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.