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The Washington Post's Twitter crackdown has created a lot of debate. At the heart of it: whether it's okay for journalists to express their opinions publicly through social media outlets.

It's an interesting debate and there are a lot of ways to approach it. A central issue -- whether or not expressing an opinion jeopardizes a news organization's journalistic credibility -- is a fascinating subject. After all, most news organizations like to present themselves as objective sources who deliver truth and fact. But the debate over online postings that show their journalists and employees to (gasp) have opinions raises interesting questions: do news organizations even sell 'objectivity'? Should they?

Pre-social media, it was easy for news organizations to mask the fact that there were real people working for them. Real people have opinions. Thanks to social media, we've been able to confirm the obvious: journalists, editors and the individuals who run professional news organizations have opinions -- sometimes strong -- on the issues they cover. The notion that certain news organizations have certain biases? Where there's smoke, there's fire.

Social media shows us the fire and news organizations like The Washington Post are trying as hard as they can to put it out. That's not necessarily all bad; there are plenty of good reasons why news organizations should have rules and regulations. And there are plenty of good reasons why professional journalists should aspire to address issues with an open mind and reasonable level of objectivity. The news media is the Fourth Estate and does serve a vital public interest.

Yet as the reactions to The Washington Post's guidelines hint, perhaps objectivity is overrated. Few people really believe it exists so why are news organizations trying so damn hard to sell it?

As news organizations struggle to adapt to a changing media world, selling objectivity when few are buying it may not be a smart strategy. If there's anything we can learn from today's mediascape, and the internet in particular, it's that consumers love opinion. From bloggers to columnists, talk show radio hosts to television reporters, opinions are the biggest asset of the most successful personalities. News organizations that seek to strip journalists of their opinions are therefore in a sense seeking to strip them of their personalities. That's not good business.

Of course, opinion isn't always insight. But when it comes to complex and important issues, it's often hard to provide the depth of reporting consumers demand today without injecting some opinion. This is not to say that news organizations should throw out journalistic standards and chase lies, myths and rumors -- something they're ironically accused of doing anyway despite their focus on standards. But letting journalists and employees speak their mind is hardly the worst thing in the world.

After all, today's consumers have a knack for keeping an eye on things and smart journalists understand that. Journalists who are clearly guilty of letting their opinions unduly influence their reporting will be called out for it. And journalists who don't disclose conflicts will be shamed into depression. All of these things already happen and the net effect is that journalists are probably more closely monitored by consumers than they are by their bosses. So clinging to rules that seek to maintain an 'objectivity' that doesn't exist seems like a wasted effort for news organizations.

In my opinion, once news organizations realize that 'objectivity' isn't one of their main selling points, they can focus on the things that matter. Like reinventing their products. This will probably require news organizations to balance journalistic integrity with the obvious facts that everyone has an opinion and nobody believes that the news is produced by detached, robotic people. In the process, news organizations just might stumble upon what consumers are really buying when they consume the news, improve their offerings based on it and build sustainable businesses for the 21st century.

Photo credit: Daquella manera via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 29 September, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2429 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

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Kat

I agree with this completely. My impression, however, was that the concern was less about looking objective and more about not offending potential advertisers - those are perhaps the people that need to be convinced that a vast array of opinions are better, offer more credibility and readership and should still be invested in..

about 7 years ago

Pavol Magic

Pavol Magic, Senior Manager, Client Service; Head of Digital at SEESAME Communication Experts

Thanks for this post, Patricio. In our agency we're currently discussing a similar problem. We have around 30 employees and the problem is, that each one of them has their opinions. For example, I'll buy a product - let's say a shampoo - and I'm not satisfied with it, or-even worse-it does some harm. Normally I'd go out there to Facebook or whatever and write about it. But since it's our client, I'm putting the agency in a risk of loosing a long-time and important client, if they find out, that I work in the agency. So there's a huge question mark hanging about it - because I work in an agency, who works for this client, have I lost the right to have my own opinion?

I know it's a bit off topic and has nothing in common with media objectivity, but I think it's a common problem we'll have to deal with in the future. And not only in agencies, but also in media, companies (i.e. Facebook group of DSGi's employees), etc.

about 7 years ago

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Sebastian James

In my opinion, once news organizations realize that 'objectivity' isn't one of their main selling points, they can focus on the things that matter.

I completely disagree with one part of a largely agreeable post.  In an age of splintered media, where you can find the opinion you want to support your worldview (however rational or irrational) there is something to be said for objectivity.

Objectivity isn't necessarily letting both sides of the story speak.  There's no reason to give forum to people who vehemently believe 1 + 1 doesn't equal 2.  But today's media will.

Objectivity shouldn't be a selling point either.  It should be a part of the underlying foundation.  But that's a different argument for a different day.

Patricio, love your stuff.

about 7 years ago

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