If you read industry blogs, you have seen plenty of cases of reporters tweeting a smiling face at a murder scene, natural disaster or some other similarly toned story. Facebook postings about meeting the national correspondent hero and taking a selfie get plenty of critiques too. This occurs often enough that one has to ask why? Why do so many continue making this mistake? 

The answer is two fold. First, many think in order to show they are at a scene, they have to show themselves in that scene. Second, like it or not, many journalists become rather immune to the scenes around them. In a sense you become less sensitive while in the middle of the moment. Part of this is a survival tactic. The stories covered are often hard to take. This is a natural human reaction. But it is a part of the biz, that the viewer does not want or need to understand. If they do get a sense of it, it comes across as trivializing the story, its impact and the viewer.

Many stations provide little to no guidance on how to handle sensitive issues while on social media, even though you are required to post. So let’s create a checklist you can have on hand to help yourself navigate a tough situation when you are emotionally impacted, the deadlines are intense and you are trying to fulfill your obligations without a lot of time to stop and think.  

Before you post ask yourself:

Does a selfie help cover this story?

What is the tone of my coverage today?

How will this tweet/FB posting define my image as a journalist?

Yes, these questions are heavy. That’s why we are going to look at how to answer each one before you are at a serious story. If you know how to quickly gage the answers then this list is a simple reminder that could keep you from making a big mistake that hurts credibility. 

Let’s tackle the first question. Does a selfie help cover the story? Why do you want to put yourself into the image in the first place? Again, we are focusing on a serious story. Did you just meet the hero who saved the day? Do you want an image of you talking with that person? Did you just get an exclusive look at an element? Do you want to show yourself getting a tour of the crime scene for example? A look at the fire line? Then ask, is the image as effective if you show just that hero, or just that fire line and you are not in the image at all?  Again, a lot of reporters innately think they have to show that they are on the story to really be on the story. But I am going to ask you to consider a social media selfie the way you should consider the use of a standup. If there is a way to let the story tell itself with images alone, then you do not need to be part of it. If you are describing something, pointing something out or connecting two things and your physical presence adds to understanding, then having you in the shot is appropriate. But that doesn’t mean a selfie. Have the photographer you are working with take a pic of you talking to the subject or being given that tour of the scene. If you are an MMJ, consider asking someone you trust to snap it for you. If you must show yourself at a scene, it should be a shot that shows you actively engaged in covering the story. When is the last time you saw a network 2-shot with the correspondent and the interview subject standing side-by-side, grinning? Selfies send a very different tone when you really think about it.

Speaking of… What is the tone of my coverage today? Often the answer to this is going to rule out selfies. If the tone is to show the intensity of the shooting scene, how does a selfie convey that intensity appropriately? If the post celebrates a rescue in flood waters, what will your physical presence do to make that more clear in a still shot?  

Then there is a question of your legacy. That might sound corny, but it is true. Really every FB post, serious story or not, applies. The industry is small. It can be ruthless. You do not want to be the subject of this comment: “Wait that person looks familiar. Oh, that’s the genius who smiled at the mass murder scene.” Every post, every tweet, every Instagram image has to portray you as the type of journalist you want to be. That is hard. You will not get every posting right. But you want to avoid major gaffes. Especially when covering a serious story. The two questions above should help you, so that by the time you get to this question your gut knows what to do.

If you get to a large scale story and meet your mentor, take a picture with the person if there’s down time. Just don’t post it. It really only matters to you anyway. Why take the risk of putting it on your work accounts, and have some think you are insensitive? In terms of your private account, just remember no account is truly private when you are a journalist. Check your privacy settings and know you could still take some risk. 

Bottom line, serious stories are hard enough to cover in a Tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram image. Unless your presence in the shot is really crucial for the viewer to understand the story, the best option is to avoid a selfie. The fact that you are posting is enough to show you are there. You have to do all you can to protect your credibility. Selfie’s often just are not worth it while on a serious story. Better to go conservative, and decrease your risk of seeming insensitive. Now am I saying never do a selfie? No. But this article is about serious stories. Stories that stir intense emotions of sadness, fear, anger, pain or frustration. Happy stories, inspiring stories and some stories discussing challenges could open the door to selfies. The litmus test above will help you know when. 

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