A Flutter on Twitter

Do people have a right to a reporter’s news account, no matter the tone of their tweets? The complainant, Shanon Kerr, demanded she be unblocked from Thunder Bay reporter Jody Porter’s news Twitter account. She said she had a right to access news from a public broadcaster when and how she wished to receive it. She acknowledged she had been very critical of the reporter, but not threatening. CBC News management found a compromise solution.

COMPLAINT

Jody Porter, the social affairs reporter in Thunder Bay, blocked you from her @cbcreporter Twitter feed. She did so because of the highly critical tweets you had sent her, and because you used the hashtag #jodyportershouldbefired. You believe it is your right to be critical, and you have not stalked or threatened Ms. Porter. Since Ms. Porter’s Twitter feed is used as a tool to report, you feel it is your right, as a taxpayer, to have access to it:

“I pay taxes and the CBC is a public broadcaster. I never threatened or anything like that. I just called her out on what I feel is poor, unbiased (sic) and unethical reporting.”

You asked if a CBC reporter could block an individual from a CBC Twitter account used by the reporter. You demanded that Ms. Porter unblock access to her on Twitter.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, responded to your inquiry. He provided some background on the use of Twitter and its role in CBC reporting. He characterized Twitter, and social media generally, as a tool that has enabled journalists to get information out very quickly, as well as creating “a space for ongoing one-on-one dialogue between journalists and the public.” He felt that your tweets became more personal, especially when your tweets used a hashtag calling for Ms. Porter’s firing:

“I think your statements, while not threatening, were to some extent abusive, and intentionally so. They certainly went beyond being critical of Ms. Porter's journalism (which would be completely within bounds) and were instead verbal attacks on Ms. Porter herself.”

He explained that in principle Canadians are “entitled to access our journalism however they see fit.” He questioned whether that remained the case when tweets became personal. He explained that the only way Ms. Porter could continue to use her account professionally and not be exposed to “abuse” was to block you. He suggested that a solution to the problem will be available sometime this summer and proposed it as an alternative. Twitter is introducing a “mute button.” This means that Ms. Porter can reinstate you to her account, so you can access her reporting, but she does not have to read what you tweet. You rejected this offer because you thought you have a right to have access now and not have to await the introduction of this new innovation.

REVIEW

The use of social media like Twitter, and its role in news coverage as well as a tool for dialogue, is in its infancy. CBC policy that governs its use is broad and principle based. In fact there is no policy specifically dealing with Twitter, only with social media as a whole. CBC policy states that the same standards that apply to radio, television and online apply to this medium as well, whether it is being used to gather or deliver information.

There is also an expectation that news and current affairs staff bring the same principles and values to bear in personal use of social media. None of these values and principles covers the situation you raise. And your assertion that you have a right to be reinstated as a follower of Ms. Porter’s Twitter account points to a gap in CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. In this new world of engagement and interactivity, it is an interesting question. I want to separate out the specifics of this case, and the broader principle you raise.

In principle you are correct that you have an expectation that you have access to CBC news when and how you wish to receive it. Ms. Porter’s twitter account, @reportercbc, exists for her professional use. She is asked by her assignment desk to use it to report live from various events. Reviewing the correspondence between you, it appears you took issue with her reporting of a court case in which your father was a witness. Because of its interactive nature, questioning or challenging the reporter’s work would seem acceptable. When it strays into the personal, the matter is far less clear. You think that your attacks were not personal, but were engaging Ms. Porter about her work.

I fail to see how calling for someone to be fired, attempting to rally others to support your position, and sending tweets to third parties about her is anything but personal. When you questioned her choice of words coming out of court, or challenged which testimony she reported, that was entirely acceptable. If that had been the only communication, it would be clear that Ms. Porter had no reason to block your account.

While reporters need to understand that they will face some unpleasant comment, they are not obliged to take abuse on an ongoing basis. In this case, your statements became increasingly personal, calling for Ms. Porter’s firing, and seeking out others who felt the same. Ms. Porter certainly felt abused and victimized.

Unfortunately for Ms. Porter, she can’t control what you say about her to others, as you have shown in some of your tweets. You contacted Massey College while she was there on a fellowship and have contacted others expressing your opinions about her.

You believe that being blocked from Ms. Porter’s account blocks you from news reporting, which you have a right to access when and how you wish. The fact is, if you are really interested in her tweets you can still find them on line. You still have access to news on CBC’s digital platforms. While reporters do report in real time from live events, they are restricted to 140 characters at a time. The primary purpose of reporters’ tweets is to alert people to what is going on and move them to digital platforms that have more complete reports. Susan Rogers, manager of CBC in Thunder Bay, also points out that news tweeted by reporters, including Ms. Porter, is also tweeted from the generic news account, @CBCTBay. You have access to news from Thunder Bay in that way.

The compromise that Mr. Nagler proposed to you – that Ms. Porter reinstate your account and use the mute button so she is not subjected to your personal attacks – is now operational. If you have specific concerns about inaccuracy or bias in any CBC reporting, there is a process through this office to deal with them.

There is no CBC policy that guides me or news management on whether to force a reporter to grant access to individuals on Twitter. It appears there is a need for policy and guidance for all CBC staff, as well as some sort of criteria to make that decision. Because the prevailing ethos of the social media world leans to the nasty and provocative, it is important to create some parameters for civil public discourse. While unfortunately part of the job will be to endure some unpleasant comments, no one should be subjected to ongoing abuse.

It is an issue management might want to address directly. There is an important principle embedded in CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices (JSP), and that is “upward referral.” While staff is meant to know and understand the guidelines and policy in the JSP, there are some decisions that are deemed too delicate to be left in the hands of just one person, possibly someone fairly junior at that. Because of the competing values and needs in this situation, CBC management might want to create some criteria for front-line users of Twitter, and ensure that a decision to delete a follower is made after due consideration and consultation with a senior news manager.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman