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PBS Standards

Take a Deep Breath Before Firing Off a Controversial Tweet
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In these extremely polarizing times, it's especially important to remember to show restraint in expressing personal thoughts and opinions on social media.

By publicly expressing politically-charged opinions, you run the risk of damaging not only your credibility but also that of your station, production company, or PBS.

“One of the most important things that we have to remember is we are as strong as our weakest link,” said Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of PBS member station WNET in New York. “There are people out there who would be delighted to discredit us. And someone may do something they think at the time feels right or they’re swayed by the emotions they’re feeling. And they aren’t out to do damage, but they can do damage. In this highly charged political atmosphere in which we live, we don’t want to give anyone ammunition, on the left or the right, to come after us.”

The use of social media accounts is ubiquitous, and journalists and producers often use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to assist in their jobs. But anyone involved in producing content must avoid creating a real or perceived conflict of interest by expressing opinions about something they might cover.

The PBS Editorial Standards state: “Producers must avoid engaging in public expression that could reasonably be perceived as undermining their credibility to produce impartial content.”

For example, during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 2018, the New York Times admitted that it made a mistake by assigning an opinion writer to write a news story about the then-nominee.

The writer had tweeted, in part: “I strongly disassociate myself from tonight’s praise of Brett Kavanaugh. With respect, he’s a 5th vote for a hard-right turn on voting rights and so much more that will harm the democratic process & prevent a more equal society.”

After publicly expressing those feelings, the writer could be reasonably perceived as too biased to write a fair news story about Kavanaugh.

Ronnie Agnew, executive director of PBS member station Mississippi Public Broadcasting and a long-time journalist, says he is actively involved on social media with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. Agnew said he is involved “because people want to hear from the boss.” But, he typically posts only about events at the station or his grandchildren.

Sometimes employees think they should be able to do what they want in their free time. But that’s not the case when they work in an industry that relies on its credibility and being able to impartially tell a story.

In an article for Current several years ago, Agnew wrote: “We must emphasize that staff members have responsibilities to their jobs, even when they’re not working. What we say and do matters, always.”

Agnew said he cannot go anywhere, even the grocery store or church, without being associated with MPB or PBS, where he serves on the Board of Directors. Even when he’s off the clock, Agnew knows he still carries a responsibility to represent the station. He says that he and all station employees are responsible for representing and maintaining a trusted brand.

“I don’t want to stifle creativity. I don’t want to stifle independence. I don’t want to in any way suggest that there’s any one way of doing this. But I do say this, that we’re all protectors of the brand. We’re all protective of our accuracy, our credibility, our integrity, our character, and all the things that it took all these years to build.”

Shapiro suggests that before posting an opinion on social media, first take a breath and check with readily available resources, such as a supervisor or the PBS Editorial Standards, to make sure the post would be appropriate.

“Oftentimes when people say outrageous things, it’s not because they mean them 10 minutes after they say them. It’s because they meant them the second they typed them. And sometimes just the ability to sit back and go ‘Let me think about this again’ is a good thing,” he said.

Shapiro pointed out that if the tweet or post is acceptable, employees can always post it later once their emotions have cooled. But if they post in haste and later realize it was a bad idea, they can never really take it back. 

Contact Standards & Practices at standards@pbs.org

Engage Further

More from Neal Shapiro

In this clip, Shapiro discusses the importance of thoughtfully representing public media even when not at work.

More from Ronnie Agnew

In this clip, Agnew explains that "we're all protectors" of public media's reputation.

Editorial Principles

More Resources