Nieman Foundation at Harvard
If the Philadelphia newspapers wanted to convert to nonprofits, what would stand in their way?
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
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.
Show comments  
Show tags
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
If the Philadelphia newspapers wanted to convert to nonprofits, what would stand in their way?
Some sort of attachment with Temple University could be in the works. But nonprofit law could throw up a number of obstacles to making that happen.
Medium partners with publications like The Awl and Fusion, and more native ads are on the way
Medium is rolling out a slew of changes, including publisher partnerships, updated apps, and plans for advertising.
4 takeaways from The New York Times’ new digital strategy memo
With a renewed focus on subscriptions, the Times believes it can double its digital revenue to $800 million in 2020.
What to read next
What happened after 7 news sites got rid of reader comments
Recode, Reuters, Popular Science, The Week, Mic, The Verge, and USA Today’s FTW have all shut off reader comments in the past year. Here’s how they’re all using social media to encourage reader discussion.
699Facebook woos journalists with Signal, a dashboard to gather news across Facebook and Instagram
Signal helps journalists find, source, and embed content from Facebook and Instagram.
672Get AMP’d: Here’s what publishers need to know about Google’s new plan to speed up your website
The speed gains are very real. But do publishers want to trade in the open space of what we’ve known as the web for yet another platform they have little control over?
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
SF Appeal
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Minneapolis Star Tribune
USA Today
The Miami Herald
The Weekly Standard