Tweeting the election: political journalists and a new privilege of bias?

Real-life developments are the lifeblood of journalism. Naturally, journalists are drawn to spaces where news events and stories unfold. Twitter was one of the US election’s most popular social spaces for public and real-time analysis, commentary, and deliberation of two notoriously polarizing candidates (recall, for example, #TrumpTapes, and the Twitterstorm that followed the Washington Post’s release of a 2005 video where Donald Trump boasts about sexually assaulting women).

Journalists’ affiliation with legacy news media traditionally warranted their adherence to a set of institutionally defined values, procedures and practices, and many news organizations attempt to uphold these on social media platforms via institutional policies that encourage or even regulate engagement. Ahead of the election, digital native Buzzfeed and legacy media such as The New York Times and Washington Post sent out memos to their staff, which reminded them to refrain from bias on social media when covering the heated election. This already foreshadowed that some journalists’ Twitter engagement during this time might not be as impartial and balanced.

Journalists who covered the election had to handle a striking and unprecedented amount of soft news topics. For example, an analysis by the Columbia Journalism Review found that this year’s first presidential debate focused more on personality than any other in US history. For political journalism – one of the classic hard news genres with an undisputed focus on fact and analysis – this became uneven territory at times, as personal attributes, subjective experiences and character judgments took center stage and even turned into news stories themselves.

It was precisely these kinds of stories, the ‘softer’ ones, that encouraged many tweeting journalists to be snarky, witty and funny in their coverage. And tweets of this nature with high entertainment value (but low news value) happened to be those that did exceptionally well on the platform in terms of generating audience engagement and driving traffic – a very much desired outcome by both individual journalists as well as the news organizations they work for. To complicate matters for what we normatively understand as ‘quality journalism’, both of these (i.e. being funny on Twitter and followers liking it) clearly reinforced each other. 

It was an election that stirred up many political sentiments in all corners of the country, including the news industry, where many candidate endorsements were unexpected or broke long-standing traditions of party support. Donald Trump quickly developed a reputation for picking fights with media outlets, blacklisted some of them (which was later reversed, but the overall message this sent was loud and clear), he publically attacked countless reporters, and made a name for himself as a bully on Twitter. Leading up to election day, USA Today reported a ‘massive rise’ in election-related hate speech on Twitter, much of which seemed directed at journalists. While Twitter has just started to address abuse on its platform, news organizations often don’t provide support for journalists to manage negative experiences and attacks, as findings from my research suggest.

Twitter is often perceived as a repository of what’s clever, and its culture as ‘casual’, so some reporters have found it difficult to bite their tongue. What came out was often emotionally charged, opinionated and biased to some degree or other. As I’ve argued before, this may not necessarily be to dish out revenge, but to blow off steam or out of a protective instinct for one’s reputation and career.

We know of many past examples where journalists have gotten into trouble for saying something on Twitter they shouldn’t have (leading to suspensions or even losing their jobs). While some reporters during this election have transgressed what their professional code (and quite possibly an institutional social media policy) outlines as acceptable professional behavior, we rarely heard of consequences. My research findings support this: the majority of journalists are aware that their engagement on Twitter also waves their employer’s flag on it. Thus, news organizations tend to reap the benefits of journalists pro-active Twitter presence and allow the occasional degree of freedom a journalist may take, and reserve intervention only for when things go wrong. 

Biased reporters on Twitter seemed to have gotten away with what was once a privilege reserved for opinion writers.