The Associated Press’ decision to fire a just-graduated college student because of her pro-Palestinian social media posts raises some important issues for those of us who teach journalism.
The AP claims that it ended Emily Wilder’s stint as a news associate in Phoenix solely because of her tweets during two weeks on the job. That would be bad enough. After all, Wilder is 22 and at the very beginning of her career. In what world would it not make more sense to sit her down, explain what she was doing wrong, and let her off with a warning? Unfortunately, based on the evidence, it seems likely that her posts on behalf of Palestinian rights back when she was a Stanford student were an issue as well, especially when an online right-wing mob came after her.
Students in my ethics classes talked about Twitter a lot during the past year. I found the case of Alexis Johnson to be particularly useful in illustrating the dilemma that journalists face. Johnson, you may recall, was banned from reporting on Black Lives Matter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after she tweeted a harmless joke comparing littering at a Kenny Chesney concert to the trash left behind at racial-justice protests.
Some of my students were adamant that journalists should be free to tweet what they like — that they have a First Amendment right to express themselves on their own time just like anyone else. What I tried to convey to them was that Johnson’s situation was a lot more complicated than that. No, journalists may not tweet anything they like. Straight-news reporters can’t tweet their opinions about people and issues they cover.
The problem with the Post-Gazette wasn’t that Johnson had a right to tweet anything as she saw fit, but that her tweet was innocuous. It seemed pretty clear that she was being punished because she was Black and because she had a mind of her own. The absurdity of what happened to her led to an uproar at the paper and in the community. Johnson eventually left, and today she’s in a high-profile position at Vice News.
So the message for Emily Wilder is no, you can’t tweet just anything. And though the Phoenix bureau was as far as you can get from the conflict in the Middle East, the AP is a worldwide news organization. Management is within its rights to insist that its reporters not express opinions about issues in the news. The problem was its absurd overreaction, which had all the appearances of a craven attempt to appease its critics on the right.
Which leads me to a more difficult issue — the question of whether someone’s social media activities as a student should be held against them when they enter the work world. My first instinct is to say no. How careful are 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds supposed to be when commenting on the news? Even if they aspire to work for a news organization, that’s in the future. They should be judged by their performance on the job, not by the views they expressed before being hired.
But I’m not sure we live in that world anymore. Disproportionate though the Wilder firing may have been, the AP is one of the largest news organizations in the world, reportedly employing about 3,300 people. I don’t think I can tell my students that they should continue to tweet controversial opinions without any fear of the consequences. What if they have a chance to get a job with the AP some day? Or another news organization with a retrograde social-media policy but that is otherwise a place they would like to work?
Few observers seem to think the AP got this right. A group of AP employees is circulating a petition calling the agency to task. Among other things, they say:
We strongly disapprove of the way the AP has handled the firing of Emily Wilder and its dayslong silence internally. We demand more clarity from the company about why Wilder was fired. It remains unclear — to Wilder herself as well as staff at large — how she violated the social media policy while employed by the AP….
Wilder was a young journalist, unnecessarily harmed by the AP’s handling and announcement of its firing of her. We need to know that the AP would stand behind and provide resources to journalists who are the subject of smear campaigns and online harassment. As journalists who cover contentious subjects, we are often the target of people unhappy with scrutiny. What happens when they orchestrate a smear campaign targeting another one of us?
The AP’s own account of what happened says that Wilder was terminated “for violations of its social media policy that took place after she became an employee.” But Wilder herself told David Bauder, the AP reporter who wrote the story, that she believed her firing had more to do with the harassment campaign against her, which was mainly based on her more caustic tweets from when she was a student. And she told Jeremy Barr of The Washington Post: “This was a result of the campaign against me. To me, it feels like AP folded to the ridiculous demands and cheap bullying of organizations and individuals.”
As it happens, the incoming executive editor of the Post, Sally Buzbee, is currently the executive editor of the AP. It’s unimaginable that she was involved in the firing of a low-level employee like Wilder. But she’s certainly seen what a mess this has devolved into, and it’s well within her power to do something about it. The AP committed a serious misstep, and failing to address it isn’t going to make it go away.
My message to my students remains the same. There are a number of activities that journalists simply can’t take part in, such as making campaign contributions, putting a candidate’s sign on their lawn, becoming an activist on a contentious social issue — or tweeting opinions that they would never be allowed to express in the regular course of doing their job.
And as much as I would like to think that they shouldn’t be held to account for what they said as students, we have all entered a new reality. Rehiring Emily Wilder would be a positive step toward reassuring journalism students everywhere that common sense still exists, and that a great news organization like the AP isn’t going to be intimidated into doing the wrong thing.