Murky Boundaries  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2008

Murky Boundaries   

What are the guidelines for the personal blogs of journalists who work for mainstream news organizations?

By Kevin Rector
     

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   » Part of the Package
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   » Ahead of the Curve

Two years ago, Chez Pazienza found himself in need of a hobby.

On leave from his job as a CNN producer on "American Morning" after having a pinball-size tumor removed from his head, he was worried about keeping his mind sharp as his body healed. So, like millions of other Americans in search of stimuli these days, Pazienza, now 38, started a blog.

A self-described "insufferable wise-ass," Pazienza named the blog Deus Ex Malcontent (deusexmalcontent.com) and began blogging on an endless number of topics, from his thoughts on Oprah (he's not a big fan) to his belief that "journalists have been demonized by right-wing demagogues, including those in the White House."

At the blog's outset, Pazienza says, the idea that he was writing for an audience was more of a happy delusion than any sort of reality: "I can pretend that there's a big audience out there even though there isn't," he remembers thinking. But soon enough, well-connected Web friends like Drew Curtis of the news-aggregating site Fark.com began linking to Pazienza's often snarky posts, and news of Deus Ex Malcontent began spreading virally around the Internet. Editors at the Huffington Post (huffingtonpost.com) caught wind and recruited Pazienza to join their ever-increasing roster of unpaid (but highly read) bloggers, and with the increased exposure, his blog began bringing in an average of 4,000 visitors a day – about 7,000 on good days. Pazienza was becoming a big hit in the blogosphere.

Unfortunately for him, his bosses at CNN weren't part of his growing fan base.

Citing Pazienza's failure to run his blog – considered "written work for a non-CNN outlet" – past the network's standards and practices department, Ed Litvak, then-executive producer of "American Morning," fired Pazienza on February 12 for breaching network policy. Richard Davis, CNN's executive vice president of news standards and practices, declined to comment on Pazienza, noting a CNN policy against discussing former employees.

Pazienza, on the other hand, has been quite vocal. In a piece for the Huffington Post right after he was fired, he charged CNN with operating with an "arrogant myopia," and called the policy under which he was fired "staggeringly vague."

Although many jumped on Pazienza's story as the latest example of how ignorantly dysfunctional the news media are in their relationship with the blogosphere, his story isn't important as the tale of some new-media martyr, especially considering that it really isn't surprising he got fired. For starters, his blogger profile, one of the first things you see on Deus Ex Malcontent, includes the sentence, "I wake up every morning baffled as to why America hasn't deported George Bush and Dick Cheney," a statement that goes far beyond the traditional boundaries of objective journalists – boundaries that place wearing a simple political button outside the territory of acceptable behavior.

But Pazienza's story is significant as an indication of just how far the news industry still needs to go when it comes to dealing with the burgeoning array of journalists' personal blogs. The shocking part of Pazienza's story isn't that he got fired, but that CNN relied on a single, sweepingly broad line in its employee handbook to do it. As Pazienza himself wrote in a blog on the Huffington Post, a "network which prides itself on being so internet savvy – or promotes itself as such, ad nauseam – should probably specify blogging and online networking restrictions in its handbook."

The need to deal with journalists' personal blogs isn't an unknown concept among editors, who have faced the prospect of such blogs bringing unwanted attention to their news organizations for about a decade. For the most part, editors understand that personal blogs are becoming more and more a part of the way people – including journalists – interact with the world, and are trying to incorporate that understanding into their organizations' approach to personal blogging.

Says Anthony Moor, deputy managing editor/interactive for the Dallas Morning News and moderator of a panel discussion on personal blogging held last year by the Online News Association, "Most recognize the fact that a lot of the people we're hiring today have a prior history [online], a digital footprint so to speak, and you can't erase that footprint no matter how hard you try. I think you are seeing news organizations trying to grapple with this."

Still, there remains no consensus on how to do so.

Some organizations, like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, have extremely precise guidelines, which puts them ahead of the curve.

The L.A. Times' guidelines state, "No matter how careful Times bloggers might be to distinguish their personal work from their professional affiliation with the paper, outsiders are likely to see them as intertwined. As a result, any staff member who seeks to create a personal blog must clear it with a supervisor; approval will be granted only if the proposed blog meets the paper's journalistic standards."

The New York Times' guidelines (see "Ahead of the Curve") state, "If a staff member publishes a personal Web page or blog on a site outside our company's control, the staff member has a duty to make sure that the content is purely that: personal. Staff members who write blogs should generally avoid topics they cover professionally; failure to do so would invite a confusion of roles."

And those are just excerpts from the detailed rules the two papers set for personal blogging.

The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is another paper with an explicit policy – a three-paragraph, seemingly all-bases-covered rundown that warns against a number of actions, including threatening the paper's credibility and objectivity; writing about one's professional work or partisan beliefs; and posting anything that might put one's "moral character" into question. Also, slapped onto the end of its policy, the paper includes this line: "Rather than engage in the futile task of listing what is and isn't appropriate, we expect simply that you don't do anything that would embarrass or unpleasantly surprise editors or colleagues."

It's a line that seems to address the fact that explicit policies can cause problems. As the Spokesman-Review's policy suggests, it's almost impossible to list every situation that might arise, so a blogger could defend a damaging post by saying it wasn't specifically banned.

That may be part of the reason such specific guidelines aren't common, and that much of the media industry has yet to institute anything like them. Many organizations are like CNN: They don't have specific guidelines on personal blogging, and instead rely on broader policies about outside work.

For example, much like CNN, the Chicago Tribune has a policy that calls for employees to run any outside writing by editors, who will determine if it constitutes a conflict. Generally speaking, the guidelines say, staff members will not receive permission to start or continue any endeavor that could possibly, in any way, be seen as competition to the Tribune's own online draw.

But according to Hanke Gratteau, deputy managing editor for news at the Tribune, the paper has no explicit guidelines on personal blogging. It just hasn't gotten there yet – "The world of personal blogging and the Internet is a whole area where we are always evolving and adapting," Gratteau says – but the issue has come up in "good judgment" conversations with staffers, who know they are "free to have personal blogs aside from our Web site as long as it doesn't infringe on our brand or our ethics or our ethics prohibitions," Gratteau says.

Similarly, the Miami Herald, which has extensive policies for the 30 or so blogs it hosts on its own Web site, has no specific guidelines for personal blogging. But according to Dave Wilson, managing editor/news, there is an understanding among newsroom staff that one's personal musings on a blog should be different enough from his or her work at the paper that confusion between the two would be almost impossible.

"We've had this discussion internally," Wilson says. "I think the lines are pretty clear to the people in our newsroom that if they are interested in a blog or Web site outside of work, that it needs to be clearly far from their day job."

The Washington Post's ethics guidelines don't mention personal blogging, but call on staff members to avoid partisan causes, conflicts of interest and being the subject of news themselves. They also say, "Our private behavior as well as our professional behavior must not bring discredit to our profession or to The Post," a line that seems to leave the door open for editors – not reporters – to decide whether blogging activities amount to private behavior unbecoming a Post employee.

According to Managing Editor Philip Bennett, Post policies simply treat blogging like any other outside endeavor. "Bloggers like to think of themselves as unique and special in every way, but [they] still have to conform with other policies about personal behavior reflecting on their professional work," Bennett says. "We treat personal blogs the way we treat any sort of speech outside of what people do for the Washington Post."

How the Post applies its policies to blogging was seen firsthand on April 16, when editorial aide and occasional metro desk writer Michael Tunison was forced to resign after the

Post said he had "brought discredit" to the paper two days prior on the popular football blog Kissing Suzy Kolber (kissingsuzykolber.uproxx.com).

In a controversial April 14 post, Tunison, 25, had outed himself as the man behind "Christmas Ape" – one of five regular staff writers of the blog. He'd done so by including a picture of himself while "totally fucking hammered" at Super Bowl XL, and by including links to his Facebook profile and the Washington Post's Web site in a sentence that read, "I'm this guy and I work for this dying medium."

Tunison, who had included "wapo will fire me in 3..2.." as one of the post's tags – words or phrases that make the post more searchable – says identifying himself on the blog was a decision he had come to after balancing his need to be accountable to his readers there against the likelihood that he would lose his job at the Post.

He decided to come forward because, with a newly acquired income from the blog that was comparable to his salary at the Post, he felt it was unfair to remain anonymous: "In a way it was sort of in the same spirit of journalism: full disclosure."

Still, after having weighed his options, Tunison says he didn't think his punishment at the Post would be as severe as it was. He wasn't writing about topics or issues he wrote about for the Post, nor was he writing about his work there, he says. "I thought [being fired] was a possibility, but I thought I would be warned or reprimanded first. I didn't think it was going to be a one-strike-you're-out piece."

What is clear to Tunison now, though, is that policies aside, Post editors have no trouble telling someone to "resign or get the hell out" when they feel that person's actions merit it.

At the Dover Post, a 33,000-circulation weekly in Delaware, the firing of an employee serves to outline de facto company policy on personal blogging.

Copy editor Matt Donegan was ousted in 2006 after then-Post Editor Don Flood got a call from a local radio producer asking if he approved of a MySpace blog written by Donegan. Flood told the producer he didn't know about it, and he immediately checked it out.

Flood quickly discovered why the blog had become radio fodder: Donegan had written a controversial post about the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, in which he complained about his black neighbors being loud the night prior and suggested King's assassin had been awakened by black people the night before he shot King. Flood also found that Donegan had been writing about people he dealt with professionally for the paper, expressing his personal feelings about them.

Within five minutes, Flood had called Donegan into his office and fired him. Donegan, who could not be reached for comment, cried foul, arguing his First Amendment rights were being violated and that what he wrote on his blog were jokes, but to no avail. In a column about the incident, the paper's publisher, Jim Flood Sr., wrote that while freedom of speech should be given "wide latitude," firing Donegan was "both reasonable and necessary because of what we see as damage to the paper's reputation and credibility if that association were allowed to continue."

According to current News Editor Jeff Brown, the paper still doesn't have an explicit policy regarding personal blogs, but the Donegan episode serves the same purpose for the newsroom staff, even though most of them joined the paper after he was gone.

"We don't have an actual written policy on it, although it's just understood that if you are going to have a blog, you separate your personal life from your professional life when you're posting on it," Brown says. "Even people who are here now and were not here then know that that is basically the company policy... If you have personal opinions on your work and who you deal with, you don't put that out there on a blog and identify yourself."

The lack of clear policies has helped create "a kind of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' mentality" among journalists thinking of starting blogs, says Mindy McAdams, Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of Florida and a new-media consultant for journalism outlets.

If guidelines on personal blogging aren't clear, McAdams says, journalists are unlikely to approach their editors prior to starting a blog because of a fear that they will be told they aren't allowed to do so. If they don't ask, they can start a blog and rely on their own judgment and integrity to determine whether what they are doing crosses any lines, McAdams says.

This approach is just one of a slew of factors that make knowing how many journalists are actually blogging an impossible feat.

According to a survey published by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in July 2006, some 12 million American adults have blogs. Of those surveyed, 44 percent said they have been published elsewhere and 34 percent considered their blog a form of journalism. But at the same time, 55 percent said they blog using a pseudonym, and many journalist bloggers keen on avoiding questions about their objectivity are likely among them.

Perhaps the most comprehensive count is that of Jonathan Dube of Cyberjournalist.net, a news and resource site for journalists. Dube, Cyberjournalist's founder, editor and publisher, began the list about six or seven years ago. "When I started it there were not very many journalists blogging. It was fairly new and unusual at the time and people were looking for examples, and so when I found examples I started to compile them into a list, which became very useful to a lot of early journalists" interested in the Internet, he says.

Dube, who is also president of the Online News Association and director of digital media for Canada's CBC News, says that, in the beginning, he was able to keep track of almost all journalists with personal blogs. Now, though, there are just too many, and in order to keep the list up to date, he converted it into a wiki about two years ago, allowing journalists to add their names. Dube says his count now sits at about 150 and grows by one to five each week. This obviously is not an official total, since some bloggers aren't aware of Dube's tally.

But when it comes down to it, the total count of blogging journalists isn't what's important. What's important is that more and more journalists are starting personal blogs without specific policies to help keep the bloggers and their employers out of trouble.

It's a reality that will inevitably lead to more instances of journalists being confused as to why they are suddenly out of a job – just like Pazienza. "I didn't think it was a fireable offense, I really didn't," Pazienza says, noting that he never mentioned his affiliation with CNN or wrote about his work for the network. "I thought, 'This is my right. I'm not acting as a representative of CNN. I'm just a producer, and in my spare time I do something for me.'"

Nadine Haobsh, who was shown the door by Ladies Home Journal and simultaneously lost a job offer from Seventeen magazine in 2005 after being outed as the author of a fashion and gossip blog (now called jolienadine.com/blog), also didn't think about the potential ramifications of having a blog.

Haobsh, now 27, says she started hers on a whim while working as an associate beauty editor at the Journal, and was unaware of any policies that would have made blogging a potential problem. "It was just sort of new and challenging and fun. It was a new baby to get excited about."

But within months, thousands of people were visiting her blog, where she anonymously dished celebrity gossip and insider opinions on the world of a beauty editor, including on topics such as getting free merchandise from cosmetics companies and getting flown around in private jets. It wasn't long before she was told by her editors at the Journal that the three weeks' notice she had put in prior to leaving for Seventeen magazine wouldn't be needed; she should leave immediately. Then representatives from Hearst called: Her job at Seventeen was gone, too.

Last year, organizers of the Online News Association's annual conference decided to address the lack of consensus on blogging policy after seeing chatter about the issue popping up all over its listserv. The group scheduled a panel discussion – the one moderated by Moor – devoted to starting "an outline of guidelines for personal publishing for newsrooms."

But according to Moor, no outline emerged. Not everyone agreed on how to approach such guidelines, or even if they were a good idea, Moor says. Instead, the major outcome of the panel was a more thorough recognition of just how disparate approaches to the issue are.

"It ended up being a one-day discussion, and it sparked a lot of interest, but it sort of landed there and never went any further. There was a concern that we might create a code that people would have to live by, and that would sort of exclude the diversity of opinion on the issue," Moor says. "My perception is that we're all over the map [with] what different organizations believe we should be doing."

According to Moor, the diversity of opinion mainly revolves around two "threads": one based on the First Amendment and the idea that organizations should take a hands-off approach to personal blogs, and one on traditional journalistic values and the idea that journalists should avoid the appearance of bias by keeping their personal ideas to themselves.

According to Tom Regan, like Moor a cochairman of the panel and a news blogger for National Public Radio, it's a difference of opinion that largely pits old-school media types against new-school, new-media types. And, from what he saw at the conference, Regan says, the most obvious determinant of where a journalist will stand is age. "The older journalists felt that it compromised your position as a reporter. Younger journalists felt it's a whole new era, we all use Facebook, we're all used to sharing everything with everyone, so why shouldn't we as journalists? It was a real big split."

That split should ring a bell: It's almost identical to the one over whether newspapers should host their own blogs. It's not that long ago that newspaper editors were arguing over the viability of hosting blogs and all the objectivity and editing concerns that go along with doing so (see "Blogging Between the Lines," December 2006/January 2007).

That argument didn't last long, though. The market made the decision pretty rapidly. Today, journalists are blogging for their employers in ever-increasing numbers. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2008 State of the News Media report, "Fully 95% of the top 100 newspapers included blogs from reporters in March 2007, up from 80% in 2006." What's more, the study found that "the number [of] unique visitors to blog pages on the 10 most popular newspaper sites grew 210% from December 2005 to December 2006," making up 13 percent of total traffic and drawing in a rapidly ballooning amount of advertising revenue. With editors across the country trying to take advantage of these realities, blogging for the boss has become almost ubiquitous in today's newsrooms.

But when it comes to journalists maintaining personal blogs, the marketplace isn't likely to help. Editors and executives are going to have to solve this split on their own. It's not going to be easy, as it pits two pillars of the journalism world against each other: freedom of speech and the duty to remain objective.

First, if the Newseum's 74-foot marble faηade in homage to the First Amendment is any clue, the idea that journalists aren't free to speak their minds creates concerns.

Second, there is a legitimate fear among editors of a public perception of bias. It's an area where the media don't have much margin for error: According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2008 State of the News Media report, 55 percent of Americans already think journalists are biased and 66 percent think they are one-sided.

As news organizations move forward in addressing personal blogs and other aspects of their journalists' digital footprints, they should keep Pazienza's story in the back of their minds. The fact that he got a lot of sympathy from people – even though, as he puts it, he "essentially napalmed the crap out of" his journalism bridges with what he did – says a lot.

Kevin Rector (krector@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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