When tweeting an opinion is a fireable offence, media loses

Last week CNN fired one of its senior editors, Octavia Nasr, after she paid her respects in a tweet following the death of a controversial Lebanese Shia cleric.

The cleric in question, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, has been associated with Hezbollah, which is deemed a terrorist organisation by most Western governments.

The tweet that cost Nasr her job read “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.. #Lebanon.”

She would later attempt to clarify and contextualise her tweet in a blog post, but Atlanta would have none of it.

The debate sparked by CNN’s firing of Nasr can be found all over the web with some big-name journalists venturing an opinion. Lucky for them, they don’t work for CNN. Many journalism schools still don’t encourage students to form or express opinions. It’s because journalists need to be objective, not takes sides, thus offering the complete story to readers so they can form their own opinion rather than have yours crammed down their throat.

Of course that is still how many view journalism, readers especially, and journalists have not done enough to update these views on our profession. Journalists often establish a personal voice in their writing. It breaks the monotony of blandness in news reporting that the information age is rendering pointless.

Journalists also express an opinion simply by pitching up at work and walking into the office any given morning. Newspapers are not objective; they are positioned to talk to a certain market segment or segments. Some papers are positioned as left-of-centre (Mail & Guardian), others have a distinct Africanist identity (City Press). Business Day is unashamedly pro-business. The Sunday Times carries the fears and aspirations of the middle class.

This doesn’t mean that they cannot produce quality journalism. All four South African papers mentioned here are headed by hugely respected and experienced editors who genuinely believe in journalism and its role in society. But stories are slanted to reflect the newspapers editorial positioning. Consumers buy newspapers because they can associate with its voice which speaks both to and for them.

Transparency has often been the battle cry for journalists. We expect it from our politicians, from big business, and it would only be fair for our readers to expect it from journalists. The media industry is changing, as journalists that’s our bread and butter re-inventing itself, I’m not sure how we thought we would escape without some evolution to our profession as well.

If one accepts that the idea of newspaper objectivity is pie-in-the-sky, and the recent debates around the subject, propelled in part by the firing of Nasr, suggest that many media commentators and editors now do, the firing of Nasr tells us that special interests have an interest in maintaining this myth.

Nasr was quickly taken down by the very powerful NeoCon lobby in the States who exert wide political influence over sections of the political and media establishment there. If the media is truly objective, the argument goes, they cannot criticise us. Nasr’s tweet did not claim to be representative of the views of all the reporters at CNN. She tweeted on an official CNN account dedicated to her. How much more interesting and engaging it would have been to see real debate around the merits of her tweet with  her colleagues expressing their own points of view. As it stands the debate rages on, only not on CNN.

Follow Nasr on Twitter at @octavianasr. Follow Manson on Twitter @marklives.



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