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Sept. 28, 2009, 9:58 a.m.

Is transparency the new objectivity? 2 visions of journos on social media

Nothing brings home the clash of cultures between “new” and “old” media like the debates over social-media policies at mainstream publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Earlier this year, the Times was in the spotlight for its attempt to develop a policy on Twitter in the wake of some indiscreet twittering about internal staff meetings. Last week it was the Post’s turn: The paper introduced a new social media policy that restricts its staffers from posting their opinions on Twitter (or any other social network), after one of its managing editors posted his thoughts about certain political issues such as health care and Congressional term limits.

The editor in question, Raju Narisetti, appeared frustrated with the moves, saying: “For flagbearers of free speech, some newsroom execs have the weirdest double standards when it comes to censoring personal views.” He has since said that he agrees with the policy, however, and has cancelled his Twitter account. Other WaPo journalists mocked the changes, meanwhile, with media reporter Howard Kurtz saying that “Under new WP guidelines on tweeting, I will now hold forth only on the weather and dessert recipes.”

The guidelines (which PaidContent has reprinted in full) state that “nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment” and highlighted “the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism.” (There’s a list of over 100 corporate social-media policies here.)

A negative response

The response from some media industry observers was harsh: Rafat Ali, founder of PaidContent (owned by Guardian Media) said on Twitter: “I hope WaPo chokes on its own spit. New lame social media guidelines 4 journos,” and CUNY journalism professor and blogger Jeff Jarvis said: “Washington Post turns journalists into antisocial mannequins. So much for new connections to the community.” Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy said: “I would tweak WashPost Twitter policy: staffers can resume tweeting after taking advantage of company-paid lobotomy.”

Journalist Amy Gahran said that “when journos pretend to have NO opinions/biases, it *undermines* their credibility,” and Lisa Williams of Placeblogger.com said: “The fact that biases aren’t revealed just makes fertile ground for conspiracy theories, which erode trust in journalism.” Steve Buttry of Gazette Communications has more reaction to the policy and his own thoughts on the topic here.

From the Washington Post’s point of view (and that of The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, which issued similar rules), the maintenance of objectivity — or at least the appearance of objectivity — is the ultimate goal, and any potential benefits that stem from social media must be sacrificed in the pursuit of it. Those criticizing the newspaper’s moves, however, are of the view that objectivity is ultimately impossible, and that transparency is actually a better goal. In other words, disclosure of personal views and opinions whenever and wherever possible, rather than a pretense that they don’t exist.

Another vision from Britain

In an interesting juxtaposition, just as The Washington Post was rushing its new social media policy out the door, the BBC’s global news director was speaking to a media conference about the benefits of social media. Here’s Guardian reporter Mercedes Bunz on Richard Sambrook’s vision:

Objectivity, he then pointed out, had always been an idea important for the news. For him it was once designed to deliver journalism that people can trust. But in the new media age transparency is what delivers trust. He stressed that news today still has to be accurate and fair, but it is as important for the readers, listeners and viewers to see how the news is produced, where the information comes from, and how it works. The emergence of news is as important, as the delivering of the news itself.

Sambrook also spoke about “collaboration, openness and the culture of the link.”

So does this mean that reporters should feel free to openly criticize (or support) the people or organizations they are writing about? Some are afraid that, in that kind of world, everything will become opinion and no one will care about the facts any more — Technology Review editor Jason Pontin said on Twitter that someone “has to be in the business of describing what is factually known, before the rhetoric begins.”

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it has to be a binary choice. I think a smart reporter or writer won’t say things that would damage his or her credibility, either on Twitter or anywhere else. (Times editor Bill Keller effectively said the same thing during the fuss over the Times’ policy.) At the same time, however, a smart newspaper or media outlet should realize that using social media to connect with readers — even if that means embracing more transparency than it is typically used to — is a positive thing, rather than something to be feared and protected against.

(Note: David Weinberger’s answer to the question posed in the headline of this post is yes. He says transparency is inherent to the web, and that objectivity “is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.”)

POSTED     Sept. 28, 2009, 9:58 a.m.
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