Tweet Me the News

Social media allows journalists to reach their audiences directly, bypassing traditional structures. Does it also affect their credibility?

Austrians have known it since childhood, and many tune in daily to Austrian television’s nightly news program Zeit im Bild (ZIB)– one of the most watched shows on national television, aired continuously on ORF 2 since its launching in 1955. For many, the program is synonymous with lead anchorman Armin Wolf, renowned for his in-depth and critical interviews with the country’s leadership elites during live broadcasts and often bringing a cynical and humorous edge to the day’s news. In June last year, he was one of the only foreign correspondents allowed to interview Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, garnering widespread acclaim, as Politico put it, as “the journalist who stood up to Putin.”

It is, however, not only his ZIB appearances that have made him such a national figure: There’s his Twitter account with over 400,000 followers that allows him to talk politics with some who never tune into the ZIB. Younger, more tech and social media savvy audiences particularly engage with him via Twitter and Facebook, sharing, retweeting and sometimes criticizing the journalist’s take on current affairs.

Then last July, the management of the ORF announced new “Social Media Guidelines for Journalists’ Behavior,” starting an important public discussion about the values of journalism in the era of social media. Both Wolf and his ORF radio division colleague, Stefan Kappacher, publicly questioned these guidelines, arguing they would inhibit journalists from doing their job, while the international watchdog Reporters Without Borders called it an attempt to limit press freedom. ORF director Alexander Wrabetz disagreed and supported the guidelines as a necessary step to ensure the public broadcasters’ impartiality.

The ORF was hardly the first: Both The New York Times and the BBC issued guidelines for their staff’s use of digital media.

So why did the ORF’s initiative cause such massive controversy?

The Fourth Estate

“What makes these guidelines so controversial is that they were issued under political pressure,” said Rubina Möhring, director of Reporters Without Borders. “Certain representatives of the Austrian government criticize the ORF and its journalists for what they see is a biased expression of opinion in the public sphere. And the broadcaster reacted by introducing these guidelines, without encouraging an internal debate into the value and content of such rules.”

In late 2017 for example, Norbert Steger, representing the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the ORF’s Board of Trustees, publicly condemned Armin Wolf for “insubordination,” referring to Wolf’s joint interview with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and then-Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, during which he questioned proposed policies. Steger believes that this type of interview style is not objective, and therefore a breach of the ORF’s journalistic principles. This criticism, in fact, became a major impetus in the movement to create new social media guidelines.

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Twitter has become a major platform of exchange and criticism for Austrian journalists. Social media massively expands the reach of individual commentators. Yet the jury is still out on how to best combine public personas of journalists like Armin Wolf and Ingrid Thurner with the image of Austria’s public broadcaster ORF.

Other media outlets, both in Austria and in Germany, called attention to the political context with which these guidelines were introduced. Harald Fidler, media correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard, for instance, thinks that people like Steger, and some of his colleagues, have been calling for such guidelines for some time, and see the ORF’s proposal as a genuflection to the FPÖ. Fidler and many of his colleagues believe that what Steger tries to do is defame the ORF in order to introduce new regulatory frameworks, which in turn can be used to level control over the broadcaster. In a more factual tone, Thomas Zach, representing the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in the ORF’s Board of Trustees, argued that the guidelines were essential to the broadcaster’s status as an independent, impartial and unbiased public media service. In one tweet, Wrabetz referred to the Social Media Guidelines published by The New York Times and believed the ORF needs to maintain the same journalistic quality as that of the renowned New York paper. What emerges is a debate over the political influence on Austria’s public broadcaster.

The subject becomes even more salient because the Austrian government is currently working on a new ORF reform, making the directorate well aware of the implications of potential social media faux pas by some of its staff. While researching this story, not one ORF journalist was willing to speak on the record, highlighting the prominence of this controversial issue.

Still, it is not the first regulatory framework issued by the ORF. Back in 2012, the public broadcaster published social media guidelines, with the BBC Social Media Guidance for Staff acting as a model. The proposed guidelines, however, differ significantly, reading in part:

All public statements and comments in social media should be avoided that could be interpreted as approval, rejection or evaluation of statements, sympathy, antipathy, criticism and “polemics” towards political institutions, their representatives or members.

“What is problematic about these guidelines is that they are phrased too broadly,” wrote Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist at the Austrian weekly Falter, in her blog. “Of course journalists should be allowed to criticize political statements on Social Media. It is the job and responsibility of journalists to criticize the often problematic and false statements given by politicians. Indeed, critique is an important part of the public debate!”

The Role of Journalism

It boils down to the question of the role of journalists, and of how they should behave in the public sphere. In a recent interview, Falter editor-in-chief Florian Klenk described it as in “the nature of journalists to classify things, to comment on events he or she is intensively involved with, just as I am now voicing my opinion as a journalist.” It comes down to integrity: When journalists do not adhere to the standards of thoroughness, of checking, rechecking, and doublechecking, then it threatens impartiality. Of course this is not the exclusive problem for journalists of public broadcasters. “But of course, people like Armin Wolf or his colleagues, who represent a public outlet and who enjoy a wider following on social media, have a much broader reach and are seen by many as ‘speakers’ of the ORF.”

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Austrian journalist Ingrid Brodnig wrote extensively about the danger of fake news online. Brodnig criticized the vague phrasing of the ORF’s new social media guidelines, which she fears could be used to muzzle journalists’ free speech and criticism of politicians.

And it is the ORF’s special status as a public service broadcaster that is at issue – in large part funded by Austrian taxpayers. Similar to the TV Licence in the UK, Austrians are required to pay an annual fee to the GIS (Gebühren Info Service, part of the ORF) if they have a TV receiver at home, which collects over €600 million in revenue annually. Another €300 million comes from local taxes. The ORF is therefore accountable to the public and should adhere to impartiality, accountability and, as far as possible, unbiased reporting. People like Armin Wolf have an outreach on social media that far exceeds that of the ORF, not least because the ORF is handicapped by antiquated digital regulatory frameworks and a digital strategy critical of social media that has only recently been adapted to current technology: The individual ORF TV programs and radio shows, for example, were not allowed to have their own Facebook page and Twitter account until recently. And as recently as early 2018, the broadcaster announced it would reduce its Facebook presence by 80 percent. Misuse of data and lack of transparency were quoted as the reasons for this new social media strategy. It is, therefore, not surprising that some of its journalists were able to reach high numbers of followers through their private social media profiles.

“I am not against journalistic social media guidelines per se,” said Möhring. “I understand the ORF’s arguments for impartiality and public accountability. It would be absolutely wrong for any journalist to express [private] political beliefs in a public arena. But it is the political context in which these guidelines were proposed and published. Journalists are also entitled to their personal opinions.”

As it stands, journalists who share personal opinions on social media could face serious consequences. And not only in Austria. Early last year, the Burlington Free Press (Vermont) fired its editor for tweeting on a gender-related issue. And soon thereafter, The Atlantic magazine cut ties with columnist Kevin Williamson for a tweet advocating the death penalty for abortion. In both cases, the tweets violated the company’s social media guidelines. Similar cases have not yet happened here.

“I understand the ORF’s arguments for impartiality and accountability. But journalists are also entitled to their personal opinions.” – Rubina Möhring, director of Reporters Without Borders.

Thus, what on the surface appears to be merely a controversy on the use of social media by public service journalists, emerges as a critical public debate about the influence of politics on the ORF. Notwithstanding all controversy, the ORF actually published the final guidelines a month ago. The language is toned down to the proposed ones from last year and not as stringent, clearly stating that “everybody has the right to her/his opinion – also ORF journalists. But just as important is the audience’s right to an objective, balanced and independent news coverage.” That sounds fair, and indeed expressions by journalists and newsmakers of both outrage and support have calmed since then.

“Social Media Guidelines should be published not only on a national, but rather on a European level,” Rubina Möhring believes. In practice, this would mean that all European public broadcasters agree on and publish the same guidelines for their journalists, avoiding rules that affect countries differently. This would involve a collaboration between the Austrian ORF, the German ZDF and ARD, the Swiss SRG, the Spanish RTVE and all the other PSBs in Europe – including, at least for now, the BBC. While this might seem a daunting task, Austrian audiences must come to grips with a changing media landscape, in which social media plays an ever-larger role in engaging with viewers and listeners.

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