Journalists have surprising protections to speak their minds online

To the mainstream news business, social media are both an opportunity and an irritant. They enable reporters to learn more and learn it more quickly, and furnish them with spiffy new channels to people they wouldn’t otherwise reach. New media accelerate the creation and spread of news, and enrich the news diet by welcoming nontraditional sources to step up and tell what they know.

But social media like Facebook, Twitter and its messaging brethren also are annoyances to legacy media. They fuel rivals, who routinely scoop the bigshots and undermine their authority over the news agenda. They beckon to journalists  and compel news organizations—eager for new markets—to encourage their staffs to skirt institutional controls and freebase with styles of online expression that are sharper and more pungent than the bland, denatured language that news media have evolved to avoid giving offense needlessly.

Which is tolerable until the newly emancipated reporters rediscover the thrill of producing unexpurgated comment, and treat readers to what they really think. The result is a spate of incidents in which respected journalists end up reprimanded or fired for unguarded comments they posted—a New York Times Tokyo correspondent deploring Toyota’s press practices, a Washington Post editor grumbling about the deficit, a CNN Mideast bureau chief regretting the death of a Hezbollah leader.

The right of media bosses to shut up their employees hasn’t been challenged as vigorously as you might expect. Aren’t journalists presumed to have a special claim to expressive freedom, not just a basic human right but a professional responsibility? Since when are news organizations supposed to be muzzling journalists?

Surprisingly, punishing journalists for infelicitous Twitter or Facebook postings has drawn little protest. That’s largely, I think, because newsroom ethics continues to be defined mainly by news bosses, and they’re thought to be within their rights in banning activity that rattles their brands or bruises their institutional vanity—even when it’s also spicy and provocative and truthful.

Ironically, the one area where journalists do seem to have free-speech protections online is when they are posting about their own employers. Here, reporters seem to have actual legal safeguards to say what they like, Continue reading “Journalists have surprising protections to speak their minds online”

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