Can Reporter Objectivity Survive in a Twitter and Facebook world?

Journalists Rick Sanchez of CNN and Juan Williams of NPR have learned the hard way what can be the end result of expressing their opinions. Sanchez’s comments about people like Jon Stewart (i.e. Jewish) running CNN and Williams’ thoughts about Muslims on airplanes both got them fired.

But these comments were not made as part of their on-air jobs. They were both made during interviews. At one time these gotcha moments were rare. But today with the use of Facebook and Twitter, reporters don’t have wait to be interviewed to broadcast their opinions. They can do it as many times as they want, 140 characters at a time.

An editor from the Washington Post just learned his lesson although his punishment wasn’t as severe. It did, however, impact the entire publication. As a result of editor Raju Narisetti’s comments on his Twitter feed the Post issued strict guidelines for reporters and social media:

“What you do on social networks should be presumed to be publicly available to anyone, even if you have created a private account. It is possible to use privacy controls online to limit access to sensitive information. But such controls are only a deterrent, not an absolute insulator. Reality is simple: If you don’t want something to be found online, don’t put it there.”

It continues: “Post journalists must refrain 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.”

When I first read about this story it seemed that the Post was creating guidelines around reporters interacting with readers as part of their job. Matthew Ingram of GigaOm took the Post to task for ignoring the value Twitter brings through “reader engagement.”

But the guidelines as above are very broad. Reporter biases have always existed in one form or another. But today social media makes those biases available with a quick Google search. Will a Washington Post reporter be able to “like” anything on Facebook without it getting scrutinized? Will the places they check into using Foursquare be looked at as a preference? Will who they follow on Twitter be analyzed for preferences or favoritism? The way this is written reporters may have to refrain from any social media activity. Is that reasonable? Is it possible? Certainly reporters have always had the mandate to stay objective. But in a world where social engagement is becoming the norm that objectivity could become impossible.

Can traditional journalistic reporting include reporters participating in social media? Did the Post go too far with its guidelines? Should non-work related social media activities have an impact on journalists? Do you research a reporter’s social media presence when working with them? What are your thoughts?


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