Expert Commentary

What audiences think of journalists’ social media use

2015 study from the Weinstock Center for Journalism at Lehigh University that examines audiences' perceptions of journalists who use social media to interact with the public.

As more people have turned to Facebook and other social-media platforms as a place to gather and share ideas, many journalists have been urged by newsroom management to use these spaces as a place to share their work and connect with the public. Many journalists are encouraged to engage with audiences by leading Twitter chats, responding to comments left on news articles posted to Facebook and using social media more broadly to develop relationships and drive people to news websites. As social media becomes an increasingly important news source for the American public, reporters feel more pressure to participate in these sorts of interactions. In the U.S., 63% of Facebook users said they get news there – up from 47% in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. For Twitter users, 63% see that platform as a source of news, an increase of 11 percentage points over two years.

Industry leaders have expressed mixed feelings about newsroom staff using social media to engage with readers and sources, partly because of the risk that they will disclose too much personal information or give opinions. Some reporters, editors and other news employees already have gotten into trouble over comments they made on social media. A New York Times reporter, for example, “got a lashing” from an editor after she tweeted about her frustration with a company she was covering in 2010. A TV meteorologist said she was fired in 2012 after responding to a remark that a viewer left on the TV station’s Facebook page.

Part of the debate about how journalists should use social media centers on audience members – namely, how the trend impacts their view of journalists and their work. Jayeon “Janey” Lee, an assistant professor in Lehigh University’s Department of Journalism and Communication, decided to investigate how these interactions affect audience perceptions. For Lee’s 2015 study, titled “The Double-Edged Sword: The Effects of Journalists’ Social Media Activities on Audience Perceptions of Journalists and Their News Products,” she asked 267 students from a large university in the Midwest to view the Facebook profile of a fictional journalist and offer their opinions about him. Each student saw one of four versions of the reporter’s Facebook page, which featured links to news articles. The Facebook pages differed in the amount of interaction the reporter had with people who had left comments on the news posts. The four pages also differed in how much personal information and personal opinions the reporter shared on his page. After study participants answered questions about the reporter, they were asked to read a news article supposedly written by him and share their opinions about the article.

Among the key findings:

  • The journalist was evaluated more positively when he disclosed personal information and when he had engaged with people who left comments. He was perceived to be more likeable.
  • On a professional level, the journalist’s interaction with commenters had a “significant” negative effect. Study participants viewed him as being less professional.
  • Professionalism ratings were not influenced much by the reporter’s disclosure of information about his personal thoughts and experiences.
  • The journalist’s actions on Facebook impacted how study participants responded to his work. When the mock journalist was viewed positively or negatively, his work was evaluated similarly.

Lee warns that while many journalists and news agencies expect that using social media will help promote journalistic work, the possible consequences are often underestimated. Using social media to interact with audiences can hurt journalists’ professional image even if they are not behaving in a way that could be interpreted as “trash talking” or having a conflict of interest, according to the study. “News organizations should be aware that journalists’ social media activity can affect not only the professional reputation of the journalists but also that of their news products,” the author states. Lee predicts that older audience members’ reactions to social media usage might be more negative than that of college students, who may have more of an appreciation for social media and were likely to be more accustomed to social media norms than traditional journalism norms.


Keywords: social media, social networking, journalist, digital first, disclosure, networking, sourcing, brand building, credibility, interactivity, bias, objectivity, computer-mediated interaction, ethics

About The Author