On Facebook, personal storytelling and interaction abound. For journalists, however, these practices seem to breach traditional norms that they should avoid entering the fray.
But what about when journalists have Facebook pages? Should journalists engage, as Facebook norms suggest? Or avoid interaction, as traditional journalism norms dictate?
New research by Dr. Jayeon Lee, assistant professor in journalism and communication at Lehigh University, shows the benefits and drawbacks of journalists engaging online. Journalists’ online behavior can influence what audiences think of them and their journalism.
Lee’s findings show that self-disclosure and interacting with commenters can lead audiences to evaluate a journalist more positively as a person. However, one’s professional reputation can be negatively affected by responding to comments.
[pullquote align=right]Self-disclosure and interacting with commenters can lead audiences to evaluate a journalist more positively as a person.[/pullquote]
To reach these conclusions, Lee conducted an experiment where 267 college students saw one of four different Facebook profiles, all attributed to a fictional journalist named David Miller.
- In the first profile, David posted links to two news articles, one about a movie and a second about a hard news topic such as the economy. Several comments appeared beneath each post.
- The second version of David’s profile was identical, with one exception: David shared a personal experience when he posted each story. He wrote about his dad’s movie preferences and his own bout with unemployment.
- The third profile version was the same as the first, but again with one change. David had written back to each commenter, tagging them in his response.
- The fourth and final mock profile included both additions – David self-disclosed and interacted with the commenters.
After reading the profile, study participants answered questions about what they thought of David as a person and as a professional.
Evaluations of David as a person – for example, how friendly, honest, and sincere he seemed – increased when participants saw him self-disclosing or interacting with the commenters.
Evaluations of David as a professional, however, took a hit when he interacted with the commenters. When David engaged the commenters on his Facebook page – responding to each comment and tagging the commenter – the study participants rated him as less professional than when David did not interact with the commenters.
Self-disclosure did not affect participants’ ratings of David’s professionalism.
David’s actions on Facebook also affected impressions of his reporting. After study participants registered their opinions of David Miller, they were asked to read a piece of journalism attributed to David Miller in the byline. They then rated the article. Study participants’ ratings of David were reflected in their ratings of his work. If they found David to be personable, they also tended to rate the journalism as more approachable. If they found David unprofessional, the journalism also seemed subpar.
Lee’s research shows both the promise and pitfalls of engaging audiences online. Caution is warranted in over-generalizing these findings — this study used particular forms of interaction and self-disclosure. Whether other forms of engagement yield different results is an open question.
[pullquote align=right]A journalist’s online behavior has an impact, and not always in positive ways.[/pullquote]
Building on her work, scholars can examine what journalists can do on social media to preserve their professional reputation while still forging a personal connection to audiences.
For example, we need to know more about whether the amount of interaction matters. In the experiment, the mock Facebook page made it seem as though the journalist responded to every comment. It’s possible that this level of interaction tanked the journalist’s professional reputation in the minds of the study participants because it seemed like the journalist was spending a lot of time on Facebook.
In addition, the tone of the journalist’s responses may matter for how audiences evaluate the journalist. In Lee’s study, David Miller wrote back to one commenter by saying “I agree that it’s important.” Language like “I agree,” even when it is used only to highlight the importance of an issue, may harm journalists’ professional reputation.
Additional experimentation that reveals precisely what activities help and hinder a journalist’s reputation online will provide even more guidance and will build upon Lee’s important research. Lee’s study provides an invaluable starting point. A journalist’s online behavior has an impact, and not always in positive ways.
Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze:
- What sorts of self-disclosures and interactions are evaluated positively and what sorts are evaluated negatively?
- Should journalists post only about topics that they cover for their news organization? Does posting about other topics affect impressions of the journalist?
- Do audiences respond differently to journalists posting on their personal Facebook page versus journalists posting on the news organization’s page?
Jayeon Lee. (2015). The Double-Edged Sword: The Effects of Journalists’ Social Media Activities on Audience Perceptions of Journalists and Their News Products. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. doi: 10.1111/jcc4.12113
Research Review is a monthly series highlighting useful news-related findings from scholarly research papers. It is written by Natalie Jomini Stroud, associate professor of communication studies, assistant director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, and director of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. We hope this series will bring new insights to working journalists, as well as spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.