Front page of The New York Times, Friday May 28 (Image: Supplied)

Overnight, the global to-and-fro between journalists and media institutions over social media came home to Canberra with the attack on the ABC’s policy (and, in particular, a since-deleted tweet from its gallery star Laura Tingle) by unelected Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson.

Trouble is, institutional social media policies in journalism are the application of the corporate human resources aesthetic to the integrity of the craft. They exist to protect the organisation, not the journalist.

Right now, that to-and-fro is playing out in the predictable blow-ups over how to cover the Israel-Palestine conflict in the age of social media, long seemingly approached with one big question in mind: can we just get through this without getting the organisation into trouble?

But this time around, that cautious do-no-harm (to the old media brands, at least) approach sits at odds with the demand for a journalism of moral clarity from the craft’s emerging generation and, in this case, from the usually excellent journalists on the ground in the region. And it’s crashed into the emerging reality: in most cases the brand of both journalism and of many individual journalists is stronger than the old media.

We can see the old approach in the attempts to pressure ABC and SBS reporters to remove their names from a letter urging media to “do better” in covering the conflict.

Old-style v new journalism

This time, in far-off Arizona of all places, that old-style pandering crashed headlong into the new journalism when the wire service, Associated Press, terminated a probationary reporter, Emily Wilder, over (still unidentified) social media posts. Wilder, a former member of Students for Justice in Palestine, had been targeted as “anti-Israel” by Stanford College Republicans, amplified across the right-wing noise machine.

The craft exploded. Journalists tweeted in support. Wilder’s union at AP (and the broader News Guild) called for her to be reemployed. More than 100 AP reporters signed an open letter to management protesting at failure to protect staff from online harassment. “Bad faith, not bad tweets,” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in Thursday’s paper.

By Friday, AP management, still reeling from the Israeli missile attack on the building housing their Gaza office, was in damage control, admitting to “mishandling” the dismissal and promising to protect staff against online harassment, but stopping short of reemploying Wilder.

Although AP says she was terminated over tweets in the three weeks she was working for the wire service, the only relevant comment seems to be a May 17 tweet:

‘objectivity’ feels fickle when the basic terms we use to report news implicitly stake a claim. using ‘israel’ but never ‘palestine,’ or ‘war’ but not ‘siege and occupation’ are political choices — yet media make those exact choices all the time without being flagged as biased

It was a practical application of ethical thinking — perhaps even “moral clarity” — to a complex conflict.

The same day that AP was apologising to its staff, The New York Times brought its own moral clarity to the conflict with front-page thumbnail head pics of 64 of the 65 Palestinian and two Israeli children killed in the conflict, headed “They Were Just Children”. It was an idea picked up from Israel’s Hebrew-language Haaretz the day before.

Critical stance

Haaretz (like digital start-up news media Sikha Mekomit or Local Call) has long taken a critical look at the occupation. (Late last week, Haaretz dived into fake news from both the Israeli government and Hamas, including the now notorious fake tweet from the Israeli Defence Force that its forces were on the ground in Gaza.)

But The New York Times? That’s groundbreaking. The long-term (now retired) director of leading Jewish human rights organisation the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, tweeted that it was “blood libel of Israel” and he was cancelling his subscription.

Both the AP and the Times remain strong news brands — perhaps among the strongest in the world today. But the Arizona blow-up shows how vulnerable even the most venerable can be if they fail to grasp the imperative of the moment.

Traditionally media thought they could best mitigate the risk by simply avoiding it. Getting a hard time from the outrage engine? Move the target on. Keep them away from controversial issues. Cover it up. Avoid “damaging the institution” (as former Washington Post editor Marty Baron said about perceptions of bias in the context of a sexual abuse survivor reporting on sexual misconduct).

Trouble is, as AP discovered, in the social media age, journalists have decided that the integrity of the craft is more important than the brand of the institution.