Is there a danger in media personalities having a vibrant social media presence? Assuming they have a massive media following, should they self-regulate and filter what they post? And when they engage with followers, should their opinions be taken as personal, or does it represent the journalist’s media house? Isaac Swila explores.

Media houses have long struggled to address how their employees should relate to and interact in the social media space. While a few have established elaborate house policies and regulations regarding this, many media houses worldwide and East Africa, in particular, do not have such policies.

That is often true for the small community radio stations, regional newspapers and online platforms. Others view the topic as a “non-issue”, while for some, it is a “far-fetched debate.”

In retrospect, journalism is evolving, and the current breed of journalists, as opposed to the past, is tech-savvy with agility for the digital space. But that also calls for a strong yet healthy social media presence ranging as to when and how they engage with the public (on social media), the content they churn to the target audience, and most importantly, sticking to the primary calling of journalism: informing and educating.

Navigating the social media labyrinth

However, social media presence has put some journalists in trouble, first with the law enforcers, the general public, and individual media houses. The problem with law enforcers emanates when a journalist, using their considerable sway on social media, posts what the government deems “unsavoury” or “against the interest of the state”. For example, when matters that have to do with “national security” are concerned.

The second aspect comes into play when a journalist, either by design or sheer carelessness, posts content that the public deems “unpalatable.” For instance, during the 2013 Westgate terror attack in Nairobi, a leading newspaper in Kenya published on its front page a picture of a distressed woman screaming for help with a blood-stained face writhing in pain on the floor after being shot by the terrorists. She later died.

The picture went viral on social media, attracting public outrage and underscoring how what journalists post on social media or even on traditional platforms can land them in hot waters.

The last element is journalists sharing content on their social media platforms with their employers. In some cases, employers have had to reprimand the journalists for going against the company’s social media policy.

Importance of Social Media Policy

In 2015, a female journalist working with a leading publication in Kenya lost her job after she posted nude pictures of herself on her Facebook Timeline. The revealing images were deemed inappropriate and contravened the company’s social media policy.

Attempts by her employer to have her delete the pictures fell on deaf ears.

In the end, the company took the hard decision to let her go for bringing into disrepute the company’s brand name.

While the issues of ethics continue to dominate, the other elephant in the room is the influence some of these journalists wield. Some media personalities command a huge following on social media, in some cases eclipsing the very media houses that have employed them. This tug of war raises both a moral and ethical dilemma. For instance, a journalist with 1 million followers on Facebook can easily land an endorsement or become an influencer for a blue chip company in return for lots of money.

Aware of this, some of these journalists have made hay from their brand names.

So, how should media houses deal with this? Is having journalists out of social media spaces the way to go?

Martin Wachira, a digital journalism enthusiast and managing editor at Nairobi Leo, one of Kenya’s online news platforms, disagrees.

“To me it is a no; content creation is moving towards the digital space; so journalists need to be in that space; to help share and distribute content so it’s very essential,” Wachira told the EAST site.

Social Media as a news source

Willis Raburu, one of the most popular TV presenters in Kenya and who boasts over 367,000 followers on Facebook, says social media is a critical tool in the dissemination of information. In addition, he added that many people now use social media as a news source, “so there should be a balance between the newsrooms and the journalist.”

Peter Mwangangi, a multimedia journalist with BBC Africa, believes there’s no danger in journalists having a social media presence. According to him, when properly used, social media can help amplify the work done by the media houses.

“I agree that individual journalists need to self-regulate what they post because the rules of journalism in mainstream platforms still apply on social media,”’ Mwangangi said.

He noted that there’s a thin line between the content a journalist may post and what their media house share on the same platform. “Sometimes there is a temptation to share opinion on certain issues where a media house has not taken a position on.”

But since some journalists have become big brands, how can they distinguish between what they post in their capacity and not as journalists aligned to a particular media house?

Raburu admits there is a dilemma but notes there are distinguishing factors.

“The truth of the matter is, it will have to be intentional and deliberate. Social media allows one to show their persona and day to day lives. Then it allows one to show their work and to inform. It is upon the personality to make sure that these lines are clear. Either by mentioning this when posting or building a content calendar that clearly brings out the difference.”

Media houses have long struggled to address how their employees should relate to and interact in the social media space.

To help address the challenge, Wachira reckons that media houses must have a social media policy. But, at the same time, Raburu warns that those in power should not use such policies to punish journalists who wield a lot of influence in such spaces.

“I believe every media needs to have a social media policy. If you are a journalist, in most cases you’ve linked your profile with the media houses. As a journalist what you post is deemed to mirror your organization but it is a tricky balancing (the person, and the brand who is affiliated to a particular media house.”

Wachira says that when journalists have linked their social media accounts to your job, they have to make it more professional.

Social media as a business model

Though his employer, Royal Media Services, has a social media policy, Raburu says social media and social media influencing has emerged as a facet of business and should be included as part of the business model.

“It is a revenue stream for presenters. This means that an organization can make use of it as well, pitching to clients for the extra cost they can make by using the presenters with a large following.

It is, however, crucial to note that there are some limits to this when it comes to reporters and News anchors, but it can be explored.”

Mwangangi, like Wachira, observes that it’s about time media houses developed social media policies because social media is “here to stay”. “People use such platforms to get news, entertainment, and even information on certain things. Therefore, media houses need to figure out how they will stay ahead on that front as the competition is taking a different shape on digital platforms.”

For Raburu, there’s a need for an elaborate and precise set of guiding principles, made in consultation with industry players to guide journalists and even media houses on how to use and interact on such platforms.

“Muzzling journalists is not the way to go as the dark ages of draconian, dictatorial rule are gone. Social media is the levelling place.”

About the Author

Author ProfileIsaac Swila
The author is a Kenyan journalist. He's passionate about Social Media, Governance, Political reporting, and Sports journalism

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