It was an unquestioned principle, engraved in granite: Journalists should not reveal their views on political and social issues. No bumper stickers, no volunteering for candidates, no marching for causes. Any hint of partisan affiliation was deemed a threat to credibility.
But does that uncompromising stance make any sense in the freewheeling digital age, marked as it is by the impassioned political debate of the blogosphere and an almost religious commitment to transparency?
The advent of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, often an amalgam of the professional and the personal, has pushed the issue to the fore at traditional news organizations. Many news outlets see social networking as an essential element of their survival strategy (see "The Distribution Revolution"), and some are drafting guidelines and policies for how their journalists should behave on Facebook and Twitter.
To many editors in the mainstream media, the traditional taboo against expressing political views remains essential, regardless of the venue. "It never hurts to keep in the forefront of your mind the fact that we're all expected to check our personal and political opinions at the door when we're in the newsroom doing our jobs," says Vernon Loeb, a deputy managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. To do otherwise, he adds, can create the impression that a journalist is biased.
But others see that as a complete misreading of the emerging media world, if not a formula for irrelevance. They say that transparency will actually strengthen the position of the MSM. A restrictive policy "sabotages the kind of intimate connection with readers that Twitter and other services make possible, and that newspapers desperately need," James Poniewozik wrote on Tuned In, his blog on Time.com.
Debate over the issue intensified in late September after the Washington Post issued guidelines for using social media. The Post policy, which had been in the works for some time, was implemented in the wake of a couple of tweets by Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti.
In one, Narisetti wrote, "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." In the other, he wrote, "Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from 'standing up too quickly.' How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail."
After Narisetti's tweets were questioned by Post executives, he shut down his Twitter account. He said that the tweets were simply personal observations but added, "I also realize that..seeing that the managing editor of The Post is weighing in on this, it's a clear perception problem."
"My role as managing editor meant that the line between any personal and professional opinion was thin and always open to creative (mis)interpretation," Narisetti explained in an e-mail interview. "Tweeting was more of a personal use of social tools and not professional..I figured I could live without the distraction it might cause, for now."
The new guidelines state that "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."
In explaining the policy to readers, Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote that Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli "thinks The Post is more believable if it is seen as impartial." He quoted Brauchli as saying, "'it's been consistently shown in our readership [surveys] that people value us for our independence. We shouldn't lean in one direction or another direction. Our central tenet is that we don't let our personal views influence or guide our presentation of information or coverage of the issues.' " Brauchli did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Narisetti says, "I don't blame some readers who might not believe that church and state routinely works in newsrooms such as the Post newsroom--even when it does. So our guidelines try to give our newsroom a suggested roadmap on embracing social media that reinforces our role as a trusted and independent news brand."
The Post policy touched off a flurry of ridicule in the blogosphere. But the paper is hardly alone in its effort to regulate online behavior. Many news organizations have issued social networking rules, and many others are drafting them. (See "The Limits of Control," September/October.) Many codes include prohibitions on expressing political views.
And to many editors, the need for that ban is clear-cut. "I think that the same guidelines for reporters would hold true in social networking or any other ways they conduct themselves in their life outside of work," says Martin Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and president of the American Society of News Editors. At the Journal Sentinel, editors have discussed enacting a policy similar to the Post's. The Milwaukee paper has informal guidelines on the subject but nothing in writing.
"I think it's the same way as we don't want reporters putting bumper stickers on their cars for candidates," Kaiser says. He acknowledges that reporters have political views, but says the problem with broadcasting them is that it can give readers the idea that the journalist's outlook might be shaping the story. He worries that sources would be unwilling to speak to reporters who have publicly criticized them.
David Boardman, executive editor of the Seattle Times, rejects the notion that "the only way to be an honest broker is to be transparent about your political views." As professionals in the newsroom, journalists are expected to completely "put aside their own political views as they pursue truth," he says. This includes expression of views on social networking sites.
Boardman says that while it's true that no one is entirely objective, it is "entirely possible for a good journalist to go at a story with an open mind and curiosity and a desire to report the facts," and that when this isn't possible, the reporter should ask to be taken off a story.
The Seattle paper has put together a committee made up of staffers at various levels to draft social networking guidelines. "Clearly, it's tricky ground," Boardman says. While "we need, as journalists and as businesses, to be in the social media, we want at the same time to protect and preserve the values that we hold dear and that we think hold a lot of value for our readers and Web users. It's tricky, relatively new ground to navigate and we want to make sure that we have a shared understanding."
But to critics, the codes and the guidelines are out of step with the realities of today's journalism. After all, many readers, viewers and visitors are quite skeptical about the media. Being up-front about their opinions will make journalists more believable, not less, according to one school of thought.
"No one with any common sense believes what they read, listen to or watch 100 percent, but the more evidence I see of a media creator being transparent, the more that leads me to trust that they're trying to get it right and fixing it when they don't," says Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. On his blog, Mediactive, Gillmor wrote that when news organizations are transparent, "So long as you do excellent journalism, greater transparency will lead readers to believe you less--that is they'll understand better why it's impossible to get everything right all the time – but they'll trust you more."
Poniewozik takes a similar view. "If you slant your coverage, hiding your beliefs does not make your work better," he wrote. "If your work is fair, sharing your beliefs does not make it less so (on the contrary, it provides your reader more information to keep you honest). But by perpetuating a fiction no one believes anyway, newspapers don't make themselves trustworthy; they just seem phony."
"Good luck," was Geneva Overholser's reaction when she heard about news organizations' efforts to regulate social networking behavior. Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, had a long career in traditional media--editor of the Des Moines Register, New York Times editorial writer, Washington Post ombudsman. But she thinks the media world she came up in has changed irrevocably.
"The old idea was that we would avoid even the appearance of bias," she says. "I'm not entirely sure that this was ever very persuasive to our readers--it meant a great deal to us, but I'm not very sure that readers ever really
The days of preventing journalists from expressing opinions, she says, "are gone. Whether that's good or bad, it's impossible to do if you want to live on the Web. Journalism organizations have to be able to live on the Web, or they're not going to be able to do reporting there. This is so much more complex than the Post would wish that it be."
As a former Post ombudsman, she's familiar with reader allegations of bias in the newspaper. But, she says, "It was easier to put this kind of policy into effect in the old days," adding, "it's now virtually impossible, because even e-mail can become public. Are we going to be saying to our reporters, 'You mustn't have any hint of your own thoughts about policy or anything to make you look slightly left-leaning or right-leaning in e-mail because people can use this and decide that we're not valid?'
"In the old days, we really were the gatekeepers, and if we said we aren't going to say the names of rape victims..we could make that come true. Well, newspaper editors can't do that anymore. We have to exist in a broader, more democratized, sort of rougher edged and less neat and controlled world."
As for the social networking codes at the Post and other news outlets, "This is not going to be able to stand long," she says. "...If it does the Post [and other news organizations] will be greatly set back in [their] endeavors to become part of this new, and much wider, more diverse, democratic world."