Perry: Journalists — tweeting our way to center stage

Alex Perry, Columnist

Growing up, I could tell you who Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon were. The journalists behind the local newspaper I read every morning? Twelve-year-old me had no clue. Print news used to employ a clear-cut dichotomy: you either wrote the news or you were the news. Existing in the crossover affected your legitimacy. 

During criticism of media outlets’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May, San Francisco Chronicle metro intern Omar Rashad tweeted: “Journalists need to stop making themselves the story. This may make some folks upset but it needs to be said.” The full thread, which responded to an essay by an Associated Press reporter about Israeli rockets demolishing his bureau, also reads: “Instead of writing essays about you, showing the specific details of how you were targeted by an airstrike, please write about the very people you’re supposed to report on with that same depth. THAT is supposed to be your job. It is wrong to shift the lens to the journalist.”

Rashad acknowledged that the Gazan journalist’s opinion is valuable, but his thread made me wonder: how visible should journalists be? 

Theoretically, the responsibility and honor of telling a community’s stories should not be in the hands of self-centered people, yet journalists on Twitter often love to post their celebratory “first byline,” “first A1” and “professional news” tweets. (Disclaimer: I’m guilty of all three.) Today’s journalists dance between personal and professional news, doing the Twitter tango in front of colleagues and readers alike. 

Industry-wide, is it right for a community-centric, service-driven profession to collectively celebrate itself with pillars like the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinners and Pulitzer ceremonies? Your average reader, I assume, cares more about the story, not the person writing it. So why is it controversial if journalists achieve prominence by sharing a bit of themselves, whether by penning personal essays or developing strong online personas?

In 2019, The New York Times business writer Taylor Lorenz wrote in a piece for Nieman Journalism Lab that offered predictions that for journalists, “building a large and loyal following is a critical way to shield yourself from volatility in the industry.” This has rung true for me, as engaging Twitter personalities have encouraged me to follow certain accounts. I’m not a broadcast student, yet one reporter I follow is THV11’s Jade Jackson. The candour and humanity she shows through appropriate glimpses of her life on her Twitter account drew me to her work — all because I trust she has the heart to truly care about the community she serves. 

The pitfalls of transparency can be nasty in consequence, though. 

Lorenz, who’s frequently active on audio mediums like Twitter Spaces and the app Clubhouse, has spoken about the harassment that she’s faced due to her identity of being a female reporter. Although her internet presence has earned her TikTok fancam edits, she’s been targeted by people like Fox News personality Tucker Carlson.

Besides dodging internet harassment, I’m also protective of my career. 

It is safer to craft an online persona when you’re more established within the field (see The Daily Beast’s editor at large Molly Jong-Fast) or a dedicated opinions columnist (see The New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb). As a college-aged journalist with a handful of internships and clips, I’m busy weighing whether my next Tweet could Emily-Wilder my immediate career. The stories Medill faculty have told me about students losing prestigious job offers for errant tweets — combined with my need for privacy — have effectively dissuaded me from oversharing on a professional account. 

Unless you do it right, oversharing on social media may detract from the service aspect of the job. Journalism is ultimately community-oriented, and any “main-character-ing” runs the risk of improperly centering oneself. 

There is a time and place for centering journalists. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have media like the movie “Spotlight” or a category in Forbes 30 Under 30. It’s just a question of how often we should do it, and what the consequences are if we choose to do so. 

Alex Perry is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, 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.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @WhoIsAlexPerry

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