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Sept. 29, 2009, 10 a.m.

Truth-seeking professionals and the public: Why is journalism unique?

The announcement of The Washington Post’s new social media policy prompted the usual round of sniping between old and new media partisans. (For a good overview of the back and forth, see this post by my Lab colleague Mathew Ingram.)

The battle lines on this debate are fairly well defined — at this point, I don’t see a whole lot of point in rehashing them again here. But the dustup did make me wonder how other “truth-seeking professions” handled their members’ engagement in the public realm, and how and why journalism might be the same or different. Specifically, what intrigued me most was this line from the Post’s social media guide:

All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.

Now, I know for a fact that no professor at my current university, the College of Staten Island/CUNY, would ever expect that their job required them to “relinquish some of the privileges of a private citizen.” And yet I’m in a profession whose ostensible mission is the same as that of journalism: to seek out the truth in a fair (dare we say “objective”) way, and communicate that truth to others. Right? So why the distinction?

Indeed, the entire early history of academic professionalization was structured around issues of “academic freedom,” the ability of professors to think and write what they wanted, in public, without fear of losing their jobs. Many academics, in fact, lament the fact that they aren’t able to engage with the public more. From the little research I’ve done, most of the debate surrounding lawyers’ use of blogs and twitter revolves around questions of commercial vs. non-commercial speech and client disclosure, not public dialog per se. Scientists — certainly truth seekers! — are often encouraged to participate in public debates about scientific discovery. I don’t know much about how churches handle priests and ministers who blog or use Twitter, but I’d be curious to learn more.

So an interesting way to approach the question of journalistic use of Twitter might be to consider: Why am I, a professor of journalism, encouraged to blog, tweet, and engage in public dialog about journalism, but still trusted to speak the “truth,” while journalists are not? Why am I not required to “relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens” in order to do my job well? Why am I allowed to get up in front of a classroom everyday and teach youngsters how to “do journalism,” while journalists themselves have to give up some of the personal privileges of private citizens? What is it about journalistic professionalism that demands the monk-like embrace of personal rectitude?

POSTED     Sept. 29, 2009, 10 a.m.
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