Jemele Hill's controversy exposes new social media dilemma for journalists

ESPN suspends host Jemele Hill
ESPN suspends host Jemele Hill

Jemele Hill's two-week suspension from ESPN earlier this week has raised questions about how journalists and commentators should conduct themselves on social media. It's perennial problem that has rankled employers for years, and one that is confounding even ESPN's own public editor.

"When it comes to this latest action by ESPN, I am a bit perplexed," Jim Brady wrote on Wednesday in response to Hill's suspension, which came down on Monday.

The issue over what constitutes a violation online is getting renewed attention in the age of Trump, when some in the media are finding it difficult to stay impartial on social media, even if their employers require it. Brady joins a chorus of other journalists who felt compelled to shed light on the debate in the wake of Hill's Twitter controversies.

Brady says he understands why ESPN was troubled by Hill's tweets: A "high-profile" personality suggested an advertiser boycott that would impact the network's bottom line and she did it on the same social media platform she used to call out President Trump. The call for a boycott, Brady says, "treads close to activism."

But he added, "It's not the job of Hill -- or any other ESPN journalist, for that matter -- to concern herself with the network's business relationships."

"Her Trump tweets clearly violated ESPN's political and election guidelines," he wrote. "Here, there's nothing I can find that suggests Hill's NFL tweets were in violation of any specific guideline."

ESPN had no further comment regarding Hill's suspension or Brady's piece.

One of Hill's colleagues, espnW's Sarah Spain, posted a series of 10 tweets on Tuesday to spark a conversation about social media use in the workplace. She asked if it's "possible to respect one's bosses & company interest & still refuse to normalize what's going on @ the highest level in our country."

"We may not agree with how ESPN or other co. are handling things, but we can all agree this is difficult for everyone to navigate," Spain tweeted. "But @jemelehill doesn't deserve to be disrespected for standing up for what's right, she should be commended, supported & admired."

"Trump's statements on Twitter are often not traditionally 'presidential' statements; they are frequently personal or unjustified attacks, often branding media as 'fake news,' even when stories are factually correct," Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics at the Poynter Institute told CNN. "It becomes difficult, but on some level you want stay above the fray."

At least two other outlets published explainers after Hill's suspension on employees' social media rights.

Sports Illustrated's legal analyst Michael Caan wrote that Hill has a First Amendment right to tweet her views, but that "right does not insulate her from sanction by her private sector employer." Attorney David Wachtel weighed in for a Lifehacker explainer saying, "The baseline is that you don't have First Amendment protections in private-sector employment." Wachtel told Lifehacker, "You can be fired for activity on social media."

James Andrew Miller, co-author of the oral history of ESPN, "Those Guys Have All the Fun," told CNN that it could help if ESPN makes it clear that the opinions of certain talent and programming does not reflect the opinion of the network, or its parent company Disney.

"ESPN has to continue to make the line between what is permissible and what will result in disciplinary action as clear as they possibly can," Miller added.

ESPN chief John Skipper wrote a memo last month to remind staffers about the network's mission. In it, he addressed the thorny issue of where employees should draw the line when it comes to posting personal views in a public space.

"At a minimum, comments should not be inflammatory or personal," he said.

In its guidelines, ESPN states that commentary regarding political and social issues should "merit our time, space and resources;" be "related to a current issue impacting sports;" "refrain from overt partisanship;" "avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric;" and that communication with producers and editors should take place prior to any posting.

Hill was suspended Monday for two weeks after she suggested an advertiser boycott against the NFL over what Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones said about players taking a knee during the national anthem.

"If you strongly reject what Jerry Jones said, the key is his advertisers," she tweeted. ESPN has a $15.2 billion deal with the league to broadcast NFL games through 2021.

Hill backtracked saying, "I'm not advocating a NFL boycott. But an unfair burden has been put on players in Dallas & Miami w/ anthem directives."

This was the second social media strike at ESPN for Hill, who last month called President Trump a "white supremacist" in a tweet. The President took the opportunity on Tuesday morning to attack Hill following her suspension, tweeting that "With Jemele Hill at the mike, it is no wonder ESPN ratings have 'tanked.'"

Hill reflected on her Twitter use before any of her online controversies, saying over the summer that trying to navigate social media while maintaining her voice has become increasingly more difficult.

Hill told a Sports Illustrated media panel in August that her Twitter feed has become "a little edgier than it was."

"It's reflective of all the emotion and conflict I feel," she said. "I think others feel the same way."


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