By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chairman
Last month the US Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional, giving a victory to gay rights advocates and supporters of gay marriage. Lots of people have very strong opinions about this issue, so it was no surprise to see social media explode with reactions both positive and negative. The “equal sign” returned as the profile picture for many friends, others tweeted Biblical verses supporting marriage as being only between a man and a woman.
What was surprising to me was the number of reporters and journalists that so eagerly joined the social media crowd in its public celebration or critique. Even reporters on my own staff, who should know better, were quick to make their feelings known about an event they felt was historic.
As I became aware of it, I sent an email out to my staff reminding them that Michigan Radio has a written policy regarding blatant political statements on even the personal social media accounts of members of the programming staff. Here are excerpts from the pertinent parts:
“You should do nothing that could undermine your credibility with the public, damage Michigan Radio’s standing as an impartial source of news or otherwise jeopardize Michigan Radio’s reputation.”
“You must not advocate for political or other polarizing issues online. This extends to joining online groups or using social media in any form (including your Facebook page or a personal blog) to express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on MichiganRadio.org.” [emphasis added]
I suspect most of your news organizations have similar guidelines for social media use.
Our professional codes of ethics have similar language advising those who work in the news media to guard against such blatant displays of political positioning. For the same reason we as journalists should not participate in protest marches, sign petitions or donate money to candidates, we should not be celebrating or criticizing Supreme Court decisions in social media.
When I challenged folks about this, the overall reaction was “Yeah, but this is different.”
Some colleagues are personally affected by the issue, others thought the ruling was so historic that the rules didn’t apply in this case. “Do I have to hide that fact that I’m in favor of the 19th Amendment too?” I was asked. (So you don’t need to look it up, that’s the one that gave women the right to vote.)
One journalist said on Facebook that she was on vacation and so her workplace restrictions on social media use didn’t apply that week.
Guess what? I think they do.
Americans often tend to surround themselves with like-minded individuals, especially in social media. But LGBT rights issues are divisive and controversial political issues, especially in Michigan where people can still be fired or refused housing for being gay. No matter where you live, this is a story your station or publication will cover sometime in the next year.
Large amounts of the public have already lost faith in our ability to report the news without pushing personal or corporate agendas, and giving ourselves passes whenever we individually think the rules should not apply just make that situation worse.
I’m not entirely innocent in this. On my personal Facebook page I have strong opinions about journalism issues, provide information on issues I think are important, irreverently make fun of lots of stuff, and post an annoying amount of pictures of my kids activities. If you bothered to scroll through my timeline you could figure out my race, my sexual preference, my socio-economic class, my faith, my hobbies, the activities of my children, etc. With all that information you may think you can determine my opinion on certain political issues. In some instances you would be correct, in others you would be very wrong.
But the point is that no matter how much I care about an issue, I believe, as a working member of the press, I should not go on my Facebook page and celebrate or bemoan Supreme Court decisions on those controversial issues. Neither should you.
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