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Two Takeaways From An Offensive Tweet Heard 'Round The World

Public relations professional Justine Sacco is now an unemployed public relations professional after tweeting Friday that she was:

"Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

In case you missed it, Twitter erupted after she posted that message just before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa. Buzzfeed does a thorough job of tracking what happened online as Sacco was in the air (the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet went viral) — and then landed to find out she was infamous and about to lose her job with the media company IAC. The company said there was "no excuse for the hateful comments" even if they were from "an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core."

Sacco has apologized for the "needless and careless tweet." As CNN reports, she also says in a statement that she had been "insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed."

There are many things that could be said about this, and we're sure many readers will share them in the comments thread.

Two things that stand out to us:

-- This shows once again that offensive jokes might be acceptable in some settings; for instance, from on stage at a comedy club or in the privacy of one's home. But no one should assume the same goes for what's said in public. And Twitter is a public space.

-- This also shows once again that disclaimers such as "views are my own" or "RTs aren't endorsements" won't save you from being sacked. Such statements won't "prevent your employer from firing you if you say something that reflects badly, and it's not going to prevent people from associating your views with your employer," Dan Schaeffer, an attorney at the law firm Neal & McDevitt, has told Forbes.

At NPR, we offer social media guidelines to the staff. After what happened to Sacco, we all might benefit from a look at what they say. Here's the introduction:

"The Internet and the social media communities it encompasses can be incredible resources. They offer both a remarkably robust amount of historical material and an incredible amount of 'real-time' reporting from people at the scenes of breaking news events. But they also present new and unfamiliar challenges, and they tend to amplify the effects of any ethical misjudgments you might make. So tread carefully. Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances as an NPR journalist. Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline. Verify information before passing it along. Be honest about your intent when reporting. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality. And always remember, you represent NPR."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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