By Stefanie Phillips, RSJ ’18

A hand holds an iPhone showing social media apps.

Journalism students are asking professors how to present themselves on social media. // Photo by: Tracy Le Blanc via Pexels

Social media can be a journalist’s best friend, or their worst enemy – depending on who you’re talking to and on what day. Sometimes the biggest challenge is trying to build a distinguishable brand while remaining impartial about the topics you discuss.  

In October the New York Times updated their social media guidelines to stress the importance of remaining impartial online. In the Ryerson Review of Journalism podcast, Pull Quotes, Laura Howells interviewed Matthew Ingram from the Columbia Journalism Review, Cynthia Collins, the New York Times’ social media editor and journalist, David Uberti about the new policy.

The conversation brought up some interesting points about a journalist’s presence on social media, something that is also a point of discussion at  among journalism students at Ryerson University.

At the Ryerson School of Journalism professors are talking about social media in the classroom and students are asking how they should be presenting themselves online to potential employers.

Ashley Csanady, who teaches Producing the News to second-year journalism students, says she understands why some news organizations are updating their guidelines at a time when trust in the media is dwindling. Her advice to students is to always air on the side of caution.

“Know your [social media] policy [at your publication] and know what kind of reporter you want to be so that when you to come off as really strong and really sassy … you know it’s going to be really hard to become a hard news beat reporter two years later,” she says. “Be aware that [what you post] does stay with you, but don’t be afraid to show who you are even if you are hard news. Be willing to apologize and own your mistakes and learn from them and listen, especially to marginalized communities when you do screw up. But also be prepared for sometimes things to get out of hand for no reason.”

In his Building the Brand class for third- and fourth-year journalism students, assistant professor Adrian Ma said he works with students to compose an online presence that works for where they want to go after graduation.

“A lot of it can depend on how your organization feels about this kind of stuff,” he said.

Csanady said she always reminds students of her golden rule – don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want to be seen on the front page of the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star. But she’s not advocating silence either. As a reporter for the Toronto Star and the National Post she was often vocal on social media.

“You can be both honest and truthful when holding someone accountable,” she said. “I think this old-school idea that reporters are these unthinking automatons that just are straight down the middle with every story and completely objective is really being pulled apart and I think audiences want to see a bit more voice and personality from reporters.”

Ma agrees with Csanady that audiences want to see some personality. In fact, he contends audiences no longer buy into the idea that  of journalists are completely impartial.

“I think audiences are a bit too sophisticated for that. They’re not going to believe that these news organizations are anymore objective just because their reporters are not allowed to say anything that makes them seem biased or have a particular position [on social media],” he said.

But Ma says drawing the line between having a distinguishable brand and being partisan can be tricky and advises students to start conversations on social media, instead of picking a side in a debate.

“You can still contribute to the conversation without picking a noticeable stance on the issue,” he said. “You can help generate conversation about these topics, you can point out other stories that raise an interesting issue, or that you think help shed light on a story that’s being underreported.”