How journalists use social media

How journalists use social media

10/05/2017  | Democracy

If you are a journalist, social media is something you can’t really avoid using.

Written by Ilona Turtola

At work, I have talked with my colleagues for example about Twitter. We have discussed whether we should be there to promote our stories, to find ideas and interviewees. Some of us are on Twitter or Instagram, nearly all of us use Facebook. “And then there is Snapchat. I don’t understand how to use it”, we have said.

After these kinds of chats, I realised I want to do academic research about the topic: which social media platforms journalists use and what do they do there?


I had dreamed about studying and living abroad. In Finland, we have the notable Helsingin Sanomat Foundation, which allows grants for Finnish journalists to study at the top universities in the world. I applied for the University of Oxford and got accepted. Now I am doing research at the Reuters Institute, which is a part of the University. The aim of the Institute is to improve the standards of international journalism.


In my research, the main question is what kind of professional identity journalists build on social media. I have been exploring this question from three aspects:

Which social media platforms journalists use?
Is social media only for work or do they share something about their private lives?
What do journalists think about the question of objectivity on social media?
My researched is based on interviewing journalists from Finland and the United Kingdom. I have interviewed altogether about 15 journalists. All of them are active on social media, at least on some platforms. I wanted to interview journalists from two counties, because in the English-speaking countries journalists tend to have more social media followers compared to other countries. For a journalist in UK, over 100 000 Twitter-followers is not uncommon whereas in Finland, 10 000 followers is a lot.


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And what have I found? Even though there are many social media platforms, journalists seem to use often one or two. Using only 1-2 platforms can be a relief for journalists: don’t try to use too many, stick with platforms that benefit your work.

“I think it is quite ambitious for an individual to think they can make four, five, six social media presences. Or if they can, that is pretty impressive.” (Journalist, UK)

For my interviewees, reasons for not using more platforms are lack of time and uncertainty how newer platforms (e.g. Snapchat) would benefit their work. Also, some interviewees mentioned that they have social media teams whose full-time job is to take care of social media.

Interviewees in this research form two types of groups when it comes to the question of separating professional and private life on social media: for some, social media is strictly only a part of work, some others blend professional and private life. Usually Twitter is a part of working life, Facebook and Instagram a part of private life.

“For me, Twitter is a part of work. And I’ll try to keep it like that. I would never tweet something like “hello, I am on holiday”. If I want to tell something about my holiday, I’ll do it on Facebook.” (Foreign correspondent, Finland)

The third aspect of this research, i.e. objectivity on social media, I find particularly interesting because as we all know, social media is a place for opinions, sometimes heated debates and social media bubbles. I wanted to know if journalists find it challenging to stay objective there.

My interviewees have very positive attitude toward this issue. They think objectivity it is not threatened on social media if you are transparent, fair to everybody and impartial.

“I was quite old when I started. I was experimental. I have been lucky for not making mistakes and I have been asked to advice other people on how to use Twitter. I think I developed rules for myself that work.” (Correspondent, UK)

“We are living on era where things are more and more transparent. It can be even more honest to tell that my attachment to this story is this and that and I am coming from this angle.” (Journalist, Finland)


The academic year will end in June. Now, I am finishing up my research. As mentioned, my main research question is what kind of professional identity journalists build on social media. Based on my interviews I suggest it is formed of four pillars.

Expertise: If journalist for example covers Middle East or domestic policy or education issues, what he shares on social media is often linked to this.
Guidelines: Most media companies have some sort of social media guidelines and journalists bear these in mind. Guidelines for example deny insulting colleagues.
Freedom: Journalists know social media guidelines but after that they do basically whatever they want, whenever they want.
Spontaneous: It is related to freedom but spontaneous means journalists interviewed for this research have started using social media on their own initiative, they don’t have any social media routines and they have found their own style on social media by trying.

I arrived in Oxford in September and time has been flying. I have enjoyed academic atmosphere and Oxford is such a beautiful place to live. One of the best things about this year is my fellow journalists at the Reuters Institute. In our group, there are about 20 journalists from all over the world. From them, I have learnt a lot and after this year I will miss our student life.

Ilona Turtola is a Finnish journalist who works for Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. Ilona is specialised in municipal politics as well as social and health issues. Ilona holds an MA from Jyväskylä University where she majored in journalism. For the academic year 2016-2017, Ilona is doing a research about journalists and social media at the University of Oxford.