Soto: Negotiating a ‘professional’ online identity

Isabella Soto , Columnist

I’ve been on the internet in some capacity since I was about eight years old. Whether it was watching Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne music videos using my parents’ AOL dial-up internet, tending to my Webkinz or pouring out my early teenage angst on Tumblr, I’ve got a significant online footprint. Years have passed and websites have come and gone, but our generation is still pretty used to putting its lives online in some capacity. But for those of us who want to become journalists, the concept of the professional Twitter account forces us to negotiate our internet identity.

On Oct. 13, The New York Times released an updated list of its “Social Media Guidelines” for the newsroom, including suggestions and recommendations for managing a reporter’s online presence. The guidelines — developed by journalists at The Times — are reasonable and straightforward: Don’t make customer service complaints on personal accounts, respect those with whom they interact online and abstain from expressing partisan opinions. With the proliferation of attacks against media outlets being called biased and #FakeNews in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, it’s plain to see why these guidelines were put in place. Regardless of how private Times journalists feel their Twitter is, they are still the face of the organization. The question is, though, what gets classified as a political or partisan opinion?

Facts are facts, and we entrust journalists in all fields of coverage to relay these facts. The credibility of political correspondents in particular hinges on their ability to keep personal beliefs segregated from articles. That’s why we have separate sections for opinions, after all. But particularly for journalists of marginalized identities, often times the personal is political. So keeping these guidelines in mind, what does it mean for a newspaper to ask a black journalist to be impartial about Black Lives Matter on Twitter? And if a climate reporter fires off a tweet with facts about rising sea levels, would they be in violation of these rules?

There’s been an interesting set of responses to the guidelines, largely varying by age. People who have grown up in the digital age depend on social media for consumption and digestion of breaking news and pop culture. But we also depend on social media to express our opinions, much like we do in real life. It’s just another medium of communication.

Also, what does it mean when we say that these journalists can have no public opinions on any controversial topic, ever? We can’t expect journalists to act like robots, devoid of their own thoughts and passions and limited in what they can or can’t say, all in the name of objectivity. This is easy for me to say as a student on a college campus where, for the most part, opinions are expected and there is consensus on what is true. However, no matter where in our lives we are, when we paint things that are fundamentally true as being partisan or subjective, we do a disservice to the truth.

As future journalists like myself prepare to enter the industry where Twitter is an essential tool for reporters, we have to think of the online brand we want to create for ourselves. One thing’s for sure, I would rather journalists be transparent about partisan views than have to make murky assumptions. Anyway, follow me on Twitter.

Correction: A previous version of this column misspelled Hilary Duff’s name. The Daily regrets the error.

Isabella Soto is a Medill junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.