Careless tweets – Why 140 characters is too much as CNN sacks reporter

There is a lot of this going around. Reporters sacked for making comments on blogs and social networks. The latest is CNN, following The Washington Post and The Age, which has parted company with Middle Eastern affairs editor, Octavia Nasr, after she tweeted a controversial message of support for Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

In an internal memo Parisa Khosravi, the senior vice president of international newsgathering for CNN Worldwide, said that she “had a conversation” with Nasr on Wednesday morning and that “we have decided that she will be leaving the company”.

Nasr’s tweet read: “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot. #Lebanon”.

She then came out in a blog post and defended herself saying that the negative reaction she received for her tweet provided “a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East”.

She said it was an “error of judgment for me to write such a simplistic comment and I’m sorry because it conveyed that I supported Fadlallah’s life’s work. That’s not the case at all”.

She argued that she should have written something more like (if character count was not an issue): “I used the words respect’ and ‘sad’ because to me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman’s rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of ‘honour killing’. He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.”

What she should have done is tweeted nothing at all.  Fadlallah is a hugely controversial figure in Middle Eastern politics and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that tweeting the words “I respect a lot” will get you in trouble.

As despite his stand on women’s rights Fadlallah regular praised suicide bombers, called for martyrs, had close links to Hezbollah (was rumoured for years to be its leader) and wanted to see Israel cease to exist. That strikes me as containing a few clues to guide a senior journalist. Private thoughts are one thing, public shouting from the rooftops is another.

It is a shame as Nasr because as the New York Times points out her coverage of the protests in Iran earlier this year were praised for the way she integrated social media sites like Twitter within CNN’s newsgathering process.

But it is a stark a reminder that one careless tweet is all it takes; a reminder that Twitter is a broadcast medium; that you have to be careful what you write as not everyone following you is your fan or your friend; and yes your boss will read it and react.

The sacking of Nasr by CNN follows The Washington Post recently firing blogger David Weigel after comments he made about Republicans including that Matt Drudge should “handle his emotional problems more responsibly and set himself on fire”. Weigel was lucky he was promptly hired by MSNBC.

In Australia columnist Catherine Deveny also lost her job and was sacked by The Age following attacks on stars at The TV Week Logie Awards for some controversial tweets.

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  • Andrew Girdwood

    Seems a harsh call to me.

    Many companies have problems with employees becoming famous through social media – Forrester, for example – and being able to exert influence in their next pay review. That can’t be the case here, CNN already made the TV star, so it’s tempting to suspect they’re trying to protect relationships with picky ad partners.

  • @gordonmacmillan

    It’s that line with power/fame comes responsibility — particularly so if you are a broadcast journalist and people expect you to be impartial rather than praising radical islamacists.

  • Mirek Połyniak

    Actually I perceive CNN’s move as a wrong implementation of “political correctness”. And what makes it more bizarre to me: it’s happening in the country that often boasts itself on freedom of speech.
    IMO she just explained her personal perception of the person who – as she explained on the blog – had been quite innovative in some aspects of Muslim world.
    One cannot expect profound elaboration in 140 characters hence jumping to conclusions so quickly seems to be hot-tempered to me. Shame on CNN!

  • @gordonmacmillan

    @Mirek I don’t think there is anyway around it – she tweeted “One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot”. I wouldn’t want a reporter who is supposed to be giving objective news publicly praising and organisation that engages in terror. She could have blogged a piece about his role in relation to muslim women but she didn’t.

    In retrospect she tell us that is what she meant, but I’m not sure i buy that. As she could have tweeted it rather than praising Hezbollah.

  • Mirek Polyniak

    @ Gordon: do you expect to have no personal opinions? there’s nothing like “objective opinion” in the world I’m afraid – we’re subconsciously evaluating things through the prism of our beliefs, education, experience, etc.
    Moreover I wouldn’t compare a tweet with an official press release 😉

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