No recourse for reporter fired over tweets his employers found questionable

Joe Pompeo

News organizations are having trouble with Twitter. It's not so much that they're bedeviled, as institutions, in their efforts to promote content on the influential micro-blogging tool. Rather, they are struggling with a delicate balancing act: On the one hand, they are encouraging their reporters and editors to use Twitter to report, generate story ideas and the like; on the other, they don't want their employees to write anything that could damage journalistic credibility, or the news organization's brand.

And newsroom managers now appear to have a new precedent pushing that balance in their favor: The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that the Arizona Daily Star was within bounds when it fired a public safety reporter--who is not named in the ruling--for tweeting things that his editors found inappropriate, ABA Journal reports.

The reporter was first reprimanded last year for criticizing one of the paper's headlines in a tweet. He later refrained from airing any opinions about his employer on the site, but found himself in trouble once again when one of his tweets angered a local TV station, which complained to Daily Star brass. The managing editor of the paper, which at the time did not have a written social media policy, asked the reporter to temporarily suspend all Twitter activity while management sorted things out, as his account clearly identified him as a Daily Star employee. (Many reporters, such as those at the New York Times, for instance, include a line in their Twitter bios disclaiming that any views expressed on the platform are their own, not those of the publication they work for.) The reporter took a different tack. According to ABA: he changed his handle, deleted supervisors from his followers list, and set his tweets to private. He got the axe a month later.

In reviewing the complainant's case, NLRB found his employer was justified: "Even if the employer implemented an unlawful rule, the charging party was terminated for posting inappropriate and unprofessional tweets, after having been warned not to do so," its memorandum states. "The charging party's conduct was not protected and concerted: it did not relate to the terms and conditions of his employment or seek to involve other employees in issues related to employment."

This is not the first instance of a journalist losing a job over a tweet. Most famously, veteran CNN editor Octavia Nasr was let go last July after she lamented the passing of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah on Twitter. Fadlallah was a Lebanese cleric who supported suicide bombings against Israelis and was considered an inspiration to the militant Muslim party Hezbollah. The network ruled that Nasr had crossed a line in expressing an opinion about such a controversial figure.

To curtail such infractions, news organizations have been updating and adapting their social media policies. But are some of them needlessly draconian?

"These kinds of policies have a number of flaws--including the fact that much of what they are prohibiting is either common sense or impossible to police," wrote GigaOM's Mathew Ingram earlier this month. "One of the biggest flaws of most policies is that they spend so much time talking about how bad social media is for the profession, and so little time talking about what makes it useful, or how to approach it as a positive tool for journalism."

[Hat tip: Romenesko]