Beyond Stenographers: Where Does Analysis End and Bias Begin?

On July 9, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post published an article titled “‘Grandstanding’ or truth teller? CNN’s Acosta walks a fine line with Trump.” The article discusses the ethics of Twitter, particularly Jim Acosta’s tendency to be openly critical of the White House on this platform.

Farhi, who has been covering media for a number of years and full time since 2010, wrote this story because Acosta has been clashing with the White House for a while now, and Farhi feels Acosta has somewhat become the story, he said in an email to  MediaFile.

“These are times that try a White House reporter’s soul,” Paul Farhi wrote. “Jim Acosta hasn’t kept quiet about what’s been troubling his.”

Of course, Acosta is not the first reporter to shout questions. Sam Donaldson, formerly of ABC, was the Acosta of his time and frequently shouted questions at then-Press Secretary James Brady and former President Ronald Reagan.

Since Donaldson’s time, ethical lines have grown increasingly hard to draw — especially with the advent of new technology and social media — leading to questions such as: Does commentary on a journalist’s personal Twitter account show bias? Is a journalist’s Twitter account an extension of his or her reporting?

Fahri understands the temptation to analyze a situation via Twitter, but thinks journalistic professionalism should take precedent.

“If our job is to report, then report,” Farhi told MediaFile. “Don’t take sides. But there’s a lot of ambiguity about what ‘taking sides’ means. Nevertheless, as I’ve written (and experienced!), Twitter seems to be a great invention for getting reporters in trouble.”

Fahri sees Twitter as most dangerous when journalists get involved in conversations they should not take part in.

“What some people want is for us to validate their opinion on a story,” he wrote to MediaFile. “That’s not our job. And that’s where Twitter is dangerous for reporters; it’s a constant temptation to start or get into a fight — one we shouldn’t be part of.”

Fahri noted one Acosta tweet poking fun at the White House for not filming its daily press briefings.

Acosta’s behavior has been widely discussed across media platforms.

“While CNN host Brian Stelter’s 15-minute monologues moaning about Trump’s treatment of the press are run-of-the-mill for cable-news pundits,” wrote Tiana Lowe for the National Review, “Acosta’s public displays of resistance in the White House press-briefing room break all precedent.”

Lowe argued that Acosta is limiting his own credibility with his behavior. She sees this as a “massive problem for the public,” Lowe said in an email with MediaFile.

“CNN absolutely exemplifies this sort of self-aggrandizing obsession with how Trump treats specifically them rather than the White House’s relationship with the media,” Lowe continued. “I targeted Acosta in particular not because I think he’s incompetent, but because I think that he should genuinely know better.”

There are others who argue that a journalist’s social media commentary can be seen as another layer of analysis, proving that the journalist not only reports the news but also understands the consequences of it.

On Nov. 8, 2016, NPR’s Media Reporter David Folkenflik wrote an article reviewing the media’s performance in a truly historic election. He mentions a new legacy media rat pack, or rather a tweet pack.

“A younger squad of embedded reporters for legacy news outlets often felt free to express themselves with voice,” Folkenflik said. “NBC’s Hallie Jackson, CBS’ Sopan Deb, CNN’s Noah Gray and others throw occasional shade through their Twitter accounts at the candidates.”

“It’s a way of sharing with audiences, colleagues and the people they cover what it’s like to experience these races — and also signaling that they are not merely stenographers.”

Given that many reporters consider public education to be the media’s most important role, this kind of commentary can be seen as simply contributing to that goal.

Of course, journalism is constantly evolving. In the future, Twitter commentary like this may become the norm. But for now, it remains controversial.

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