Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger sent a memo to staffers on July 8 with the subject line "How Social Media Impacts Your Professional Life," suggesting new rules for journalists' private expressions of opinion. So far, the memo seems to have only been discussed on a German language media blog (Ruhr Barone, 7/22/10).
Jumping off from the cases of Dave Weigel and Octavia Nasr, who had to leave jobs at WashingtonPost.com and CNN, respectively, after their online communication became controversial, Schlesinger declares that "in a linked and searchable world, your online persona can reflect on how or even whether you can do your job." The editor writes: "If you give people cause or reason to doubt your ability to be a fair and objective journalist, that will necessarily impact on our ability to give you assignments or allow you on the file."
He then lays down in a series of bullet points "some lines we can draw"–and most of them are more or less common sense. Like, "Don't start or get involved in flame wars"–does anyone think that journalists hurling insults online is a good idea? Or, "Remember that the published word lasts forever"–that's self-evident. And "be prepared to stand behind what you say" is good advice for anyone.
One of the bulleted points seems rather broad, however: "Don't compromise your objectivity privately if you still want to use it professionally." What does it mean to "compromise your objectivity"–expressing any opinion on a subject that you cover? That would seem to be a rather draconian prohibition. But if that's not what it means, what kind of guidance is being offered here?
The memo's emphasis on "objectivity" reminds me that Matthew Yglesias has written some insightful posts on the subject lately, reminding us that this journalistic convention arose primarily a business strategy, and it's one that depends on some fairly odd ethical principles:
Something that pops up every time old/new media tensions emerge is the view–which I find, frankly, bizarre–common in the newspaper world that pretending to not have opinions makes your work better. One underlying presumption here is the odd notion that the ideal reporter would be someone who actually doesn't have opinions, as if "the facts" were purely transparent and could be merely observed, processed and then regurgitated into inverted pyramid form without passing through the muck of "judgment" or "thoughts about the world."
Then the secondary presumption is that you can somehow make things real by pretending. Like if you want to express judgments about politicians in conversations with your friends, that's fine, but you have to never publish them…. Somehow keeping the views secret is supposed to be a close substitute for not having them. But of course having a secret is totally different from having nothing. The conceit that make-believe is just as good as the real thing only arises because the real thing is impossible to achieve. That should make you rethink why you would deem it desirable, but instead leads to the odd conclusion that the best journalist is a consistently dishonest one.
Here's the full text of the Reuters memo:
Two recent incidents in the United States have shown how hard it is to keep our social media personae separate from our professional lives.
First David Weigel had to resign from the Washington Post after inflammatory comments he made on a supposedly closed journalists' mailing list were made public. Then, CNN fired its senior editor for Middle Eastern Affairs, Octavia Nasr, after she tweeted "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot," a comment that immediately called into question her ability to cover her subject objectively.
Now I don't want to get involved in other organisations' personnel issues. But I've repeatedly said and believe very strongly that in a linked and searchable world, your online persona can reflect on how or even whether you can do your job.
If you give people cause or reason to doubt your ability to be a fair and objective journalist, that will necessarily impact on our ability to give you assignments or allow you on the file.
We are in the early days of social media and there is no question that the journalistic landscape is changing. But there are some lines we can draw:
* Don't start or get involved in flame wars–arguments using heated language and personal attacks. As a journalist, rely on facts and reasoned arguments, not on invective. I don't care how angry you might be at a person or a company or even a country; just don't do it.
* Don't compromise your objectivity privately if you still want to use it professionally.
* Remember that the published word lasts forever and can go everywhere. A tweet by a journalist is simply not the same as a joke shared over the dinner table.
* Anything that can be forwarded probably will be at some point, so be prepared to stand behind what you say–its content and its tone.
Editor In Chief, Reuters