The Washington Post's new employee guidelines for the use of online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have sparked a debate over the proper role of new media for journalists, and the objectivity of major media outlets generally.
The Post's new guidelines, handed down from on high by Senior Editor Milton Coleman, disregard the potential of new media to engage readers in a conversation about the paper's reporting. Rather, the new social media policy attempts to buttress the Post's supposed objectivity, at the expense of journalistic transparency.
The Post's rules forbid employees from "writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility" and prohibit "the discussion of internal newsroom issues such as sourcing, reporting of stories, decisions to publish or not to publish, personnel matters and untoward personal or professional matters involving our colleagues."
The guidelines were implemented after managing editor Raju Narisetti posted two controversial tweets on highly contentious issues, thinking they would only be viewed by his 90-or-so followers:
We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad.
Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from "standing up too quickly.” How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail.
The new guidelines are a symptom of the mainstream media's refusal to acknowledge that journalists, like everybody else, have opinions. Many journalists struggle to keep their opinions and their facts divorced, but it is only natural that someone who makes a living keeping up with the latest happenings will have opinions about what he or she is covering.
James Poniewozik, blogging at Time.com notes that the Post's response to Narisetti's should not have been expected to counter charges of bias for the sake of maintaining the Post's image:
See, obviously you and I know a guy like Narisetti, not being an idiot, has opinions. That's fine. As long as he treats them like a shameful secret and hides them from us. Then we can all have trust in the media!...
by having policies like these, newspapers only reinforce an inaccurate idea of their own profession. Objectivity does not mean having no opinions. (Having no opinions more likely is a sign of apathy or stupidity.) Nor does it mean having opinions but hiding them. It means having opinions—as intelligent, informed people do—but not subordinating your work to them. It means being truthful and fair about your area of coverage, even if doing so hurts the causes you support.
Like the New York Times, which last week announced a new editor position for the monitoring of online 'opinion media,' the Post, with its new social media guidelines, explicitly advocated maintaining an objectivity that was never really there. Though Twitter and other social networking sites have the potential to subordinate news to opinion, that potential will always be present. The Post's guidelines disregard the potential benefits of discussing the opinions held by reporters for fear of compromising the air of objectivity to which the paper is so desperately trying to cling.
Media blogger Steve Buttry wrote of the Post's response,
Twitter is a conversation that the Post should engage more fully. Perhaps Narisetti should have been encouraged to be careful about voicing opinion. And certainly he should have been disabused of his notion that his tweets were private (apparently, though Alexander doesn’t say this explicitly, he tried to keep his tweets private, rather than opening them to anyone to read). But the discussion with Narisetti should have encouraged him to open his tweets and to seriously engage the community.
The Post's elitism--a trend of post-war journalism and the centralized reporting system of major newspapers--shows itself in the ignorance to the realities and potential benefits of social networks that the media's old guard simply cannot comprehend. Though new media technologies have the power to enhance news reporting, Coleman and his new media guidelines prohibit this capability in the name of a fantastical objectivity.
The Post's media critic Howard Kurtz noted, in historical terms, the futility of trying to prevent new media from adding a layer of commentary and personal insight to the paper's reporting:
I predict this will sort itself out. There was a time when newspapers were reluctant to have their reporters go on TV for fear they would say something compromising. Now they have PR departments trying to help the bookers. A year from now, this flap will seem quaint.
As it did during the ascendancy of television news, the media world will begin to see more involvement from the journalism community on social networking sites and new media outlets. The question is simply how the Post and other major media players will choose to use these outlets. They should take the opportunity to engage readers in a conversation about the news. Blanket bans on the use of new media do not help.