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Journalism branding: Impact on reporters’ personal identities

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(Wikimedia Commons)(Wikimedia Commons)(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

It is common for a news agency to request or require that its journalists use social media to promote their work as well as help market the company’s brand. Often, reporters, editors and columnists maintain two or more accounts on each social media platform in an effort to keep their professional lives separate from their personal ones. In many cases, journalists have a love-hate relationship with social media – they understand its immense value and critical role but also know that misuse and mistakes, however unintentional, can easily sideline a career.

As social media has evolved and become a larger focus of newsroom culture, individuals who have mastered its use have been able to elevate their profiles, with a few being catapulted into media stardom. High-profile journalists see social media as key to bolstering what are already strong personal brands. Ezra Klein, who used to write and edit Wonkblog for The Washington Post but is now at Vox, and Nate Silver, the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, are examples. As of early 2016, Silver had more than 1.3 million Twitter followers. CNN anchor and correspondent Anderson Cooper, who had nearly 7 million followers in January 2016, was named by Politico as Twitter’s most influential political journalist in 2015. Klein and Silver were on the list, too, coming in at No. 6 and 7, respectively.

Academic scholars have studied the role of company branding and personal branding in journalism. But communication professor Avery E. Holton of The University of Utah and journalism professor Logan Molyneux of Temple University assert that questions about the trend’s impact on journalists’ personal identities were largely left unanswered. Holton interviewed 41 reporters and editors from various U.S. publications to try to better understand the issue. The results of their research were published in 2015 in Journalism. Their study, titled “Identity Lost? The Personal Impact of Brand Journalism,” received a Top Faculty Paper award in 2015 from the International Communication Association.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Reporters are increasingly focusing their attention on developing their professional identities on social media rather than their personal identities.
  • Reporters have been asked to make changes to the way they present themselves and their content on social media, including adding their news organization’s logo to their social media pages and providing fewer links to news items that were not published by their employers. They also have been asked to help promote events and partnerships that might cast their news agencies in a positive light.
  • Reporters struggle with balancing their professional and personal identities online. They “feel pressure to stake a claim on their beat, develop a presence as an expert in their profession and area of coverage, and act as a representative of the news organization at all times. This leaves little room for aspects of personal identity such as family, faith, or friendship to be shared online.”
  • Many reporters said they see social media as a way to demonstrate that they are true experts in their field or subject area of coverage, which they think helps differentiate them from wire reporters and other reporters who do not have as much experience and subject-area expertise.
  • There still is uncertainty among reporters and editors about acceptable practices on social media, especially as they relate to personal branding and company branding.
  • Reporters are being asked to read and respond to social media posts at all times, which they view as an added burden among a long list of job responsibilities.
  • Editors said that they are sympathetic to the branding-related demands being placed on reporters but feel “hamstrung” by the policies and expectations of their news organizations. Few said they monitor their reporters’ social media activities but acknowledged that their news agencies “made examples out of individuals who were not falling in line.”

The authors suggest that news organizations may need to reconsider how social media is used for branding, promotion and identity creation. Journalists face choosing between their jobs and personal online identities. “This choice presents a paradox: if journalists choose to present too much of a personal identity, they risk punishment by their employers,” the authors state. “If they present only a professional identity, they risk offending their audiences.”

Related research: A 2015 study published in Digital Journalism, “Branding (Health) Journalism,” looks at how journalists covering specialty areas such as health are developing personal brands through social media. A 2013 study in Journalism & Mass Communication, “Audience Response to Brand Journalism: The Effect of Frame, Source, and Involvement,” focuses on consumers’ attitudes toward and reactions to brand journalism.

Keywords: branding, identity, social media, personal branding, brand journalism


    Writer: | Last updated: January 22, 2016

    Citation: Holton, Avery E.; Molyneux, Logan. "Identity Lost? The Personal Impact of Brand Journalism," Journalism, 2015. doi: 10.1177/1464884915608816.

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