DUBAI: Of all the social media platforms that have come to dominate our lives in the past few years, microblogging site Twitter is the most political, and thus extremely popular among journalists.
“The best thing to have happened to (US President) Donald Trump is Twitter, and the best thing to have happened to Twitter is Donald Trump,” Joyce Karam, a Washington correspondent for UAE newspaper The National, told Al-Arabiya.
Twitter’s political weight significantly increased during the 2016 US election campaign, where it proved to be — and still is — Trump’s preferred communication tool.
In the Arab world, and especially during the ongoing rift with Qatar, Twitter has transformed to something of a battlefield, where opponents live or die by hashtags.
But while everyday citizens take a no-holds-barred approach, many journalists and news organizations have pledged to be objective about events and offer the news as it is.
Others, however, have not, and it seems that in recent years Twitter has blurred the line between a journalist’s role to report the news and express his or her personal views.
The line is so blurry, and so much personal opinion is being tweeted by professional journalists, that people forget that in 2010, CNN fired its senior Middle East editor Octavia Nasr following a tweet she posted that mourned the death of Hezbollah cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.
“Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot,” she tweeted. The backlash following the tweet proved too much for the US broadcaster.
News entities worldwide have enforced strict social media policies on their staff. The New York Times’ guidelines state that “in social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts” the newspaper’s “journalistic reputation.”
The Washington Post’s policies and standards memo states that its journalists “must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religions or other bias or favoritism.”
Jad Melki, director of the Institute of Media Research and Training, told Arab News: “A journalist who subscribes or who gets a job to a certain institution would have to abide by the guidelines of that institution, otherwise they should pick another institution that’s maybe more in line with their own values.”
However, even with such firm rules regarding journalists’ personal accounts, many instances have been given a blind eye.
Following the murder of the Washington Post’s Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2., many people and media outlets, including Arab News, expressed anger and called for the perpetrators to be punished.
But the killing of Khashoggi, who despised what he described as “Twitter wars,” has raised many issues regarding journalists expressing viewpoints, and to an extent even participating in cyberbullying.
While it is understandable that journalists would publicly condemn what happened to Khashoggi, it is simply wrong to incite hate against a business reporter for covering the recent Future Investment Initiative (FII) in Riyadh.
“The FII … was a controversial event given that many participants and media companies pulled out of previously announced partnerships due to it happening so soon after Khashoggi’s murder,” said an American PR executive working in the Gulf.
“However, does this justify a smear campaign against a business reporter who covered the forum?”
Karen Attiah, a Washington Post journalist who was Khashoggi’s opinion editor and has been a vocal critic of the Saudi leadership since his murder, seems to have singled out Sky News Arabia business editor Lubna Bouza for covering the FII and chairing a panel at the forum.
“Was just on @Skynews to talk about #Khashoggi... but I had to ask them on air whether it was true that their colleague @LubnaSky was still chairing a panel during Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Investment conference,” Attiah tweeted. “Media orgs should not be partnering with states that kill journalists.”
The tweet caused a barrage of hate and threats to Bouza, many of which are still on the thread while some have been deleted, Arab News understands.
“It is worrisome that Karen chose to pick on an Arab journalist for doing her job as a business reporter in an event which saw deals worth more than $50 billion being signed, when the same event was being covered by the Washington Post’s Kevin Sullivan and Sky News UK’s Dominic Waghorn,” said the American PR executive, who preferred not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic. “This is hypocritical and racist, to say the least.” Bouza declined to comment on the incident.
Recently, Attiah tweeted that Saudis “should pick another leader” and that “(Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman should go.”
The Washington Post has published reports insinuating that the crown prince was ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s killing, despite the White House and the State Department insisting that there is no evidence of this.
Karen this is supremely presumptuous. Here you cross the boundaries of serious journalism by making such a ridiculous statement.
Arabia Foundation founder Ali Shihabi tweeted: “Karen this is supremely presumptuous. Here you cross the boundaries of serious journalism by making such a ridiculous statement.” He then added the statement from the Washington Post’s social media and ethics guidelines. Shihabi said he had no further comment on the matter than what he had tweeted.
While Western journalists’ cases of getting into trouble for their tweets are more widely spread, Arab journalists have also been known to cross the ethical line when it comes to social media posts.
“Saudi and Arab journalists too are committing this mistake, and shouldn’t be tweeting their personal views from their personal accounts,” said a renowned Riyadh-based Saudi journalist who requested anonymity.
“It has been a growing trend, particularly during the ongoing rift with Qatar, where we saw some Saudi journalists taking off their reporting hats and engaged in tweeting personal insults against Qatari regime figures,” he added.
“This is absolutely unprofessional, but it is also what happened on the Qatari side, where you saw Al-Jazeera Arabic staff being journalists during the day and hatemongers against Saudi Arabia and the UAE at night,” he said.
“However, it is difficult to tell off Saudi journalists when Washington Post staff members, who are supposed to be setting the standard, are doing the same.”
With attacks on political figures and institutions being considered ethical red lines, other instances have occurred that have placed journalists in hot water with their employers.
In 2016, Fox 26 News host Scarlett Fakhar was fired for praising Trump and criticizing then-President Barack Obama on her personal Facebook page.
A journalist “can’t just go out and make racist statements or very specifically biased statements,” said Melki, who is also chairperson of the Department of Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University. “But at the same time, there has to be some margin of freedom for journalists to express their views.”