10 Questions Aspiring Journalists Should Be Asking About Their Digital Reputations

In journalism, your professional reputation hinges upon credibility. Journalistic credibility is a recipe with five ingredients.

  1. Your published body of work;
  2. The organization you work for;
  3. The company you keep (friends, colleagues, followers, fans);
  4. What others may say about you, and
  5. How you conduct yourself in public.

Nowadays, “public” includes any online posts accessible by an audience. That may include the pictures you like on Instagram, the videos you watch on YouTube, the links you share on Twitter and the opinions you broadcast on Facebook.

A questionable online footprint (or the complete lack of one) has the potential to spoil an aspiring journalist’s relationship with a source, an audience or a hiring manager.

You may be an amazing person in-person, but first impressions in our modern world happen well before an actual first meeting — on search engines and on social media.

To determine whether you look like a credible journalist at first glance, ask yourself these 10 questions about your online reputation:

1. What proof can be found online showing my journalism knowledge, skills and experience?

News editors and recruiters expect to see an online portfolio of your work — a clean, up-to-date site that links to your best stuff, whether text stories, photos, videos, graphics or social media accounts, especially any work published by reputable news outlets.

There are sites that offer free online portfolios designed for journalists — Muckrack, Pressfolios, Contently and Clippings.me.

If possible, create a portfolio site on your own registered domain. The domain name you pick should incorporate your byline -a good SEO strategy. For example, mine is www.mariekshanahan.com

Google your name, byline and commonly used screen names. If your social media accounts are the first links to show up in such a search, take advantage of the fact that you control what appears on those accounts. Start using those channels to share your work and expertise.

2. Do I have professional social media profiles on the platforms most used by journalists, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat?

To be effective the field of journalism, you have to demonstrate understanding of all the communication tools at your disposal. Social media sites are reporting tools and networking tools. Someone who isn’t curious about social media, who hasn’t found the time to engage with it, shows they are kind of outdated.

3. What do my social media screen names, avatars, images, videos, posts, comments and ‘likes’ say about me?

We all wish that people wouldn’t hold our old Internet BS against us. Too bad. They do.

A couple of years ago, Jim Brady, the former president of the Online News Association and founder of BillyPenn.com gave me this advice:

“There isn’t a hiring manager worth their salt that isn’t going to look at a reporter’s Twitter feed or Facebook postings to get a sense of who they might be hiring, so you better keep it clean and keep it professional, or you’ll just be making life harder for yourself. Some younger journalists have claimed what they post on social media isn’t the hiring manager’s business and should not impact hiring decisions. That’s naive and not based in reality. No one would dare suggest job candidates don’t have the right to post whatever they want. But I also have the right to not hire them.”

4. Do I have evidence of a network?

Friends, followers and connections indicate your ability to build and maintain relationships with an audience. Relationships are the bread and butter of journalism in the digital age. Your professional value may increase or decrease based on the company you keep or the connections you lack.

Journalists whose online footprints show they are not really connected or interacting is a red flag. Journalism is a public service job. In today’s competitive media job environment, being invisible isn’t an advantage. The media, as they say, is a game of attention.

5. Do I possess authority in a topic area and have I cultivated an audience around that expertise?

News organizations get a lot of bang for their buck when they hire journalists who possess expertise in a niche area as well as a devoted following. If you’ve become a thought-leader and trusted information guide for a core audience, your fans (and foes) will follow you no matter where you work.

6. Do I display professionalism when interacting with the public online?

The tone of your online postings say a lot about you. Think about where you’d really like to land a job. If the place where you want to work likes snarkiness, then by all means, snark it up. But if that news organization’s identity is built on civilized debate, you’ll be expected to be civil, too.

Your online conduct should, for the most part, reflect the standards/best practices of the organization with which you’d like to be affiliated. If you don’t know the company’s standards, your ignorance might get you into trouble. There are plenty of examples of online posts getting journalists in hot water or fired — particularly in broadcast news.

7. What have others said about me in social media, online comments or articles?

I had a student a few years ago whose Google search of her name revealed pictures of her, tagged with her full name, in her ex-boyfriend’s old MySpace account. The pictures weren’t terrible, but they weren’t the image she wanted to project to a potential source or employer.

Another student discovered he had a Twitter problem. “My friends made a phony Twitter profile and used my real name,” he told me. “Some of the tweets on the account were inappropriate and featured a rather unflattering picture.”

If you can find something about yourself in a search engine, than others can, too, and it has the potential of shaping perception of you.

You don’t want posts by others criticizing you to be the main thing that displays on the web. You want the image you control to be the one that surfaces. Be proactive. Own your online identity. Create alerts that scour the web for mentions of your name/byline/screennames.

8. Split personality: Is it obvious that I’m hiding something?

Ever known someone who is well-mannered and well-spoken in person, but online they’ve taken on a very different persona? That split personality doesn’t fly so well in journalism.

Some college students who use social media as their playground think they can just delete an offending account when they graduate. I remind them that the web is a giant archiving and copying machine. Once you’ve published publicly, especially under your real name, it doesn’t really forget, even if you delete. That searchable record can be used as a road map of your present credibility.

Alternatively, some newsroom recruiters have told me if a job candidate’s Twitter feed is private, that’s another red flag. If you can’t be open and transparent on Twitter, journalism probably isn’t the business for you.

9. Might I be mistaken for someone else with a similar name?

If you share a byline with a more famous person, consider changing your byline, so it is unique. Then use that byline consistently.

10. What else can I do to improve my digital reputation as a journalist?

Journalists’ online reputations are now synonymous with our offline reputations.

Try to clean up or delete old unflattering posts. If you can’t completely eradicate not-so-good stuff in your online history, posting a flurry of positive new stuff will help to bury the old. Keep publishing content online that reflects what and how you want to be known.

Own your Google results by sharing your own content under your own name. Post links to your best work on all your online profiles, and update consistently.

Above all, avoid looking like a liability from the get-go. Your credibility will thank you.

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Originally published at www.mariekshanahan.com on April 15, 2014. This post was adapted from three presentations on journalism and online reputation at the 2013 Journalism Interactive conference in Gainesville, Florida, the 2013 NLGJA annual conference in Boston, and the 2013 Excellence in Journalism conference in Anaheim, California — #EIJreputation. Updated on April 19, 2016.