How personal, er, social should you be on social media?

Jake Sherlock shared this with the summer session II reporters. It’s really useful.

How much opinion should you be sharing with folks in your social network?

Short answer: Don’t share anything that is going to get you fired, which is essentially what happened to a CNN editor who tweeted about the death of a Hezbollah bigwig several weeks back. Her tweet:

Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.

This is a classic case of not enough context. The reason why Octavia Nasr said she held respect for Fadlallah (and why she sent the tweet that would eventually cost her her job) was because Fadlallah was relatively progressive when it came to women’s rights.

The mistake Nasr made was the lack of context. The above tweet is only 108 characters — which means she had 32 more characters to explain why she respected him.

Would anyone have had as much of a problem with Nasr’s tweet if that context had been included? I’d be willing to bet she’d still have her job, although I’d also be willing to bet plenty of readers would still vilify her for any positive comment directed as a member of Hezbollah.

And furthermore, I’d be willing to bet that had that tweet come from someone with a last name like Jones or Smith and not from someone with a “Middle East-sounding name,” the uproar would have been much less. But that has a lot more to do with racism than social media best practices.

So, back to the original question: How much opinion should you be sharing with folks in your social network?

There’s no hard and fast answer to that question, but rather a string of best practices I would recommend:

  • Don’t express an opinion today that could haunt you tomorrow. Remember, tweets are forever. The classmate you bash today could be your boss tomorrow. Or the idea you criticize today may come from someone you’ll need to work closely with in the future — don’t poison the relationship.
  • Don’t tweet anything that could get you sued. The Radio Television Digital News Association put out a list of ethics a few months back that warns journalists not to make public statements that could be used against them in a libel lawsuit: “Biased comments could be used in a court of law to demonstrate a predisposition, or even malicious intent, in a libel action against the news organization, even for an unrelated story.” That’s good advice.
  • Nobody is truly objective, so it’s OK to show that you are human. This is where best practices gets sticky. You don’t want to violate the objective method of reporting, but what’s the point of being part of a social network if you can’t be social? My advice: If you can express a thoughtful opinion in full context, you’re probably on safe ground. If you’d hesitate putting your statement in print, don’t put it out on social media.

To get the discussion going, let me offer this case example: Health care legislation was incredibly contentious leading up to the passage of health care reform a few months ago. When the bill finally passed, I sent out a tweet that said I didn’t think universal health care would be nearly as bad as the GOP was making it out to be, but I didn’t think it would be the cure-all that Democrats said it would be — the truth would be in the middle.

So, what do you think? Was I wrong to do that? Was it OK to do that since my tweet was, as they say on Fox News, fair and balanced? And, how does a tweet like that reflect on the Missourian’s opinion section — does it chill readers from writing in with their opinions of health care reform, or does it show that I’m open to both sides of a debate?

I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments below.

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About Jake Sherlock

Jake Sherlock likes his music loud, his wrestling professional and his journalism available on-demand. He enjoys breaking news tweets, long reads, investigative reports, satirical spins, thoughtful columnists and hot sports takes. Sherlock is currently one of two advisers for Wingspan Student Media at Laramie County Community College and an instructor of journalism and mass media. His goal for Wingspan Student Media is to see the students in the program gain the experience and knowledge they’ll need to do great things in the real world while keeping the campus community informed about events, issues and controversies that exist on our campus. And he’d like everyone to have some fun along the way. Sherlock holds a bachelor’s in journalism and a master’s in communications from the University of Wyoming. He was the editor of his college newspaper and held a variety of other writing, editing and photography positions with student media. He also worked concurrently as a sports writer at the Laramie Boomerang. In graduate school, he taught a writing lab for students taking Reporting and Newswriting. After earning his master’s degree, Sherlock spent four years with the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, three of them as the night editor. He was also a columnist for the paper, and his multimedia series that chronicled his attempts to lose weight and stop smoking won The Associated Press Award for Best Community Journalism Project in 2005. Sherlock spent six years teaching at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he was an assistant professor and staff editor at the Columbia Missourian. He taught courses in editing and design while serving at various times as the newspaper’s news, opinion and design editor. Sherlock is based out of Fort Collins, Colorado, where he lives with his two children and two dogs. In addition to his duties at LCCC, he is a freelance writer, editor, designer and consultant, and he also teaches classes at other colleges and universities in the region.
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13 Responses to How personal, er, social should you be on social media?

  1. Dan Everson says:

    Sounds like a reasonable tweet to me (though maybe that’s just because I’m a fan of finding the truth in the middle — shout-out to Aristotle here).
    But regardless of Aristotelian ethics, your tweet seems perfectly appropriate for an opinion editor. You don’t say either side is wrong. You don’t say either side is right. In my mind, that says you are open to hear from both sides — which is exactly what we want on the opinion page, right?
    If, say, you sided strongly with the Democrats or the Republicans, then a tweet with your opinion probably would not have reflected so well on the opinion page. It may well have suggested that you were only open to comments from one side of the argument.
    But obviously, that’s not the case here. It’s a good, fair, balanced tweet.

  2. Gianna says:

    This is such a sticky hot topic.

    Is it true that things that one posts and deletes are forever archived?

    That’s chilling.

  3. Gianna,

    It’s best to assume that anything you put online is probably archived forever somewhere, even if you delete it. Deletion makes it harder to find than not deleting, but sites like Archive.org record most everything on the Internet.

  4. Because your tweet did not explicitly say what your exact opinion was on the topic, I think that it was a fine tweet. Journalists must stay objective, but everyone knows that we too have opinions.

  5. Kelly M says:

    My first impression is that it is a balanced tweet but that’s because I agree with what you said. I think in order to truly understand if that tweet is offensive is to talk to people who are on polar sides of the health care debate. Someone who is truly on one side of it probably would not appreciate your “middle stance” anyway. If you did it in a tweet outside of a Missourian tweet I think the average person would not immediately connect it to the Missourian’s opinions. The question is if you are willing to allow the non-average person make that connection and be offended. I think that becomes a personal decision. I personally don’t believe in tweeting, its information I’d rather hear with more background.

  6. zhangyiqian says:

    How many masks do we have to wear as journalists? Does this mean to gain an identity we have to give up another?

  7. This is an interesting and very touchy subject. I found myself facing this problem just a few days ago…. I don’t want to get into details, but to make a long story short I almost posted a tweet about my opinion on an event/subject, and found myself reporting on it just days later, thanking my better judgment that kept me from posting that original comment. Frankly, the new social networks that we use kind of scare me…I don’t like the fact that everything I post (even in times of anger, and even if it gets deleted) can still be accessible if a certain person knows specifically what they are searching for. With that being said, I think an important idea to consider that was part of a reading in my J300 class this week, is that although Americans do have freedom of speech thanks to the first amendment, not all speech goes without repercussions, and we should think of this freedom as an invite for public debate.

  8. renbishop says:

    This is probably my least favorite part of journalism, to give up one’s “online persona.” I got my first livejournal account (remember those?) when I was 11 and have been online continuously ever since in one way or another, plugged into any kind of social networking I could find. I know that we’re supposed to stay objective and not show any form of total bias on our social networking sites, however, how far does that go? Can I not tweet next Saturday “Go Mizzou?” when the Tigers are playing Illinois?

    I think that Jen Reeves does a really great job of balancing the journalistic side of her Twitter account and also tweeting that she’s baking with her kids or a picture of her family on a picnic. I want to be able to post and reference the day’s news, but still have the social element of my online experience, leading to my recent internal debate of making my Twitter private (my Facebook has been for over a year now). I’m not sure yet what decision I’ll make, but it’s going to take a whole lot of evidence or signing of contract to make me give up my social network.

  9. Dustin says:

    I agree with renbishop: how far does this reach? Does being a reporter mean giving up any allegiance to sports teams? I don’t have Twitter, and my Facebook account is private. Nevertheless, we live in an era of nearly infinite information dissemination. Would it only take one slip, one careless status update (or an unknown change in FB security settings), for me to lose credibility?

  10. From the discussions we have had in my Communication Law class with professor Charles Davis it sounds like nothing on the internet is really private, including Facebook, even if your site is “private”.

    I expect that for the next 5 years or so companies and individuals will take tweets and social media remarks seriously. But after a while, everyone will make mistakes and voice too much of their true opinion; therefore, I think after a decade of social media one time opinion remarks, out of context, it will not be taken so seriously.

    Concerning someone’s beliefs or the “truth,” maybe tweets will have to work like news articles. In news, one article comes out that shows one side and then another journalists presents the other side and you have to look at multiple articles to get any measure of truth. In social media a person is sending out a quick and short opinion one day that might change the following day. It would be ideal for companies or other individuals to have to view a variety of tweets and remarks over a long period of time from one person before making a judgment on who that person is or what they believe.

    Currently I think you could easily lose a job based on a one line tweet. I guess the question is, how many people will say “who cares” and post whatever they want versus how many people will censor what they post. I hope businesses/governments will have to accept whichever social norm is choosen as opposed to try to control it.

  11. I think this is relevant to our discussion. This is an article that Charles Davis, my Communication Law professor posted for our class.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100830/ap_on_re_us/us_facebook_juror

    It looks like for now comments made on social media are a big deal!

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