Reinventing the Newsroom

The Puzzle of Social Media, Opinions and Personality

Posted in Cultural Change, Social Media, The Journalist as Brand, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on October 5, 2009

After a couple of initial tweets, I largely stayed out of the argument about journalists and the wisdom of sharing political opinions through social media. But then an old colleague and friend posted a link about the subject on my Facebook page, writing that “it seems like it would be hard for journalists to create a ‘brand’ if they aren’t permitted to use social media in any way that shows their opinions/analysis/etc. So what can they do? … Also, the guidelines seem to bar them from having opinions even in their personal social media lives, just in case it gets out. Where do you draw the line?”

Good question. And why had I been silent? The biggest reason was that I’d been struggling with the line between my opinions about journalism best practices and my personal feelings about wise conversational topics, and I was worried that anything I wrote would be similarly muddled.

But this debate has legs, as they say in newsrooms, and my friend’s question convinced me to get off the sidelines.

The latest front in the debate is this article by Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post’s ombudsman. Alexander’s article offers a useful overview of what sparked the debate: new Post social-media guidelines from Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli that reporters and editors not “express views that can be construed as political, nor should they take sides in public debates.” As Alexander notes, Post managing editor Raju Narisetti closed his personal Twitter account amid questions in the newsroom about whether his personal tweets might be perceived as political bias. (Disclosures: The Post is a customer of my employer, EidosMedia, whose opinions are distinct from my own. I know both Brauchli and Narisetti from our Wall Street Journal days — and admire them, for the record. And I remain grateful for a firm, fair and much-needed scolding Raju gave me when I was young and given to shooting from the hip.)

The ensuing debate has been fierce. On one side are new-media advocates who are passionate about the need for reporters and editors to bridge the gap between newsrooms and readers, with social media an ideal tool for engagement. In their view, that effort will fall short if reporters and editors don’t open up personally, letting readers see them as people with opinions and personalities and points of view. On the other side stand people (some of them also new-media advocates) who don’t necessarily disagree with that, but argue that reporters can be personal and engage without expressing political opinions.

This has turned into a larger debate about transparency vs. objectivity. Transparency’s fiercest advocates argue for ditching journalism’s enshrinement of objectivity, contending that objectivity flies in the face of human nature and has produced far too much mealy-mouthed he-said/she-said journalism. Better, they argue, for reporters and editors to be transparent, an ethos sought by many bloggers and online writers. Rather than strain at objectivity, they should be up front about their positions and biases and let the reader assess their work based on that.

That’s a healthy debate. But it becomes unhealthy when it’s polarized as a showdown between Web values and print values, as if one’s choice of medium demands adherence to a full slate of principles. I don’t see why transparency has to be absolute and can’t co-exist with continuing to strive for objectivity. Nor do I accept that journalists can’t be personal and conversational with readers while keeping their political views private. (If you want to argue that transparency is by definition absolute, then we need a new term.)

Yes, transparency helps us connect with someone and is useful in judging their work. But politics is a subject that arouses such passions in readers that I think disclosing political positions would be more of a distraction than a benefit — particularly since journalists are trained (either formally or through experience) to subsume their biases in pursuit of fair-minded reporting. I acknowledge the counter-argument: Being only human, journalists have biases anyway, so if we disclose them readers will be able to judge their work fairly. But I think this is an elegant blueprint that would yield a shaky structure. It’s a stretch to say readers would judge fairly — I think too many of them would reject a reporter’s work out of hand based on what they’d revealed in hopes of getting a fairer hearing.

And what of sources? If I’m a reporter who’s revealed that I’m against all restrictions on owning guns, isn’t my interview with an advocate of longer waiting periods going to unfold differently? Is that person even going to agree to talk with me when he can use Google to discover that another reporter wants to ban all firearms? Once again, I think absolute transparency would lead not to fairer judgments, but to quicker prejudgments.

The wiser move, I believe, is to keep politics offline — and to warn that private accounts aren’t protection enough, as they tend to become public. Besides, I think drawing a distinction between personal and professional social-media identities is more damaging to engagement than keeping your politics under wraps. I’m insulted by Facebook requests to be someone’s fan — why am I not worthy of being a friend?

Does eschewing politics mean reporters and editors aren’t truly engaging? This is where things get murky for me. I keep my politics and religious views largely to myself in both my professional and personal life, and at this point I couldn’t tell you whether that’s a product of old-school journalistic training or accumulated regrets about too many fights about those subjects. You’ll find out plenty about me on Facebook or Twitter — for starters, that I’m a Mets fan, a Star Wars dork, and a partisan Brooklynite. But I doubt you’ll be able to figure out how I voted or how I worship.

Folks who are more politically or religiously minded than I am may see that as being opaque and closed, and perhaps they’re right. But I disagree. I love social media and can no longer imagine my personal or professional life without it. I think it’s incumbent on every journalist to step out of the cloister and embrace social media. (More about this here.) I think news organizations ought to encourage journalists’ efforts to engage and tolerate their mistakes. But I also think journalists, their news organizations and readers will be better served by keeping politics out of the mix. And I don’t see a contradiction between those two positions.

Update: Interesting takes on this issue keep on coming. Here’s a thought-provoking piece by Steve Buttry exploring objectivity and neutrality. And Mark Coddington ponders whether both sides of this debate are right depending on whether you’re thinking short-term or long-term.


2 Responses

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  1. Megan said, on October 5, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Good post. I hope some discussion emerges in the comments.

    If you’re a politics or religion reporter trying to create a brand, it might be tough to keep politics/religion out of it. 🙂

    I didn’t know Raju well, but the few times we talked, I always thought he seemed even-keeled and wise. That’s one of the reasons I found the situation especially interesting. It wasn’t some young, shoot-from-the-hip wise guy.

    I thought about this issue a bit more, and something else occurred to me — doesn’t a newspaper’s endorsement of a particular candidate create the same issues as a reporter’s politically biased tweet, but on a grander scale? The more I think about this, the more I believe newspapers should stop endorsing political candidates. The only reason to keep doing it is because it’s always been done.

  2. […] Journalists, believe it or not, are people too, and so this mammoth social change is forcing them to re-evaluate their traditional role as ostensibly neutral observers. Journalists can no longer dwell in a cloister, holding themselves aloof from discussion and revealing nothing about their personal lives — again, not because journalistic rules are changing, but because social rules are. That’s put a strain on the ideal of objectivity, and led to the enshrinement of transparency instead: Tell us who you are, what your interests are and what you believe, so that we can assess the information you’ve brought us accordingly and begin the process of dialogue and debate. (My take on transparency’s limits is here.) […]

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