Journalists face the identity crisis of the digital age

by: Katelyn Becker

There’s an identity crisis among journalists as personal branding becomes commonplace on social media.

In an effort to keep up with the digital age, journalists are branding themselves with social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. The push to brand oneself is causing conflict with journalists who want to stand out, associate with their organization, and remain objective. As media organizations develop more social media strategies, journalists are left to decide whether their public identity belongs to them, or their editors.

Avery Holton and Logan Molyneux conducted a study on the interaction between the journalist and the brand. They said, “Brand journalism is the set of activities that create an identity for an individual journalist and then promote that identity by building relationships.”

Holton and Molyneux conducted the survey of journalists to gage how they were feeling about the need to brand themselves online. The report said, “What began as an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, this is who I am. Come check me out’, as one reporter noted, has quickly deteriorated into a demand to say, ‘This is who I work for. Go check them out.’ This sentiment was present in nearly every reporter interviewed.” As journalists struggle to find their own voice, many reported being highly influenced by the brand of their organization.

Holton also said that there is a distinction between organizational journalists and freelancers in the way that they view branding. “They [freelancers] tend to see branding much more as a part of who they are rather than a part of the job,” he said over email. “They have to brand themselves above any other branding whereas other journalists might have to brand their organization, their news sections, and even other reporters before themselves.”

Holton explained that a benefit of personal brand journalism is that it enables journalists to identify an area of reporting where they can develop a sort of expertise. He said, “These niches, especially when branded, can really help journalists remain relevant even in tumultuous times.” He also emphasized personal branding as a means to express a journalists’ personal voice. “What a good number of journalists do, though, is incorporate their personal lives, thoughts, and even opinions, alongside their professional branding,” Holton said.

But Holton said that this leads to a very real identity crisis for the private and public lives of reporters in the digital age. As journalists become public figures, how much of their personal lives should they publish on social media? The line appears very thin to many journalists who struggle to remain human and personable online.

Some journalists say that they have different accounts for private and public use such as Jody Brannon. Brannon is a digital journalist currently on the board of directors for the Online News Association. “I post to various platforms for various reasons and objectives. I post to Twitter and Facebook professionally, for issues and trends I care most about; Facebook and Instagram are more representative of my personal interests,” she said. She went on to say that branding herself as a journalist is very important to her. “Sometimes I post, as a means to hopefully reinforce my specialty interests, but also to try to pick up more followers,” she said via email. “Tweets generally reflect my professional persona.”

Before she posts, Brannon said she thinks, “’What’s my motivation for posting this?’ is my first and primary question. Next is whether I feel I have something valuable, cogent, easy and relatively quick.” Mindfulness before posting is essential to maintaining a brand.

Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University, said that the personal and public problem can be rectified by being simultaneously professional and personal on social media. He said, “Social media are, after all, social, and if you’re not personable in your professional use of social media, you won’t use it effectively. Just that same as you can and should be both personable and professional in an interview and in routine dealings with sources.” He makes an interesting point that the two can coexist with the mindset that a person can be professional and human at the same time. Your audience doesn’t want to see tweets that are robotic, but they also value a sense of professionalism that comes with the job of journalist.

Julia Reinstein, American University alum and a new journalist at Buzzfeed, said that her job wouldn’t exist without social media. At Buzzfeed she said that the guidelines are lax when it comes to what she can post as a journalist on her social media accounts. She said, “Posting about politics wouldn’t be a big deal in lifestyle but it matters the closer you get to news.”

Reinstein said her now boss scrolled through her Twitter account to get a sense of her personality and this helped her get the reporting job at Buzzfeed. “Twitter is where most of journalism lives now,” she said. Reinstein also said that she made her Facebook profile picture her Buzzfeed official photo in order to appear professional enough on social media that people would want to be interviewed by her.

Like Reinstein, some journalists are embracing the idea of personal branding through social media. Scott Talan is an American University professor and an expert in journalism branding. He said that journalists need to do a better job branding themselves to establish an engaging relationship with their readers. “I’m still surprised at print journalists, which are the most endangered species, that literally just have their name on a byline nothing else,” Talan said. “How come they don’t want to hear from their readers? Why don’t they have their twitter handle or an email or a phone number gosh forbid?”

Talan said that he believes that media professionals are people first and journalists second. In order to establish a relationship with their readers they need to embrace the practice of branding and accept that journalists are now public figures. He said that there are benefits as journalists are expected to do more branding. “Social media will help in terms of being more relatable. If you want people to trust you, you need to show them a little bit of yourself,” he said.

 

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