The BBC recently announced that it was going to restrict the use of Twitter by its journalists. Indeed, they want to see the BBC’s journalists move away from social media in general.
This is a wise move.
It seems that the move was prompted by a mistake made by BBC Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, who tweeted that an aide of the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was punched by a Labour Party activist.
I have no first-hand knowledge as to exactly what happened. It’s up to the BBC to investigate the matter and reach their conclusion. It sounds like an unfortunate mistake made by Laura Kuenssberg.
This kind of error is not the most important problem relating to journalists’ use of social media.
Tweeting by correspondents isn’t a problem, provided it is factual and does not amount to editorialising. In newspaper journalism there is a big difference between being a reporter and being a columnist. The latter can feel free to express their personal points of view on a particular news story. The same applies in broadcast news where there is a difference between the journalist reporting on a story and anyone like a commentator offering their personal views on the story.
For journalists, the border line between reporting and commenting should be quite clear.
For example, a BBC, Sky News or ZDF correspondent covering the war in Syria might find him or herself caught up in a day of violence, with fighter plane missiles landing all around them or artillery bombarding the part of the town where they are holed up. The attack has come from the Syrian government. Occasionally, the correspondent’s cameraman ventures out into the street to capture the scale of the military attack and what’s happening in terms of casualties. For me, there would be absolutely no problem at all about the correspondent tweeting something in tribute to their cameraman, along the lines of, “This has been a day of very hazardous and gruelling filming by my heroic cameraman.” That’s just a statement of fact and has no impact on the impartiality of the journalist reporting the story, assuming of course that the correspondent would post a similar tweet were he or she and their cameraman to be caught up in an attack from one of the groups on the other side of the conflict. That would be balance.
Here are one or two other examples of factual tweeting that don’t involve comment or editorialising.
If an international correspondent based in Manila tweets that a hurricane has suddenly hit one of the coastlines in the Philippines, that is simply news reporting.
If a BBC political correspondent tweets that the Prime Minister is to hold a news conference in two hours’ time, that also is a factual piece of news reporting. There is no problem with that.
To sum up, tweeting isn’t necessarily a major problem, although mistakes can be made.
What can be more of a problem is retweeting.
Nothing is more worrying these days in the media than how retweeting is compromising the impartiality of journalists. It’s not enough for a journalist to have in their Twitter bio, “RTs are not endorsements” or, as is the case in Laura Kuenssberg’s bio, “tweets or retweets here aren’t necessarily my view” because most people only see the tweet, not the bio.
As a BBC News Trainee, I had it drilled into me by excellent BBC tutors that being neutral was essential in every story one covered. That remained in my head when I was covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when I was Middle East Correspondent, covering the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, and in South Africa covering the closing years of apartheid. The lesson was this: as a correspondent you should never take sides. It’s up to you to provide factual information and analysis for your audience and let your audience make up their own minds about the rights and wrongs of the issue involved.
Retweeting has changed all this.
Let’s say you’re the correspondent for ARD, CNN or Deutsche Welle based in Sydney, Australia. Current bushfires are still raging. You are out in the Sydney suburbs covering what’s going on. Part of the story is the anger expressed by some Australians towards the Prime Minister for being on holiday when the fires broke out and for not doing enough, in their view, to help people who lost their homes.
One of the residents caught up in the disaster approaches the Prime Minister when he is visiting one of the areas hit by the fire. He or she shouts to the Prime Minister in an aggressive way. They then go on to Twitter and post the following: “The PM came to our area today and revealed himself to be a complete idiot, offering nothing by way of support for us victims.”
You, the correspondent, decide to retweet this. The problem with retweeting is that it suggests the retweeter is endorsing the opinions of the person who posted the original tweet. That means the correspondent involved appears to be on the side of the resident and opposed to the Prime Minister. That’s not the job of the correspondent. That’s for the audience to decide. That correspondent’s subsequent news reports on the bushfires could no longer be regarded as neutral
Again, there’s no problem in retweeting something that is factual. If another resident tweets that the bushfire is getting close to her home, there’s no problem about a correspondent retweeting that. That’s just a piece of factual news. It’s when opinions form the basis of the tweet that it becomes dangerous for a journalist to retweet it.
If I’m a TV correspondent based in a country where the ruling regime faces growing street protests from people who want the government kicked out, and I retweet a posting from an opposition leader who wants to replace the government and that tweet contains a bitterly fuming attack on the ruling regime, where does that leave me as an impartial journalist when I put together my TV report for tonight’s news on the street protests? My neutrality is out of the window. I’ve taken sides.
The problem with some social media is that so few words are allowed that there’s no space for me to make clear that the opposition leader’s tweet that I am retweeting is only one view of what’s taking place in the country.
Broadcast journalists also need to be careful about how they phrase their words in a report of theirs that goes out on air.
Let’s return to the bushfires in Australia and the criticism levelled at the Prime Minister.
If you are a TV journalist reporting on the fires, your script should not contain the following phrase: “Local residents were clearly furious at the Prime Minister over his government’s lazy response”. That means the journalist broadcasting this report has made his or her own judgement on the government’s approach to the fires. The journalist is stating that the government’s response has been “lazy”. That should not be their role. The phrasing should be: “Local residents were clearly furious at the Prime Minister over what many Australians say has been his government’s lazy response”. It’s vital that journalists keep their distance from views being expressed over a controversial issue and attribute comments made like that to the people who have made them.
Aside from social media, another thing I’ve noticed in recent months is how interviewers have in some cases changed the way in which they address their interviewees.
This has been most noticeable during the recent election campaign in the United Kingdom.
Another of the disciplines that was drilled into me as a young trainee journalist at the BBC was that you never address anyone you are interviewing by their first name.
For example, if I was live on-air interviewing Hugh Grant about a new film in which he is starring, I might sense there would be no problem in addressing him as “Hugh”. After all, this looks as though it’s going to be just another film industry, “luvvie” interview. However, halfway through the interview I might change direction. I’ll ditch questions about his new film and move instead to questions about his controversial role in the general election. When pressing him on this, I should not be referring to him as “Hugh”. Instead, it should be “Mr. Grant`”. So, it should be “Mr. Grant” throughout the whole interview.
Too often during the election in the UK, dominated as it was by Brexit, I heard interviewers addressing Members of Parliament or Ministers and Shadow Ministers by their first name. It shouldn’t happen. Being on first name terms with a politician during an interview suggests there’s far too much cosiness between the interviewer and the interviewee. It’s gold dust for those who believe that too many members of the media, along with politicians, are snuggled up together in the “Westminster bubble”.
So, what advice would I give to news organisations when it comes to the impartiality of their journalists?
In recent months, I’ve heard two outstanding analyses by BBC correspondents of a story they were covering.
On one occasion, the BBC Diplomatic Correspondent, James Robbins, was interviewed live on the 10 o’clock news during the rising tension between Iran and the West in the Straits of Hormuz. James’ analysis was spot on. It was factual, comprised analysis and not opinion, and there was no sense of him editorialising.
In another report about the Middle East, the BBC’s Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen, gave an impartial assessment of the current state of politics and tensions in the region. Once again, there was no hint of introducing his own personal views. It was a report in which he stated the facts, gave his informed analysis, and left it up to the audience to decide for themselves who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
James Robbins and Jeremy Bowen are clearly members of that generation of journalists who grew up with impartiality being part of their DNA.
To sum up, my thoughts are as follows.
Tweeting or retweeting a factual piece of information is not a problem. So long as it reads like a mini version of the report that the news organisation will put out anyway, the journalist’s impartiality has not been breached.
If it’s a tweet, or more likely a retweet, of a posting that expresses a point of view or which attacks another player in that particular news story, then that encroaches completely upon that journalist’s neutrality.
Next, in news reports, rather than tweets, there needs to be clear attribution in a journalist’s script. If the regime mentioned above is being accused by the opposition of “tyrannical suppression of the people”, those words should come from the opposition and not from me. My report should contain the words: “The opposition today increases its attacks on the ruling regime for what it describes as the regime’s ‘tyrannical suppression of the people’.” I should not omit the words “what it describes as”. That’s attributing the words to the opposition and not to me. Without that, my reporting of the situation is deprived of all authority.
Finally, as I say, interviewers should not get too chummy with their interviewees.
My overall conclusion is that too many news organisations have become fixated by social media and how it’s taking over communication. Making journalists more of a personality, allowing personal views to enter journalism and even referring to a news programme as a “show” (a news programme is not Strictly Come Dancing) are the ways they think they can combat the rising influence of Twitter, Facebook etc.
It’s damaging journalism.