Reporter fired for trolling own paper's blog

A Pennsylvania reporter has allegedly been fired for anonymously trolling his own paper's blog. Justin Quinn says he lost his job at the Lancaster Intelligencer  Journal for criticizing his paper and offering his opinions about topics covered on the paper's Talkback area.

I think the AP story misreads the ethical issues at stake:
Kelly McBride, an expert in journalism ethics at The Poynter Institute, said traditional guidelines designed to keep reporters from giving their opinions about subjects they cover apply equally to the Internet. If you express opinions that are critical of a public agency that you cover, and the public knows that you have expressed
those opinions — not reported facts, but opinions — the members of the public have reason to doubt your ability to fairly cover that agency," she said. [AP]
McBride's comment doesn't make sense because Quinn was posting anonymously. The normative claim that reporters should not offer their opinions on subjects they cover is dubious at best. However, even if you agree with the principle, I don't see why it would apply to anonymous comments. Nobody expects reporters to refrain from forming opinions. Some ethics mavens say that journalists shouldn't express their opinions in public, lest they create the appearance of bias. Anonymous comments don't create the appearance of bias as long as anonymity is preserved.

As a personnel matter, the paper may have been entitled to fire Quinn. It all depends on what he said. If he was being disruptive or slanderous on the company's site and posting about work-related issues, his supervisors would have a legitimate beef. However, that standard would apply to any employee who was engaging in that kind of behavior, not specifically to journalists.

This is a very murky area. Criticizing your boss is never good for your career. However, unless Quinn said something truly egregious, it would reflect badly on the paper to fire him simply for voicing his opinions in a forum dedicated to the free exchange of ideas.

It's telling that the AP chose to consult an expert on journalistic ethics, rather than, say a labor lawyer or an HR person. The implication is that Quinn was dismissed for violating the code of ethics specific to the profession of journalism. I think Quinn's case actually raises much broader issues employer/employee relations and free speech online.

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