by Mike Smith Two hot button issues last week highlighted questions of public confidence: a firing and a battle to lay claim to the affordability agenda. The executive editor of The Burlington Free Press, Denis Finley, was fired after posting on his personal Twitter account the following: “Awesome! That makes us one step closer to the apocalypse.” He was responding to a proposal to add a third gender option on driver’s licenses in this state. Now there are only two: male and female.
The Free Press reported that Finley was fired because he “violated the company’s social media guidelines on a number of occasions.”
Denis Finley. Twitter image.
According to Randy Lovely, vice president for community news for the USA Today Network, “We encourage our journalists to engage in a meaningful dialogue on social media, but it’s important that the conversation adhere to our overarching values of fairness, balance and objectivity.”
Social media is a two-edged sword for journalists. Most news organizations encourage, even require, their reporters to be active on social media. It builds a following, and that translates into more readers, listeners or viewers for a news organization.
But there’s a temptation for some reporters to tweet or post opinions, often snarky opinions. With these tweets reporters aren’t being reporters anymore; they’ve crossed the line into editorial or opinion writing.
Even if a social media post is on a personal account, the end result is that opinions, especially on events or people a reporter may cover, will give the impression there’s a bias in any future news reporting. Therefore, trust can be diminished between the reporter and a reader or viewer. Journalism is built on trust.
Perhaps this is one factor why so many Americans have lost faith in the national media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. In 1976, 72 percent of Americans believed their news was presented accurately and fairly. That number is now just 41 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Of course there are other factors. There’s the 24-hour news cycle where speculation is welcomed in the absence of facts; politicians’ constant bashing of the press; and news outlets that shape the news — like Fox News and MSNBC — to attract a specific audience. All of these help undermine the credibility of the media and cause mistrust and polarization.
In this social media age we have become almost blinded by our own self-importance. We believe our opinions are required on any, or all, subjects. And because of the immense importance we attach to what we think and write, the opinions of others have less value to us. What motivates many to post on social media is self-absorption with the importance of their own situation and opinions.
Finley had every right to say what he wanted to say, but he has no constitutional right to stay employed for what he says. By firing Finley, The Burlington Free Press made it clear it values fairness, balance and objectivity in its news operation. Reporters have an obligation to adhere to these values not only in their reporting, but in their tweets as well. The credibility of journalism is undermined in the absence of these values.
Who wins the affordability fight?
There’s a political fight going on in Montpelier, and the objective is to win the hearts and minds of Vermonters over who is best suited to make the state more affordable.
Every politician is using the word “affordability” nowadays because Governor Phil Scott has shown just how politically potent that word is. He was elected promoting an affordability agenda, and the power of his message has surprised many Democrats. So, Vermont Democrats have decided to fight fire with fire and have crafted their own affordability message. But the two approaches are vastly different.
Scott defines affordability as a recognition that Vermonters are overburdened with taxes and fees. He has pledged he will not accept a budget that raises taxes and fees during this legislative session or increases state spending faster than the cost of living in Vermont.
Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson defines affordability based on what Vermonters have left in their pocket at the end of the day. And perhaps you have to raise taxes on some in order to achieve affordability for many.
Whose definition will be attractive to Vermonters?
It’s a harder road for Johnson to convince Vermonters that raising taxes is a better way to achieve affordability. She is supporting a payroll tax on employees so the state can establish and operate a paid family leave program, as well as new taxes or fees for cleaning up Vermont’s waterways.
Bottom line: Scott’s affordability message of no increases in taxes or fees, including property taxes, will likely resonate with more Vermonters than Johnson’s message of some new taxes.
Mike Smith is a regular columnist for Vermont Business Magazine, vermontbiz.com and VTDigger. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Governor Jim Douglas.