Watch What You Tweet

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

To tweet or not to tweet, that seems to be the question involving Lauren Wolfe, dismissed by the New York Times for reasons not totally explained.

At first, it looked like Wolfe was fired for tweeting she had “chills” watching President-elect Joe Biden’s plane land outside Washington, D.C. She also criticized the Trump administration for failing to fly Biden to Washington for the inauguration in a military aircraft.

The “online condemnation of the Times over Wolfe’s ouster and its timing was fierce,” wrote Thom Geier in Yahoo.com.

A torrent of criticism

In the Washington Post, Jeremy Barr wrote: “Facing a torrent of criticism on social media, including broadsides from journalists and celebrities, the New York Times on Sunday sought to correct what it called ‘incorrect information’ regarding a freelance editor, Lauren Wolfe, with whom the paper cut ties after a tweet some conservatives claimed showed bias.”

The New York Times said the case was not as simple as that. “There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades told the Post. “For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters, but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved, we don’t plan to comment further.”

The newspaper said Wolfe was not a full-time employee and did not have a contract with the publication, contrary to widespread reports, but instead worked as a freelancer.

Sometimes the news is like a run-away freight train — hard to stop once it gets going.

Wolfe deleted the tweet, but she was fired soon afterward.

Dangerous territory

The Wolfe case shows how ethically dangerous social media can be for journalists.

Back in 2014, AdviceLine ethicist David Craig described three ethical pressure points for journalists on Twitter. One was about “navigating boundaries between personal and professional identities.”

The New York Times, like many media organizations, has ethical journalism standards spelled out for its news and editorial departments. It covers 41 pages. A point that appears to apply to the Wolfe case states that “no one may do anything that damages The Times’s reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government; in particular, no one may wear campaign buttons or display any other form of political partisanship while on the job.”

Confessing to a “chill” on Biden’s arrival can be considered a form of political partisanship while on the job.

Conflicts real or perceived

Like many corporate codes of ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” It says journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. And remain free of activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

In Vox.com, Anya Wagtendonk writes: “Whatever happened between the paper and Wolfe, the response to her social media post has become the latest flashpoint in an ongoing conversation about how media organizations apply ethical and objectivity standards, and how they should respond to attacks on reporters in a post-Trump era.”

Social media is all about opinions. Strict rules against expressing personal opinions in the news may be easing here and there as journalists are encouraged to form bonds with the communities they serve. Some journalists challenge those strict rules.

Challenges

Erik Wemple of the Washington Post opines that “the Times will never achieve a uniformly enforced standard for the social media behavior of its journalists. Each tweet is different from the next; each tweeter occupies a different rung on the paper’s hierarchy; and each controversy comes at a different moment in the national political mood.”

Writer Thom Geier put it this way: “The firing of Lauren Wolfe raises an important issue. If working as a journalist, is it better to: a) have no opinions; b) pretend to have none; or c) own them honestly and still work to be fair? I would chose c. I think it’s phony to pretend to be objective.”

Maybe so. But it’s always wise to check what your employer thinks and act accordingly. Read the corporate policies and ethical standards carefully. Otherwise, you might be out of a job.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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