What action should media employers take when one of their journalists crosses the line on Twitter? And what are the implications for freedom of expression when a news organization seeks to sack, or censor, a journalist over an independently published tweet? These are questions I’ve been pondering as I complete my Ph.D. dissertation on the “Twitterization of Journalism,” and as I deliver social media training to journalists in newsrooms around Australia.

To demonstrate the potential real-world consequences of indiscreet or injudicious tweeting in a journalism education/training setting, I often cite the sacking of CNN’s Octavia Nasr (who lost her job over tweets sympathetic to a deceased Hezbollah leader) and the case of Australian columnist Catherine Deveny, who was dumped by The Age newspaper over a failed attempt at satire on Twitter, among others.

But I also encourage debate about the implications of media employers effectively censoring journalists’ individual Twitter accounts.

The ABC of Tweeting

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is assisting with my Ph.D. project, and I recently completed a qualitative survey of nearly 300 editorial staff about their experiences of, and views on, the intersection of Twitter and journalism. I’m still analyzing the data, but there is evidence of significant self-censorship among tweeting respondents, based in part on concern about being seen to bring the ABC into disrepute on Twitter. This may reflect the very simple and effective (as I have previously described it) ABC social media policy. But it also points to broader emerging questions about journalists and their implied right to freedom of expression as global citizens.

The latest “Twitter incident” involving an Australian journalist is the case of one of the ABC’s most experienced foreign correspondents, Eric Campbell. Campbell’s Twitter feed is as engaging and entertaining as it is informative. Well, at least it was — until he stopped tweeting a few weeks ago, after three of his tweets (I’ll come back to these in a moment) were declared sexist by right-wing columnists (See Andrew Bolt’s, Gerard Henderson’s and Cut & Paste’s typically anti-ABC critiques) and became the subject of complaints raised with ABC Managing Director Mark Scott. The complaints were put to Scott by conservative Senator Eric Abetz during a Senate Estimates hearing. Scott subsequently referred the issue to ABC management for investigation.

Eric Campbell’s Twitter gags

So, let’s look at Eric Campbell’s tweets — specifically the ones being investigated by the ABC. Here they are, in succession:

The context required to understand the potential offense caused by these tweets includes reports of a sexist and defamatory joke made about conservative leader Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin. But it also includes a fiery debate over the shock jock Alan Jones’ universally condemned attack on PM Gillard in reference to her dead father, sleazy text messages sent by the former speaker of the parliament, Peter Slipper, (in which he inferred that female genitalia resembled a shucked mussel) and the broader global story of Gillard’s anti-misogyny “smackdown” speech in the Australian parliament — a speech which went viral via YouTube.

Sexism is in the eye of the tweet beholder

When I saw Campbell’s tweets, as a longtime follower of his on Twitter, who had witnessed his anti-sexist tweeting in the preceding period, I interpreted them as a satirical critique of the sexist humor and political discourse dominating recent headlines. I thought he was trying to make the point that much debate about the so-called Gender Wars dominating Australian politics amounted to a bad joke. When I asked my own Twitter followers what they thought of Campbell’s tweets, all respondents essentially agreed that they weren’t sexist. Journalist Nici Lindsay replied: “I thought it was an absurdist gag acting as a critique of the absurd political situation,” while Kristie Cavanagh saw “(Campbell’s) tongue firmly in (his) cheek.” Tammi Jonas called the tweets “incomprehensible” but described them as an “inoffensive bad joke.” As writer/broadcaster Helen Razer tweeted about one of her own jokes that fell flat during the exchange, “I guess if one must explain a joke then it hasn’t functioned.” But a weak attempt at satire does not a sexist make. And while Peta Credlin is, of course, entitled to be offended at Campbell’s gags, as a feminist Twitter user, I didn’t read them as sexist and neither did I find them offensive.

I certainly didn’t put them in the category of sexist tweets that recently caused the New York Times to suspend freelancer Andrew Goldman’s column for four weeks (an incident which also made me wonder about the legitimate reach of publishers’ social media policies with regard to freelancers’ use of non-proprietary platforms).

Disciplinary action

Regardless, Campbell faces possible disciplinary action over these tweets as a product of the ABC management investigation that, according to ABC policy, could lead to a misconduct charge.

He is undoubtedly one of the more outspoken ABC journalists on Twitter, and he attracted international attention with his campaign against News Corp. columnist Greg Sheridan’s attacks on ABC journalists. The ABC’s critics have no doubt been waiting for him to err on Twitter.

Certainly, ABC management has been made to feel uncomfortable by Campbell’s tweets — especially in such a heated political environment, one feature of which is the spectre of the budget ax that looms every time a conservative Liberal-National Coalition government looks imminent (as it has done since the Gillard minority government was elected in 2010).

There is a strong argument that Campbell should have listened to his ABC radar (tuned to the corporation’s social media policy) and steered well clear of Twitter gags in this risky territory, in the interests of good taste and in recognition of the significant potential for misinterpretation in the current climate. Some may judge his tweets as ill-advised, poorly timed and poorly executed. Others will maintain they were offensive.

But is disciplinary action warranted in this case? What kind of precedent would it set? And what signal would such action send regarding the ABC’s attitude to freedom of expression? These questions are likely already among those being contemplated by ABC editorial managers as they investigate the complaints raised by Senator Abetz.

The private-public clash and Twitter’s limitations

The Campbell case highlights the limitations of Twitter as a platform for nuanced satire. Despite Twitter’s function as a public conversation platform which builds context over time, tweets are often viewed by users as de-contextualized individual posts. The case also reflects one of the key themes of my Ph.D. thesis — the consequences of the merger of professional and public journalistic lives on Twitter. Among these consequences is the recasting of journalists as opinionated citizens and associated debates about objectivity and transparency.

As the boundaries diminish between journalists’ private and public lives on open social media platforms, it is arguably increasingly difficult for journalists to claim that their personal Twitter accounts “are not the views of my employer.” But at the same time, it is growing more difficult for employers to apply standards of conduct required of journalists on official corporate platforms to their personal social media accounts.

Media employers want to leverage journalists’ audiences on Twitter where opining is the norm. But this represents a particularly delicate balancing act for ABC journalists, who are professionally bound to standards of impartiality. But it’s also problematic territory for ABC managers, as ABC TV Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes acknowledged, “You point to a very genuine dilemma: the ABC wants its high-profile staff to engage with Twitter, but expects them to self-moderate their use of the medium.”

Holmes, Australia’s most prominent and influential media critic, told MediaShift that limitations on individual freedom of expression are the price ABC journalists must pay for working in a secure taxpayer funded media environment.

“As an ABC reporter/presenter your right to free speech is severely limited in your (paid) work — you are not supposed to allow your personal opinions to influence your reporting. And frankly I think it is delusional to expect that your tweets will be regarded differently, especially by the ABC’s critics,” Holmes said.

“That means that I (and most other prominent ABC presenters and reporters) avoid expressing opinions on matters of current political or social controversy on Twitter. Even RTing the controversial views of others is something I do with caution.”

But I’m not convinced ABC employment status should require a suspension of a journalist’s individual implied right to freedom of expression (which is admittedly very limited in Australia, due to an absence of broad constitutional protections). Rather, I think it highlights the need for a new emphasis on journalistic transparency (a hallmark of social journalism) and fresh interpretations of impartiality — to reflect the understanding that journalists’ expression of personal opinions on social media sites doesn’t prevent them from being able to independently and fairly report on issues for their employer. This is not to suggest caution be thrown to the wind by tweeting journalists, but to signal that a more sophisticated approach to these issues may be required to accommodate the somewhat inevitable convergence of private and professional lives on social media platforms.

The problems with regulating social journalists

Twitter can’t be treated as just another chunk of traditional media real estate by employers attempting to control professional journalists’ activities in the space in the interests of corporate reputation management. There are several problems and a number of risks involved in trying to police an individual journalist’s Twitter feed by subjecting it to the same publication requirements applicable to a masthead or a radio program, for example.

Some of the problems and risks with this approach include:

1. News organizations can’t regulate publication on Twitter.

2. Regulatory policies (e.g., the ABC Charter and ACMA rules) are not designed for application to individual users’ social media accounts (in spite of references in journalists’ social media bios to their employers).

3. Media employers don’t own individual journalists’ personal social media accounts, nor their audiences.

4. Editorial managers could find themselves being manipulated by politicians and others seeking to limit critique by journalists on social media sites.

5. There is growing acceptance within media organizations internationally that social media audiences are capable of reconciling journalists’ personal opinions and experiences with their capacity to independently report on the issues about which they commentate.

6. Tweeting journalists are arguably more accountable to their audiences than they are as comparatively cloistered members of an inner-city newsroom. Their audience may be the best and most effective regulator of their commentary.

7. Fear of putting a pinky toe out of place may make editorial staff reluctant to enter or be active in the Twittersphere when the media organization is desperate to leverage their journalists’ audiences in the space, on which they’re increasingly dependent for content distribution.

8. Threatening journalists with disciplinary action over tweets on their personal account may lead to their silencing in the space — depriving their audiences there of their insights and micro-reporting.

9. Penalizing or sacking a journalist for “saying things” sends a negative message regarding media organizations’ investment in freedom of expression and self-regulation campaigns.

10. News organizations now understand Citizen Journalism, but they’re still coming to grips with the realization that their journalists are themselves first and foremost citizens — with views and experiences that citizenship entitles them to share.

The most important thing

In reflecting on the broader issue of the balance between regulation and freedom of expression on the Internet, UNESCO Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development Guy Berger recently observed “The biggest problem isn’t the abuse of freedom of expression but that freedom of expression isn’t being tolerated.”

“The most important thing is not to bring limitations on freedom of expression but to promote freedom of expression,” Berger said. I think that’s also sage advice for media employers attempting to manage and regulate their journalists’ conduct on Twitter as the rules of engagement continue to shift.

Julie Posetti is an award-winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She’s been a national political correspondent, a news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on journalism and social media, on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She’s currently writing her PhD dissertation on ‘The Twitterisation of Journalism’ at the University of Wollongong. She blogs at Twitter.