After Free Press Firing, Examining The Role Of Journalists On Social Media

Jan 9, 2018

On Monday, the Burlington Free Press fired its executive editor, Denis Finley, following a series of Twitter comments. The episode raises questions about journalistic ethics and social media use — so what should the role of journalists be on social media?

The Twitter uproar followed Finley's tweet about a proposal to add a third gender option to Vermont driver's licenses. Finley tweeted that such a move "makes us one step closer to the apocalypse."

That and other comments resulted in an outcry from some Vermonters on Twitter, and ultimately ended with Finley losing his job for violating the Free Press' social media guidelines.

Traci Griffith, chair of the Media Studies, Journalism and Digital Arts Department at Saint Michael's College, says even though Finley was commenting through his personal Twitter account, he was still seen as a representative of the Burlington Free Press.

"I'm not sure that he can step outside of that capacity, given the high level that he had in that organization," Griffith says.

Griffith says it's critical to remember that anything posted to social media is an instant public statement.

"The technology that exists now makes it so that you can think something one second, and the next second you can tell the world about it," Griffith says. "And unfortunately, we don’t often take the time to step back and think: 'Is this something I want to share with the world? Is this necessary for me to share with the world? Might I be harming someone by sharing this with the world?'

"We don't often take those steps to think about it — and that's necessary. That's important. Particularly if you're in a position of power or authority or you have the ability to influence others, you need to think much more carefully about what you say."

Griffith says it's beneficial to news audiences, but difficult for journalists, when reporters have active social media accounts that include commentary and opinion.

"If we perceive that there's a bias there, even if the reporter is fantastic at doing their job and doing it in a way that is unbiased, the perception is still there and so that makes it very difficult for the journalist to be considered, you know, a source that can be reputable," Griffith says.

Professor Traci Griffith spoke to VPR's Henry Epp. You can listen to their conversation above.

Disclosure: Saint Michael's College is an underwriter of VPR.