Can the views we share on social media cost us clients and jobs? The answer is “Yes.”
In January 2017, ten days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, a friend of mine, Lewis Wallace, was fired from his job as a broadcast journalist at American Public Media’s Marketplace. He shared a January 31 blog post on his personal Medium account chronicling his experience. (Editor’s note: An online publishing platform consisting of both amateur and professional writers and outlets, Medium is an example of what is known as social journalism.) In short, Wallace’s superiors said that a previous post, “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it,” was a violation of Marketplace’s ethics code. In his January 31 follow-up, Wallace wrote:
I was fired for publishing a post on my personal blog about being a transgender journalist exploring what it means to do truthful, ethical journalism with a moral compass in this very complex time.
Recent articles published in The New York Times Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review on online “mob mentality” and Twitter “pack mentality,” provided me with reflection on how much of our own willingness—and courage—to maintain independent thought through ethical reporting can become eroded by the group voice of social media. Fear of expressing or supporting views on social media due to the possibility of professional reprimand may especially stifle conversation investigating underlying issues in diversity and reporting that the journalism industry needs to continue to address.
For most of my early career as an independent writer, I projected myself in the way I thought I should appear. I experienced phone calls in which a client overlooked all my credentials and asked from which country I was calling. I took meetings where I answered questions from four white interviewers and could distinctly see on one of the interviewer’s faces that my experience did not matter. I eventually understood that I was presenting myself as the kind of writer I thought I should be, which, in turn, attracted the kinds of clients who also had a particular idea about what a writer should look like or where he or she should come from.
About a year ago, I made a conscious effort to confront my own internalized biases and made small and nuanced changes. In my social media accounts, I put up the same, clear picture of my face and emphasized my background in my professional portfolio. I made more of an effort to contribute my thoughts on writers’ forums and to investigate stories from my true interests, rather than pitch the ideas I thought editors wanted to hear or approach them with only general interest topics that were “safe.”
These small actions provided me with an understanding of how I subconsciously kept trying to hide my voice as a writer. As a result, I saw my client list change and improve with people who wanted me to write from my experience and worldview. I developed relationships with editors who encouraged me to pitch ideas from my perspective and interests and who have thought of me when ideas crossed their desks that were a good fit for who I was as a writer. I do not know if this would have been possible if other, more experienced writers had not become invested in supporting diverse voices; were aware of a different set of strengths and weaknesses that writers of diverse backgrounds may have; and expressed their views publicly while risking social and professional criticism.
After Wallace’s firing, a Marketplace executive, Deborah Clark, told The Washington Post that “his public rejection of objectivity is directly opposed to the company’s written guidelines, which call for staffers to keep their political views private and to be neutral.” I have been reflecting on how writers from marginalized or underrepresented communities can deepen a collective eye of what “objectivity” is in their choice and investigation of stories.
Many of the conscious and unconscious social conditionings which have resulted in writers feeling like their voices are suppressed have germinated across cultures and are often invisible. Being able to share the realities of the challenges that writers of all backgrounds experience by showing who you really are has already begun to raise self-awareness regarding objectivity’s collective eye. But there are still many more conversations to be had. As Wallace wrote in his January 31 Medium post, “We cannot have token diversity without making actual space for the realities of being a marginalized or oppressed person doing journalism.”
Wallace is currently an independent journalist and is working on a book about the history of “objectivity” in journalism for University of Chicago Press. As his friend and colleague, I often reflect upon his descriptions of “working in an industry that doesn’t really have space for me,” and how he stated, “I’m also fearless.”
Hannah H. Kim is from Los Angeles. Her work focuses on long-form business reporting and book ghostwriting. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and joined ASJA in 2017.
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