Social media is a Rosetta Stone for journalistic bias

Reporters' Twitter and Facebook posts don’t face the same editorial scrutiny as copy, and that can be revealing, writes Andrew MacDougall, former chief spokesman for the prime minister.

Twitter and Facebook posts don’t face same editorial scrutiny as copy, and that can be revealing

Social media is popular with journalists and politicians alike. But while most newsrooms have editorial guidelines for reporters' use of Twitter and other sites, few exercise the same editorial control over social media as their traditional platforms - and that can be revealing, writes Andrew MacDougall. (Graeme Roy/AP)

My thoughts on the impact of the 24/7 news cycle on political reporting prompted some debate.

Pace some commentators, the point wasn't to blame the internet for barmy talking points, it was to point out that the internet provides an outlet for journalistic content that might not have cleared the higher editorial bar of yesteryear.

The internet and social media are also sharpening perceptions of bias in political reporting. 

A common gripe of staff in political offices is that reporters are biased. It's easy to feel that way given the daily slings and arrows of public life — and let's face it, governments screw things up. If a government is bleeding, it is leading. It is what it is.

But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Having done the job for five years I would wager that most reporters, if forced to declare their political leanings, would gravitate toward left-of-centre parties. I am also, however, firmly of the opinion that most reporters work diligently to get things right and do their best to keep their views out of their work. 

But social media is blurring that line.

If you spend time with reporters you learn a few things: they bristle at any suggestion of bias; they value their independence (the thought of toeing a party line is anathema); and, having come of age in the wake of Seymour Hersh, Daniel Ellsberg and Woodward and Bernstein, they dream of toppling governments. They are big game hunters, targeting governments of any partisan stripe.

Another thing about reporters is they're smart folks and they'll give you their opinion whether you ask for it or not. How could they not be opinionated? They chose a profession that pays little to cover Canadian political life. They care about the country and how it is governed. Of course they have opinions. That said, columnists aside, journalists know they must avoid letting opinion seep into their work, lest their objectivity be called into question. 

Just as I would have been dead in my role without a reporter's trust, they risked being dead to me if they didn't demonstrate neutrality and balance.

To demonstrate their neutrality, some reporters go as far as avoiding the most essential civic duty — voting — knowing it's the ultimate declaration of bias.

Which makes the relatively hands-off editorial approach to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in the newsroom puzzling, because journalists love Twitter and use it more than just about anyone else.

Free to tweet

To be sure, most, if not all, news organizations have social media "guidelines." But it is rare to find an organization that applies the same editorial standards to social media that they apply to their "traditional" news content.

When I would meet with bureau chiefs, I would ask what the editorial supervision was for reporters who tweeted. Most often the answer was that there wasn't any — reporters were free to tweet what they liked, without the need for explicit approval. It was a frank admission, and it's a significant blind spot — editors who are scrupulous in scrubbing perceived opinion out of news copy would throw their hands up in the air when it came to monitoring their reporters' tweets.

When I would challenge a reporter about a tweet I thought went a bit too far, I would often get pointed to a statement on their Twitter bio, something like: RT's not endorsements, opinions are mine alone. Essentially, "it's not in my copy, so it's not a problem" was the answer, which is too cute by half. If you tweet your work on that account and post your opinion on the same channel you'll have to excuse me for blending the two. 

And post their opinion they did. 

When Obama was re-elected in 2012 a number of reporters wet themselves in excitement on social media. Fine, it's a different country, but an impression is made. I've seen reporters tweet that justice laws were "dumb" or offer sarcastic comments like "you don't say" when retweeting a story saying that what the government was doing was useless, etc.

What do retweets and follows reveal?

I appreciated Twitter precisely because it was so helpful in peeling away the layers of a reporter's political or policy views (it was also a good barometer of the herd's mentality). Follow a reporter for a period of time and you'll see what kinds of articles excite them, which politicians or news sources they tend to retweet, and who they choose to follow (and not follow). But it was the instant reaction to breaking news that was the most illustrative.

Social media provides all of us, including reporters, an instant platform to broadcast our spontaneous thoughts. And for reporters, it's an outlet that doesn't have to be vetted by an editor. The second you think it, you can tweet it. No sober second thought, no filter. The same goes for politicians, obviously.

This is when the content that would never make it past the editorial goalie would squeak through the five-hole of the keyboard. That's when people like me would sit up and take notice. 

You know how I knew it was a problem in the newsroom?

I'd flip a dubious tweet to an editor or bureau chief asking them if they thought their reporter's tweet was above board. Whereas an editor or chief's reaction to me challenging one of their news stories was always a tough fight – usually resulting in a "go pound salt, MacDougall" — on the question of non-vetted tweets there was an unusually high rate of rolling over and agreement that the tweets in question were crossing a line. 

Editors and bureau chiefs knew they didn't — and perhaps couldn't — have a firm handle on what their charges were tweeting or posting.

Perhaps advisory practices in the newsroom around social media have been strengthened since my departure from political life. Judging by the feeds of the reporters I still follow, it doesn't look like it. I guarantee you the PMO is watching closely.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the Senior Executive Consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.


Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.


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