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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?

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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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  • Emily Culbertson

    Thoughtful piece. I wonder less if this is less a “relinquishing some of the privileges of private citizenship” issue and more of a “keep our libel insurance from going through the roof” issue. To me, that’s the major difference between publishing a newspaper and teaching a class.

  • Michael Hill

    Part of the distinction is institutional tradition: In journalism, it became standard to refrain from public engagement, so anyone who engages is assumed to have given up the quest for objectivity.
    Some is speed. Academics are not judged instantly on the basis of that day’s publication. Their production is mulled and debated over time and it can thus be decided if they let their biases cloud their judgment. Journalists’ stories are judged instantly and can too easily be dismissed with, “Of course he wrote that, he’s a (fill in the blank).”
    And some of the distinction does not exist. I imagine you know of some academics whose work you do not take that seriously because they are so out there politically that you just don’t trust their scholarship. To insure their credibility, academics have to be sure that their opinions follow their research (not the other way around). When it doesn’t, they are in trouble. I recall one such debate over C. Vann Woodward’s “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” whether it was a work of serious scholarship or a polemic designed to show that history was behind the Civil Rights movement, whether it actually was or not.

  • Alex

    The epistemology of journalism is just different. The belief is that by hiding information about reporters, an air of objectivity will be created. What’s interesting is the hypocrisy of this with journalists’ call for things like transparency in government. Why not have reporters be transparent about themselves? Transparency increases credibility, right?

  • Howard Weaver

    I signed to write the post Mike Hill left before I got here. (Damn, he always did seem to be a step or two ahead of me). It;s beter done, anyhow.

    I want to start by saying I personally am firmly on the side of letting journalists tweet and post to their hearts’ content, and then holding them accountable for stupidity or harmful bias.

    But I don’t think the issue is well-framed in Anderson’s post, which rests on a false equivalency.

    The entirely well-meaning intention of holding journalists to a different code was built on establishing and maintaining credibility with their audiences – finding a visible demonstration of the fairness that was always a presumed necessity. There were not a large number of alternatives to the daily newspaper in most towns over the last 40 years, and it made the role of newspaper journalists different.

    Times have changed. So be it. But you need to start any analysis with a clear understanding what it is that’s changing.


  • Howard Weaver

    P.S. to Alex: transparency does, I think, build credibility in today’s context.

    I don’t know what your experience with the past 40 years was, but in mine, overt partisanship or publicly declared loyalties certainly would not have.

  • Gary Scott

    I agree with Howard Weaver’s framing the issue and would add that journalists not only want to be perceived by the audience as fair but also by the people they report on. These people want to know they’re going to get a fair shake when they agree to speak to a reporter (journalists cannot compel people to talk to them). If I tweet that everyone who supports the war in Iraq is an idiot, what do I do when I’m supposed to cover the funeral of a dead soldier? If my editor’s Facebook page declares his opposition to gay marriage, what kind of access will I have to proponents? Will they speak to me honestly, or will they speak to me in a defensive way, holding certain important facts back? If they hold back, the readers are the ones who miss out.

    Of course, one could say that it’s dishonest to withhold these opinions from the readers in the first place, and in some cases it is. But even if perfect fairness isn’t possible, that doesn’t make the effort pointless. Striving to be fair can open the door to more views, let people speak more honestly and give readers a chance to hear multiple perspectives. And like a jury system – in which we ask people to refrain from broadcasting their views or rendering a judgment before they hear all the facts – we hope that newsrooms strive to present different sides while also making important distinctions and judgment calls. We also hope that layers of reporters and editors will weed out the biases of the individual, and that stated goals and standards will affect the way journalists approach their stories.

    That being said, I’m all for advocacy journalism. I don’t think every newsroom needs to follow the Post’s example. Some newsrooms will not only allow their reporters and editors to blog and tweet and facebook their thoughts and opinions, they will encourage them to do so. They already do. The Internet world is big enough for all approaches. Demanding the Post subscribe to the doctrine of advocacy journalism is as silly as asking advocacy journalists to subscribe to the doctrine of the Post. Then let the readers decide.

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