Newspapers face numerous challenges in the digital age. From online
business models to organizational structure, many newspapers are
struggling to find their way in the world.

And then there are the ‘smaller‘ challenges that are sometimes just as thorny. One of these: the importance of journalist objectivity.

Thanks to social media, anybody and everybody with an opinion has a digital printing press with which to distribute it. This has a significant impact on newspapers.

While most have tried to maintain the appearance that they’re objective publishers of truth, it’s often hard to capture the public’s attention and build reader loyalty when new media outlets not afraid to embrace opinion (and bias) are gaining more and more traction.

Thus far, more newspapers have redoubled their efforts to maintain the appearance of objectivity than not, but according to GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, this may be a mistake.

In response to the Toronto Star’s leaked social media policy, which requires journalists to “Never post information on social media that could undermine your credibility with the public or damage the Star’s reputation in any way, including as an impartial source of news,” Ingram argues that such policies effectively destroy social media’s potential.

He writes:

The best way to make social media work is to allow reporters and editors to be themselves, to be human, and to engage with readers through Twitter and Facebook and comments and blogs. Is there a risk that someone might say something wrong? Of course there is. But without that human touch, there is no point in doing it at all.

This, of course, could easily be applied outside of the field of journalism. After all, we’re all publishers now, and just about everybody — from the C-suite on down — in every profession has the opportunity to voice their opinions using social media. But should they?

There’s a saying that begins “Opinions are like…“. If you didn’t believe this to be true, the advent of social media has pretty much left little doubt. One doesn’t need to spend much time on Twitter, Facebook or the comments section of popular blogs to see that just about everybody has an opinion on everything.

Does that mean that opinions are worthless? Of course not. But it does serve as a helpful reminder: none of us is special simply because we have an opinion about something.

The truth of the matter is that not all opinions are worth taking the time to publish. Some offer more than others, and some can be dangerous. As we have seen time and time again, words are powerful, and what you say online can and will be held against you by others.

If you’re a startup CEO who spends hours a day posting negative comments about other startups, or a freelancer who seems to spend more time complaining about clients than working with them, chances are you’re not doing yourself any favors simply because you’re trying to “engage” online.

Instead of thinking that the act of participating in social media adds a “human touch“, savvy individuals will recognize the importance of thoughtful, meaningful social media engagement. No matter who you are and what line of work you’re in, chances are the people around you know that you have opinions. But there’s a time and a place for voicing them, and depending on what they are, there may not be a time and a place for voicing them.

Discretion, which is basically a form of ‘self-restraint‘, is worth its weight in gold and hasn’t disappeared in the age of Facebook and Twitter. If anything, it is only more valuable today because what you say or don’t say online can make or break your increasingly important online reptuation.

If you work in a service-oriented business, for instance, you probably shouldn’t reveal that think most clients are stupid, just as a reporter who is tasked with reporting events factually probably shouldn’t engage in online debates with readers that reveal biases so strong that they might call into question the journalist’s ability to perform his or her job duties objectively.

The risk with the internet, and social media in particular, is that it often encourages us to type first and think later. After all, it’s awfully easy to voice our opinions when seated in front of a computer screen.

That’s why you’ll see far more heated, emotional debates between strangers in the comments section on a blog than you will at the tables of a local cafe. And once individuals get fired up online, many write things that they would think twice about saying to another human offline.

At the end of the day, voicing opinion for the sake of voicing opinion, or engaging in debate for the sake of engaging in debate, is not a strategic use of social media. Instead of revealing every opinion via social media and justifying it with “I’m being personal“, individuals and organizations should consider what they’re trying to accomplish.

Are they contributing insight, or expertise, to the world, or are they simply posting their opinions for self-satisfaction? Are they looking to help people, or are they proselytizing? Do they hope to explore topics further, or are they looking to criticize and defend against criticism?

The answers to these questions matter, and those who don’t ask them are far more likely to learn the hard way, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.