Don’t we have more important things to do?

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.

34 responses to “Don’t we have more important things to do?

  1. This week has demonstrated that there is no such thing as freedom of speech. Firstly Stephanie Rice was put in the stocks for referrring to gay men as ‘faggots’. Now Matt Nicholls loses his job for essentially stating the obvious. When did we all become so censorious?

    Bad news sells. There is always going to be at least one dead body at the heart of a front page story. No amount of pretending that we are outraged by a journalist’s off hand comment will make it otherwise.

    • Law and Shoes, that’s exactly right – we’re all pretending to be outraged by his comment, which makes it even more frustrating that his arse has been kicked so hard. A little kick would have been fine.

  2. I think you have completely hit the nail on the head with this one. It is difficult, but Facebook is a private space (unlike Twitter which I think is clearly a public space). And there is a need to separate the two. I think we do have to be careful about how things are interpreted and what we say (I self edited a Facebook status update just this morning because it conveyed staffing news which was best not conveyed there), but we should be allowed to be private individuals. And I would have thought that when you become Facebook friends with someone you do enter something of a contract to respect their privacy in that space. Of course, not everyone thinks that way, which is where the problems arise. But, well said.

    • Hi Melissa, welcome to the News with Nipples (could swear you’d been here before, but WordPress thinks you haven’t). I think you’re right about the social contract between friends on Facebook. And journalists need to respect that.

  3. Great post. I totally agree.

    In saying that – on the topic of Stephanie Rice:
    I don’t think an athlete who is a public figure/role model using a homophobic slur on Twitter is the same as a journalist writing something stupid on their personal/private FB page.
    1) The use of that word is disgusting. To me it’s the same as using the N word. It’s totally unacceptable to use that kind of language on Twitter when you have public sponsorship deals going (well I think people who use that kind of language are assholes anyway regardless of sponsorship).
    2) Twitter is different to FB. Unless your page is private then you have to count on the fact that HEAPS of people are going to see what you’re saying. My FB page is personal and only has friends on it. My Twitter page is under my blog name not my real name because it is public.

    There is a difference. And I get sick of the “free speech” flag being raised everytime a stupid racist or homophobe gets in hot water for something they’ve said. To me Twitter is very public. I call out people who say racist, sexist or homophobic shit on Twitter just like I would do so in any conversation. We should always do that online or offline. It’s not censoring to have a go at someone for hateful language.

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  5. Hi Boganette

    I do not support the use of the word ‘faggot’ any more than I support the use of other racist, discriminatory or harassing language. In fact I abhor the use of the word in the same context that you do. Ms Rice disclosed herself to the public and revealed a huge amount about herself in doing so. This is neither a bad thing nor a good thing.

    I entirely and totally support free speech because I support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights particularly Article 19:
    “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[7]

    Bear in mind that I am a lawyer and that I specialise in media law. In the context of freedom of speech I entirely support Ms Rice’s right to demonstrate how intolerant she is of others.

    • In the context of freedom of speech I entirely support Ms Rice’s right to demonstrate how intolerant she is of others.

      Yes!

      And I support my right to attempt to explain to people why I find such language unacceptable.

    • Never said she shouldn’t be allowed to say it. Just that I think she got what’s coming to her in terms of the media coverage and public backlash. I think it’s a tad ridiculous to say that an idiot sportswoman being publicly called out about hate speech is proof positive that “there is no such thing as freedom of speech”. She has the right to use that word. Just as anyone does. But people also have the right to shout very loudly that that kind of shit is not on. It’s a two-way street.

  6. So should we all – again and again and again until eventually public figures think before they open their gobs.

  7. oh this is all very Volatire isn’t it………..and look at what happened to him, a few spells in the nick and exile.

  8. Voltaire was paraphrased (A treatise on Tolerance.. I think) as saying:

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it”.

    Actually he has some tops quotes attributed to him. I also like “If God did not exist, he would have to be invented.” and “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.”

    …..I knew that degree would come in handy one day now if I can only find a use for 10,000 words I wrote on Soviet cinema in the 20s and 30s we’re cheering!

    • Ah yes. I didn’t know it was Voltaire who said that.

      As for Soviet cinema, I’ve got some advertising posters from that era that I bought in Moscow – maybe you could translate them for me?

  9. I’m guessing that they say “love your tractor and declare your neighbour an enemy of the revolution”

  10. Well expressed.
    In the Steph Rice case, I think it highlights the lack of personal filters.
    And in 140 characters it is very easy to to be misinterpreted and misrepresent your own tweets. Words are contextual, unfortunately in Ms Rices case, there was very little room for construing her comment any other way. However, I am not convinced it highlighted her intolerances but more her ignorance.

    And you’re right, we are all guilty of occasional brain snaps. (I myself used a variant of the abhorrent word just yesterday in a public tweet, however I was not calling anyone anything. I was commenting on how my brain mis read a word-still I did lose followers)

    Who can claim to have never offended anyone with a flippant comment before? And speaking as a woman who quite often opens her mouth and inserts an entire shoe store I am hardly one to be on the judgement bandwagon .

    Making comments on Facebook, as you so rightfully stated, is a far more private thing. Having your opinions and thoughts that are not in any way affiliated with your work be used against you on a professional level is a disturbing and worrying trend.

    • Hi Pirra, welcome to the News with Nipples.

      I agree – the tweet highlighted her ignorance, rather than her intolerance. A little while back, I got pulled up online for calling something lame. It was at In a strange land or Wallaby, where it was rightly and politely pointed out to me that lame is an ableist word. I hadn’t thought about what the word actually meant, outside of how it is used today to imply something is dull or boring. I’d like to think Rice was using the word in ignorance too.

      And your last point is spot on. It is very disturbing that a photo of you being off your face on the weekend could get you fired at work. Unless you were off your face at work, then it’s none of your employer’s business what you do in your own time.

    • Pirra – Your comment made me think a lot about the Rice tweet and how I feel about it . I think you’re right. And maybe I’ve been a bit too harsh on her. Last year I did an overhaul of the language I use – a lot of it had been ableist – and I’ve been trying really hard ever since to not use language that is offensive to others. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call to Rice to do the same. But yeah I think I better climb off the judgement bandwagon…

  11. Using lame and gay for supposedly low key descriptions is quite an Aussism ( and Boganette maybe kiwi too) I have noticed. I never really heard them used in the UK – although we had no less insulting varieties, unless its a generational thing – in which case I’m just out of touch!

    so I guess this makes Tony Abbott’s daughter description of her father as a “gay, lame, churchy loser” to show several levels of ignorance in that particular family.

    whodhavethunkit!

  12. Oh I read ‘ableist’ as ‘ab-lee-asst’ and thought “coo, that’s a jolly good word, what does that mean?” Then I realised that it should be ‘able-ist’. The whole able-bodied versus less able bodied is a real can of worms that I am going to put back on the shelf. I’d love to see you post separately on that topic though NWN because you are a lot braver than I am.

  13. NWN – I was going to call you a pussy for not going there……am I guilty of using vulva-ist language 🙂

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