I had a great chat with a bunch of journos and academics on Friday about whether or not journalists are allowed private thoughts/lives/expression outside of work hours.
What started it is the story about Matt Nicholls, the Glen Innes Examiner editor who was stood down for posting a comment on his personal Facebook page saying the death of Constable Bill Crews – originally from Glen Innes – would boost circulation of his paper.
Is that fair? Dumb, yes. Offensive, yes. But reason to be stood down? In my opinion, no. (This is a good time to point to my About page, which clearly states that this is my personal blog and does not reflect the views of any organisation I work for, have worked for, or may work for in the future.)
How did we end up in this place where your employer can punish you at work for something you do or say in your private life? Things that are perfectly legal. This is not a criticism of any particular media company – it is simply an observation of boundaries and the public reach of private comments. Some organisations are so fearful of what might be said in social media spaces that they have policies that punish you for embarrassing yourself online. That is ridiculous. And it means that anyone with a job can’t use social media for anything other than being bland. Sure, everyone has a bad day at work, but is writing ‘Work was completely boring today’ on your personal Facebook page really that embarrassing for your employer?
Journalists naturally want to talk and talk and talk about our work – the stories we write, the stories our colleagues write, the people we interview, the companies we work for. It’s part of how we improve our reporting and writing, get contacts for new stories, and work out where we want our careers to go. When we talk about what we think our employers should be doing to survive paid content, does that mean that these companies can get shirty with us at work because we’re implying, by talking about what they should be doing, that we think they’re not doing it right?
Matt Nicholls wasn’t stood down because he said something stupid in a private conversation in a public place. He was stood down because he said something stupid in a private conversation in a public place and someone dobbed on him.
Yes, putting things online is the same as saying them in public, but I think we’re evolved enough as a society to be able to have a nuanced understanding of public and private places. A personal Facebook page is a private place – even if it’s not locked – because it’s no different to having a quiet D&M with a friend in a cafe. Or having a barney with your partner in the street. Sure, it’s in public, but you’re clearly having a private conversation. Ah, but journos don’t really care about privacy – that’s why we all right-clicked those party photos on Stephanie Rice’s Facebook page and turned them into a story and showed our age (and our pretend-outrage) by calling them raunchy.
Remember the Andrew O’Keefe “scandal” a few years ago? A TV host stumbling in the street after too many drinks was a Big News Story. Why? Is it because he was enjoying some alcohol in his own time? Alcohol is legal, so he wasn’t breaking the law. It it because we’re all so pure that we’ve never seen/been a drunk person before? Or is it simply because he’s a celebrity doing something? In which case, why don’t we run stories about celebrities breathing, because that’s them also doing something? Oh, right, it’s because we can’t pretend we’re outraged by it.
The thing with this faux-outrage is that we use the language of outrage for things that aren’t outrageous. We write, “This person slammed that person today for their policy announcement”, when this person simply disagreed with that person. If someone from one political party disagreeing with someone from another political party is so outrageous that we have to use the word “slammed”, then what word can we use when someone is really pissed off? Our readers know we make things more dramatic than they really are, yet we continue to act like we’re smarter than them. I don’t even think it’s about writing for each other, rather than writing for our audience – I think we’re so used to using journalese that we’ve long since stopped thinking about what the words mean.
There’s nothing wrong with the media covering genuine outrage, as long as it’s productive in some way. Pointing and saying, “look at this thing, it’s outrageous and we’re outraged on your behalf” is not productive. Our audience should come away with an understanding of why the issue is causing outrage, rather than just “oh, it’s political correctness gone mad”. If that’s all we give people then we’ve failed because we’re not giving our audience the information to make decisions about, and understand, current events. And if that’s not the purpose of news reporting, then what is? In all the coverage about the blackface skit on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, did anyone learn from the media why it was offensive? Or did we find that out because we went off and Googled it ourselves?
What we seem to have forgotten is that we need people to want us. If our audience loses any more interest in what we do, we’re all screwed. Sure, the managers at the top can take their management skills and work in any industry, but what about the journos? We’re the ones who produce the content that people pay for, and we’re the ones who will suffer most when we finally drive our audience away. And the more rubbish we give them, the more we’re screwing ourselves out of a future.