Social Media in Journalism: Is Transparency the New Objectivity?

In recent months (and years) a number of media outlets and even wire services have made industry headlines for revamping or addressing staff member’s use of social media. The New York Times, Reuters, and the Washington Post are on the list.

More recently the Toronto Star undertook a similar revamp of their newsroom Policy and Journalistic Procedures. Rather than delve into the details, Mathew Ingram with GigaOM had an insightful look at how many media companies miss the keyword in social media – social – using the Star’s play book as an example.

And then on the other end of the spectrum there is Patch.com. In an effort to be as transparent as possible Patch Local Editors set up a bio page with political beliefs, religious affiliations, and other personal tidbits. Here’s an example. There may be other publications that take a similar approach, but I’m not aware of them.

Many of the policy updates in recent years put an emphasis on reporter objectivity, limiting what reporters can say about or how they can respond to comments or questions about a story. The case with the Toronto Star is no different:

The policy goes on to say that journalists who report for the Star “should not editorialize on the topics they cover,” because readers could could construe this as evidence that their news reporting is biased — and then tells reporters and editors that they shouldn’t respond to reader comments either. It says:

As well, journalists should refrain from debating issues within the Star’s online comments forum to avoid any suggestion that they may be biased in their reporting.

-Mathew Ingram, GigaOM

The only problem with the approach is that it addresses the PR concept of objectivity and not the journalistic concept of objectivity. To simply refrain from displaying an opinion does little to address the potential (or actual?) bias from a reporter or within a piece.

In reality this is the tip of the iceberg for an age-old debate about objectivity and whether it even exists. We’re not getting into that.

In an age where PR, journalism, and just about everything else converge on the social media wire it’s important to establish where those fuzzy lines lay for your news organization. It’s also important to address issues in the right context. To defend the public against the perception of biased writing rather than biased writing itself is doing more harm to the media industry (not to mention the public’s perception of said industry) than every shifting current combined.

On that same note Patch’s stab at transparency shouldn’t (and couldn’t) replace the publication’s obligation to objectivity and fair reporting. Rather, addressing potential biases and making them known is the first step in identifying and improving actual biases. The big question is whether or not this works as well in practice as it sounds in theory. For that I don’t have an answer, but it seems the distinction – at least in Patch’s case – would lie with the individual (local) editor.

The paradigm shift between the approaches reaches down to how journalists and editors interact with their audience and community – both online and in real-life. Patch editors regularly comment on stories and connect with their readers on a personal basis  (usually easier in the smaller towns Patch is known to cover than a mecca like Toronto, I’m sure). But it’s also an acknowledgement of a larger shift within the industry. A shift that debunks the myth of journalists as ‘gatekeepers.’

No longer is the public dependent on journalists and editors to broadcast information they think is relevant. In this day and age anyone can publish. Somewhere in the void traditional (and new) media have to figure out where they fit in.

That’s not a bad thing. Actually, it’s kind of one of the age-old cliches of journalism – to serve the public – that seems to get caught up in the hubbub around liability and brand management. In the end staying in touch with your audience and the public at large seems to better serve news organizations at present. It also seems Patch’s open approach will help them stay more in touch with their audience than another public relations wall.

Then again, I could be wrong. What’s worked for you and/or your company?

3 Responses to Social Media in Journalism: Is Transparency the New Objectivity?
  1. JQ - South of Urban
    April 15, 2011 | 11:59 am

    viewing transparency from the collective “whole”, cont’d from @southofurban on twitter (these thoughts are mine on the fly and do not reflect any part of South of Urban – Design/Construct http://www.southofurban.com)

    1. the link b/t transparency and the web (world wide of course) is phenominal. it has unlocked an army of minds to engage upon society that of which it has never seen. this is what equates to me as a river of information, and the emergence of some great leaders.

    2. those which try to block this surge in thought process (record industry, corporate interest, totalitarian regimes) will, and have already, face the full force of this movement.

    3. however, one stream of information could or could not be objective. that (in my opinion) is of no significance as these channels as a collective whole will emerge as the true objective thought. in my subjective opinion, this doesnt mean this idea of “whole” will be interesting, dynamic or even productive. BUT, in the end even a movement (good or bad) is still bound to this idea of “whole”.. kind of like a democracy.

  2. Nick Bowman
    May 4, 2011 | 9:49 am

    The comments on this blog are very intriguing. As we engage in more social media, I think there is an implicit contract between source and receiver – that we seem to be approaching the dialogue as an interpersonal communication. In many ways, social media platforms are forcing us to potentially scrap the “impersonal source, anonymous receiver” approach to mass communication and possibly replace it with a “personal source, conspicuous receiver” model – which might be reflected in making individual news sources more “personal”?

    Of course, the larger question here is how it might be affecting the public trust. I think to selective perception research suggesting that we all perceive (often incorrectly) some sort of bias in the media and we choose according; it might be the case that Patch.com’s approach is (in)directly attacking this issue?

    In the end, it’s going to come down to the utility of the information. I always teach my students that journalism from the Fourth Estate model is inherently not objective (we’re usually reporting to look out for the “little guy”) but rather journalism is about the objectivity of method. There are many stakeholders in a story – including the writer – but the Truth should present itself.

  3. [...] Many of the policy updates in recent years put an emphasis on reporter objectivity, limiting what reporters can say about or how they can respond to comments or questions about a story. The case with the Toronto Star is no different: The policy goes on to say that journalists who report for the Star “should not editorialize on the topics they cover,” because readers could could construe this as evidence that their news reporting is biased — and then tells reporters and editors that they shouldn’t respond to reader comments either. Social Media in Journalism: Is Transparency the New Objectivity? | Center for Sustainable Journalism [...]

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