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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Firing of Octavia Nasr at CNN

Octavia Nasr is a longtime CNN editor and commentator who is now unemployed.

Her falling out with CNN came because of an admiring tweet she sent praising the Lebanese Shi'ite leader,  Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who died on Sunday. Fadlallah was named for his involvement in the 1982 bombing of the US Marine Corps unit which killed more than 200 (a claim he always denied). But Fadlallah openly supported suicide bombings against Israel and was a critic of both Israel and the United States. 

Nasr immediately retracted and apologized for her tweet which stated: "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot."

For CNN which has come under criticism for its supposedly anti-Israel coverage, Nasr's retraction came too late. By yesterday afternoon, she was fired.

Nasr tried to contextualize her tweet after the damage had been done by saying that she admired Fadlallah for his progressive attitudes to women in the Arab and Muslim world. However, that subtlety was lost in the 140 character limit of Twitter.

After just returning from a round of journalism training in West Africa, I was frequently asked about the culture of news management in North America. How do newsroom journalists react when their copy is changed and edited? Isn't management just a form of censorship? Shouldn't journalists be allowed to express their opinions?

Well, yes and no, I answered diplomatically. I said that fact-based reporting should predominate. Opinion has its uses but should play a secondary and supportive role to bearing witness to events. Editing and management are not - or should not be construed as censorship. It is supposed to be about providing a second set of eyes and ears designed to make the product better. That was my line and I was sticking to it.

Easy for you to say, said one West African journalist. Why should the bosses have opinions and we can't?

Yet journalists do have opinions. But professionalism demands that they are able to keep their opinions and their obligation to report fairly and contextually quite separate. At a time when news organizations frequently feel on the defensive about hot button issues such as the Middle East, journalists often seek other outlets for their own opinions.  It used to be around a bar after work (an early form of social medium...).Now tweets have become media pressure valves.

Twitter has its uses (see the streets of Tehran and Toronto during recent protests in both places). But a measured assessment of the complicated life of a controversial cleric can't be served in 140 characters.

Octavia Nasr has discovered that harsh fact of life a bit too late.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jeffery.
    This makes me wonder that when it comes to "social media training" we have to train journalists in more than how to use it?
    To wit: I managed a team of student journalists at the NAHJ multimedia project recently. There were four. Two had not used twitter in journalistic context and each had never covered an event using a live blogging tool. We had an inaugural meeting where we selected which conference panels/events merited coverage. "Merit" was determined by answering one question: "Would those who are not at the conference be interested in this?" I saw social media in this context as an information distribution system. Students were reporters and leave out opinions unless it helped contexualize what was happening. They were deployed to panels and I "produced" back in the newsroomThey got it and did a great job. I made them slow down, take in what was being said and synthesize statements into a readable, scrolling blog.
    They tweeted too, but again, no personal opinions within 140 characters.
    Should Ms Nasr tweeted what she thought at all? Should CNN have reacted so harshly? idk...