Should journalists avoid expressing opinion in their social media comments for fear of calling their objectivity into question? Or is the myth of real objectivity finally being torn by a global conversation in which everyone is expected to weigh in with his or her views?
There’s a vigorous debate going on over at Gigaom about this subject. It was kicked off by a post by Mathew Ingram, who took issue with a social media policy recently installed at the Toronto Star that prohibits reporters from discussing stories in progress, commenting negatively upon their employer or colleagues or expressing any opinion that could raise questions about their objectivity.
Ingram thinks the policy is nuts, and the story’s headline – “Newspapers and Social Media: Still Not Really Getting It” – leaves no question that Ingram’s objectivity isn’t in doubt. We’re not so sure we agree with him.
We’ve written three books about social media, and we buy in fully to the idea that we are all better off when there is an open and free exchange of views about just about anything. However, a journalist’s ability to behave in an impartial manner – even if he or she has an opinion – is a core skill of the profession.
The issue isn’t whether people are biased or not: Everyone has opinions. It’s whether a professional journalist can put those opinions aside in the name of telling a story objectively. The ability to do that is essential to good journalism. It’s what enabled Alex Haley to draw a revealing interview out of American Nazi Party head George Lincoln Rockwell for a Playboy interview in 1966, despite the fact that Rockwell wouldn’t even look Haley in the eye during the session.
We frankly worry less about how opinions expressed on Twitter may raise doubts about a reporter’s impartiality in the minds of readers and more about how they may influence sources. Another core asset that professional journalists and media institutions bring to the table is access: They can reach people in the know because they’ve earned their trust. Revealing bias about an issue may influence a reporter’s ability to speak candidly to people who hold contrary opinions. That isn’t right, but it’s human nature.
Does this mean reporters shouldn’t engage in social media conversations? Of course it doesn’t. For one thing, the issue is situational. Sports and entertainment reporters for example, have more latitude to share their views than journalists covering a presidential campaign. And even a reporter covering Chicago City Hall probably isn’t going to do himself or his employer any damage by expressing a preference for the Cubs over the White Sox.
Then there’s the issue of language. It’s one thing to called Donald Trump “unconventional” or “controversial,” and quite another to refer to him as a “fruitcake.” Social media has become synonymous with rampant editorializing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Journalists can add value to a discussion without using inflammatory words. In fact, a voice of reason is often a welcome respite from the flame throwing that characterizes many online debates.
As to the Star‘s prohibition on trashing coworkers or tipping one’s hand on a scoop, that strikes us as common sense. In any case, we suspect the management at the paper would consider the circumstances before taking action against an employee in that situation.
We’re curious about your views, particularly if you work for a media organization. Does your employer put strict limits on what you can say in social media, and if so does it enforce those rules? Let us know, and let’s have our own rational discussion.
Paywalls and Social Media
Mashable looks at three news organizations with paid subscription models and asks how they’re faring in social media. Paywalls are a problem in social channels because they go against the culture of free information exchange. Mashable’s Meghan Peters says encountering a truncated story on a link from Twitter or Facebook is an “unpleasant reader experience.” She talks to community managers at the Dallas Morning News, The Economist and the Honolulu Civic Beat.
All treat their social followings differently, but all are hyper-conscious of not delivering poor experiences to fans and followers. The Economist has actually made its paywall a bit more porous recently. Visitors can now read a limited number of articles each month, whereas previously the entire site was gated. The strategy has produced a surge in social media referrals, says the site’s community manager.
The Civic Beat has what we think is the most interesting strategy. The site is free to casual visitors at any time, but readers who return frequently are asked to subscribe. The timing of the paywall is based upon an algorithm that takes frequency and time spent on the site into account. “If you read a couple of times a week, it will take a while before we ask you to register,” says Dan Zelikman, the marketing and community host.
The New Zealand Press Association (NZPA) is closing after 132 years, apparently a victim to a major subscriber’s decision to go it alone. The NZPA is an agency that employs a staff of about 40 journalists and provides up to 1,000 news items to New Zealand’s news outlets each day. Until five years ago, the agency used an Associated Press-style model in which all New Zealand newspapers shared their content. More recently, it has focused on providing original reporting. The union that represents journalists in New Zealand said the closure was “a huge loss for journalism.”
With their ranks depleted by layoffs, media organizations are becoming appealing targets for pranksters with an agenda. Last week, a group called US Uncut, which describes itself as “a burgeoning grassroots movement pressuring corporate tax cheats to pay their fair share,” succeeded in taking in both USA Today and the Associated Press with a fake press release announcing that General Electric would donate its entire $3.2 billion tax fund to charity. The AP story that ran in USA Today is here. The stunt was pulled off with the assistance of Yes Lab, an organization that describes itself as “a series of brainstorms and trainings to help activist groups carry out media-getting creative actions.”
We expect we’ll see more stunts like these as media organizations continue to pare back on frivolous expenses like copy editing and fact-checking. We’re just waiting for the story about the Nigerian princes with the huge inheritance to share to hit The Wall Street Journal.