Have blogs and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook changed the way journalists should interact with the public?
The Washington Post recently issued a set of rules on how its staffers should behave on the sites. One key guideline stated that reporters should keep their personal opinions on political issues out of their tweets and status updates to preserve the neutrality that Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli says is "essential to maintaining our credibility."
The Post's rules promptly drew fire in the blogosphere. As Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote, some people found them "preachy and overly restrictive, arguing that they will deter staffers from participating in audience-building social media," and represented "old thinking" that undermines what could be the key to the survival of "legacy" news outlets like the Post.
Not at all. The Post has it exactly right. In an era in which newspapers are frequently accused of biased reporting, and in which they do not fare well in polls on their credibility, anything that undermines credibility should be rigorously avoided. It is not just journalism that suffers when credibility is questioned. The very basis of the business model for modern newspapers rests on the theory that what newspapers report is factual and that opinions are segregated to the opinion pages.
Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, made an insightful comment recently on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to the effect that there were three "happy accidents" our nation's Founders did not foresee: one, public schools; two, the universal right to vote; and three, reporting. Public schools, of course, brought almost total literacy compared with the illiteracy prevalent in Colonial days. Voting back then was pretty much restricted to white landowners, and while it took the nation 200 years to extend the vote to renters, women and minorities, it finally got there.
Reporting, too, had an uneven history, starting with almost none in Colonial days, when most newspapers were mouthpieces for the political parties and special interests that owned them. As Lemann pointed out, printers gradually evolved into independent newspaper owners who hired reporters to gather news -- facts -- and created a vital social function for a democracy.
The transformation to our modern-day newspapers, which at least aspire to neutrality in reporting, was not rapid and not always noble. For example, in 1968, readers of the Republican-leaning Pulliam newspapers in Indiana would not know that Democrat Robert F. Kennedy was in the state campaigning for his party's presidential nomination. The history of the nation's newspapers is replete with similar examples of nonfeasance and, sadly, outright malfeasance.
Still, honest reporting has become the hallmark, and major strength, of today's newspapers. And the credibility of newspapers and their reporters is more important than ever in light of the strident advocacy from left and right that is so prominent on talk radio and cable television and in the blogosphere. While it sometimes masquerades as journalism, that is not journalism, just a return to the advocacy rants of Colonial days.
The contretemps at the Post was sparked by two tweets by Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti. Tweet #1: "We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad." Tweet #2: "Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from 'standing up too quickly." How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail."
In pre-Twitter days, what he did would have been akin to standing up at a public meeting to express his views, which would have been a firing offense at any decent newspaper. While comments were made electronically, on the Internet, that does not change the fundamental violation of the neutrality that every responsible journalist must aspire to.
(Narisetti later conceded his tweets had created a "perception problem" for the paper and bid farewell to Twitter. Alexander described them as "pretty innocuous.")
So, no, the emergence of social networking has not changed the rules on how journalists should interact with the public. As important as it has become in this era of falling circulation for a newspaper to reach out to readers, to engage them in discussions about its mission and what it might do better to serve readers, nothing about the new venues changes the old rules about a reporter's obligation to be, and appear to be, neutral. From that flows credibility, and credibility is the basic reason for a newspaper's business success.