discussions on issues, to place his views in context. It seems almost quaint to have to point out that McAvoy holding such political views does not preclude him from decision-making. In real life, The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin has admitted: “I’m a registered Republican, I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.”

The argument about whether news people can hold strong views yet still behave objectively is almost lost in some countries, either because the state selects a cypher to control the organisation or because the “free market” gives that authority to the owner and publisher.

The situation is complicated in public broadcasters in democracies such as Australia, where governments pay lip service to the basic principles of honesty, accuracy and fairness embedded their codes, while conservative governments stack their boards with ideological allies tasked with making them toe the government’s line.

Both the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service board members are meant to be appointed on merit-based recommendations from an independent panel, a principle established in 2013. However, subsequent conservative (Coalition) governments have continued to appoint board members outside the independent panel system in order to stack their boards with ideological fellow travellers.

The most egregious example of how governments can damage the reputation of public broadcasters was Prime Minister John Howard’s appointment of a Liberal stalwart, fashion designer Carla Zampatti, to chair the Special Broadcasting Service without any background in or talent for broadcasting. Ironically – or inevitably – though she was meant to pursue the commercialisation of SBS and bring Australia’s ethnic communities to heel – she failed at both, inflicting such deep wounds that SBS is still trying to recover from them. There’s more on that here.

By coincidence, while Emily Wilder was being subjected to the perverse decision-making of AP in the United States, in Australia a former journalist turned Liberal (Coalition) MP Sarah Henderson was making her own ill-informed attack on the ABC’s social media policy.

Whether Henderson is a former journalist who joined the Establishment or a political hack at heart who once tried journalism, she too failed to understand that social media policies should be a literation of a deeper ethic, not a flawed shield in a culture war or just a tool to protect the outer shell of an organisation through its brand.

For at the heart of any codes or guidelines about journalists disavowing perceptions of bias is the question: What are these strictures there to achieve? They normally speak of “protecting the reputation of the news organisation” but don’t say how a journalist’s posts on an issue not associated with their job can (a) affect their reputation for unbiased reporting on an entirely different issue and (b) therefore damage the organisation’s reputation overall. Assumptions are made without being demonstrated or even argued logically. In Wilder’s case, logic would suggest that the views on Palestine of a local reporter in Phoenix are unlikely to be seen as evidence of either her lack of objectivity in covering news in Arizona or AP bias in its coverage of the Middle East, at least not by a reasonable person – which is the age-old legal test upon which much of the legal systems in the west are built.

(Mirriam-Webster gives that legal definition of reasonable person as “a fictional person with an ordinary degree of reason, prudence, care, foresight, or intelligence whose conduct, conclusion, or expectation in relation to a particular circumstance or fact is used as an objective standard by which to measure or determine something.”)

And here’s the rub. As critics of AP’s decision have pointed out, they have responded to the complaints of people with an ideological axe to grind as if their views are those of the legal “reasonable person”, which they are clearly not. Yes, they may be held by many people in society but that is not the test. The codes are obviously not written to keep everybody happy, otherwise little news of any value would ever be published. Codes and guidelines are based on the assumption that staff behave reasonably in the eyes of reasonable readers, viewers or listeners. That is the prism through which AP managers should have viewed the issue, not from the viewpoint of critics who wilfully find offence in any hint of support for Palestinians (and criticism of Israel). That is why many Wilder supporters believe she was thrown under the wheels of a right-wing bus – one that had its disposition clearly displayed on its destination board.

Christopher Warren, a media writer for the Crikey online news magazine, saw the Wilder case as an example of old media trying to protect its brand in the new media era when younger journalists care more about their own ethics and the morality of issues.

The conflict between these two perspectives (corporate responsibility versus individual conscience) allegedly led to managers at ABC and SBS requesting staff to remove their names from an online petition calling on Australian media to “do better” in a more balanced coverage of Palestine.

Incidentally, in an addendum to a published statement of this claim, the journalist union the MEAA acknowledged SBS had since said it would not discipline staff who signed the petition.

I’ve spent most of this article focused on the ethical issues of news organisations’ codes for social media rather than some of the more obvious problems with AP’s treatment of Emily Wilder.

Many critics have been exercised by the free speech angle of whether or not journalists should be permitted to express personal opinions even on their own social media accounts, without reference to their work circumstances. It is generally accepted that editors have the right to regulate how staff and contributors behave while performing their duties, including in posts on the organisation’s own sites and social media feeds, but that was not really what the Wilder controversy is about.

It’s not really about the ever-present issues of objective journalism, such as separating fact from opinion and managing how the two should be honestly and transparently presented. (These are not too onerous to navigate, as you can discover in Chapter 56 of The News Manual)

It’s not really about the apparent hypocrisy of news organisations that encourage their staff to engage with their audiences through social media and then punish them when their posts offend people.

Nor is it about the challenge of employing bright, committed and aware young journalists with social consciences then failing to support them when their zeal takes them into dangerous areas, though I have always been of the mind that a manager’s task is not to fire troublesome though talented staff but to get the best of them without invoking the ultimate sanction. This is implied in articles such as this, again from the Washington Post.

Unpleasant though the task is, anyone can dismiss an employee but it takes real courage to weather a crisis without having to do it; pilots don’t solve mid-air problems by throwing crew or passengers overboard.

No, the central problem with AP’s actions was their failure to understand what their codes required of them – that they should produce professional, objective and diverse news – and then their loss of nerve when that became difficult.

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