About News

Warning: If You Get Chills Reading This, Keep It to Yourself

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Got a great job for you. It’s in journalism. Never mind that if you take it you can’t publicly support a political candidate, donate to a political campaign, make money on the side without your boss’ approval, date someone you met on the job or accept a small token of thanks from a subject grateful for your hard work.

Here’s something else that many news organizations say you can’t do in your personal life: express a political opinion on social media.

This was brought to light again when The New York Times fired a freelance editor who tweeted “I have chills” as she watched Joe Biden’s plane land at Joint Base Andrews on the way to his inauguration. Right-wing critics on social media jumped on the tweet as proof of The Times’ political bias. The firing ignited its own backlash that The Times had caved in to an online mob.

The defenders of the editor, including many Times colleagues and other journalists, couldn’t agree on a single counterargument. Some said the tweet violated The Times’ social media policy against public expression of political opinions but deserved only a warning. Some said it wasn’t actually a political opinion. And some argued The Times (and journalism outlets in general) shouldn’t have dumb rules like that. For its part, The Times issued a vague statement that the editor wasn’t fired for only that tweet.

Journalists don’t claim to have no opinions. After some of the news stories of the past few years, how robotic must a person be to not have any opinions. The question is whether a journalist with an opinion can produce truthful, fair and trustworthy news stories. That question has an answer: It’s yes. Happens every day. Those newsroom policies actually address a different concern: whether expressing political or social commentary affects the public’s perception of the integrity of an outlet’s work. It’s like a falling tree in a forest: If a credible story gets published but no one takes it that way, is it really credible?

It’s a reasonable concern. But newsroom social media boundaries regularly become points of contention for several reasons.

First, managers can partly blame themselves because they’re constantly pressing reporters to engage the audience on social media and to develop their “personal branding.” Second, reporters, especially those of color, might not feel as much need for full personal expression on social media if their outlets had not been so tepid and artificially even-handed in their coverage of vexing moral issues such as racial injustice and government authoritarianism. The enduring failure of most newsrooms to demographically diversify their news decision chains has compounded the problem.

Third, internal management actions to enforce social media practices inevitably become public, as individual employees or unions have become more willing to air dirty laundry and try to bring public ridicule. Maybe except for the White House, no one leaks more than journalists. Fourth, social media controversies arise so often in journalism because newsroom managers have a hard time deciding what is and isn’t an unacceptable statement of opinion. No, it isn’t easy, but sometimes they get really touchy.

Did the “chills” tweet make you question the neutrality of that journalist’s work products? Would you have discounted anything written by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson about the Black Lives Matter movement because she tweeted a comparison between property damage from a George Floyd protest and debris left by a Kenny Chesney concert? (Management banned her from BLM coverage because it decided the tweet showed bias.)

After several social media posts that led to discipline of reporters, The Washington Post did an internal survey of newsroom staff as part of a revamp of its social media guidelines last year. Among the survey’s findings: Staff thought white, male reporters could get away with posts that others couldn’t; and certain reporters were afraid to share “identity and personal experience” on social media because “some aspects of personal identity are viewed as inherently political or controversial in our society, such as race and gender.”

Maybe the easiest solution is to let journalists opinionate unbridled on social media and judge them strictly by their news stories. After all, a known viewpoint is less of a con of the audience than a hidden viewpoint. But in today’s climate of political division and manufactured doubts about the news media, that approach hands a hammer to the critics to bash a news outlet over the head. Eventually, even the reasonable audience begins to wonder how much trust to give to a byline.

The traditional ethical value of presented objectivity — on all platforms — still carries weight. I also believe that most any personal opinion that a journalist holds on politics or society can be brought to light in the form of a fact-based news story. Still, I think it would be good if the newsroom bosses out there could lighten up a little.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.