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The hashtag conundrum: How should journalists negotiate public and private on social media?

With social media blurring the line between public and private more than ever, do journalists need to think about how, and to what effect, they use advocacy hashtags in their messages?

Journalistic objectivity has come under the spotlight in Australia as debate rages over a recent High Court decision that ruled that offshore processing of asylum seekers is legal.

This is no doubt an emotionally charged debate, and the way Australia deals with asylum seekers has been under scrutiny for some time. For journalists working on the story, it can create a conundrum – particularly if they have a strong personal view on the issue.

Do they hold tight to traditional journalistic tenets like “objectivity” and merely report the facts? How can they do this in a world of social media where journalists are increasingly becoming their own brands and it is expected that they offer personal views? Should they even aim for objectivity, or just acknowledge that it is an unrealistic ideal and all journalism is advocacy anyway?

Advocacy versus objectivity

The emergence of the Twitter hashtag #letthemstay and its use by journalists reporting on the asylum seeker issue prompts such questions over whether reporting and advocacy are becoming increasingly blurred.

Advocacy journalism also came under scrutiny in light of revelations that an ABC story reporting that a five-year-old boy had been raped on Nauru was incorrect.

The reporting led to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection secretary, Michael Pezzullo, lamenting the rise of bias in journalism. He argued:

It’s getting to the point that there is advocacy parading as journalism that is actually deleterious to a sensible discussion about these matters.

It also ties in with a larger debate over recent years. Some argue that advocacy journalism is on the rise. Others argue that simplistic “he said, she said” journalism is actually doing us a disservice, such as the false balance phenomenon in science reporting.

Objectivity is one of journalism’s dearest principles today, as many of its practitioners use it to justify their existence. It wasn’t always so, as objectivity was mostly an invention of the 19th and early 20th century in order for journalism to appeal to a wider variety of people, rather than niche audiences. Before then, however, party-political journalism was very much the norm.

In a time where journalism is becoming more fragmented, it appears that niche audiences are more important again, with some publications specialising for certain types of audiences. The pendulum may be swinging again.

It is well known, for example, that The Australian leans to the right politically, while The Guardian takes a left-leaning approach. This is no big secret, and journalists I have spoken to readily admit as much.

There also seems to be an increasing acknowledgement among many journalists that objectivity is an unattainable ideal in any case, because no-one can ever completely ignore their personal views and biases.

Objectivity and the rise of social media

Still, it seems that the idea of objectivity is largely ingrained in Australian journalists. A survey I conducted in 2013 revealed that three in four of them thought it was very or extremely important to be detached observers. In contrast, just over one-third saw it as very or extremely important to advocate for social change.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have reliable longitudinal data available to test whether this number is on the increase. But if we look at journalists’ behaviour on social media, which are increasingly important professional tools, we can observe an ongoing struggle to differentiate between professional and personal aspects.

To be successful on platforms such as Twitter, it is not enough simply to post links to one’s own stories anymore. You need to present a personal as much as a professional persona. This is an issue that many journalists – as well as their employers – are struggling with.

To what extent may personal views expressed on Twitter compromise one’s reporting? The most successful journalists have developed quite elaborate brands, and many employers certainly now have this expectation of their reporters.

Opinion is important in this mix, as journalists know very well, given that opinion pages of newspapers have always been among their most popular sections.

At the same time, employers are wary of journalists’ personal behaviour on Twitter coming into conflict with the organisation’s brand. There have been some high-profile cases where journalists have lost their jobs as a result. Social media guidelines are still murky and changeable.

Some journalists now list a disclaimer in their Twitter profiles that their views are their own. A recent study I conducted with my colleague Axel Bruns shows 30% of Australian journalists make use of this option. But this doesn’t necessarily avoid conflict or mean they can escape punishment.

What now?

So, where does this leave journalists who are reporting on the asylum seeker issue, but also tweeting using #lethemstay? It is an incredibly vexed issue, and journalists need to make their own considered decision on how they want to engage with the hashtag, as merely using it in a tweet may not necessarily signal endorsement.

But in such an emotional issue, it is unrealistic to expect journalists not to have a view, and it might actually be good for them to be open about this.

Journalists who express their opinion and declare their biases may be seen as more honest, and are contributing to increased transparency of journalistic work – a de-mystification of the craft even. This would in turn allow audiences to better appreciate and understand the news they consume.

Folker Hanusch, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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