Impartiality in a networked world

The delicate act of balancing journalismThe New York Times has published a policy document on the use of social networking sites by its employees, and it reveals the edgy nature of life in the trenches of social networking for people who work in traditional media. It also reveals the real life disconnect that old media feels it must maintain in order to be “impartial,” something that’s seen more and more these days as a problematic dinosaur in a world where trust of friends vastly exceeds trust of institutions.

Assuming impartiality transcends all, there’s a lot of common sense in the document, such as don’t take political positions or “don’t editorialize,” if you work in the news department. The paper also rightly notes that “personal blogs and “tweets” represent you to the outside world just as much as an 800-word article does.” It advises caution when joining groups, because it might suggest partiality to a cause.

Like most traditional media companies, the policy assumes a defensive posture.

Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill — whether it’s text, photographs, or video. That includes things you recommend on TimesPeople or articles you post to Facebook and Digg, content you share with friends on MySpace, and articles you recommend through TimesPeople. It can also include things posted by outside parties to your Facebook page, so keep an eye on what appears there. Just remember that we are always under scrutiny by magnifying glass and that the possibilities of digital distortion are virtually unlimited, so always ask yourself, could this be deliberately misconstrued or misunderstood by somebody who wants to make me look bad?

This is typical old school journalism, and something with which we can all identify. We’ve never been able to freely march in the parades of controversial causes or picket on behalf of sides in controversial issues (unless, of course, it’s about our employment). But social networking is a very different animal, and one that demands another look at the traditions and canons of the news business. Why? Because a social network is not a mass market.

Moreover, as the media disruptions continue, new values are coming into focus — concepts like honesty, transparency and authenticity — that don’t presuppose the artificiality of objectivity. Is the audience, for example, better served by obscuring the biases of the writer or by having them front-and-center? Will it ever be all right to just be yourself in covering the news? These are tough questions with no easy answers, but if we’re going to begin to address them, social networking is a logical place to start.

In a world where connections are everything, The Times policy suggests that “friending” certain people is problematic.

Another problem worth thinking about is how careful to be about Facebook “friends.” Can we write about someone who is a “friend?”

The answer depends on whether a “friend” is really a friend. In general, being a “friend” of someone on Facebook is almost meaningless and does not signify the kind of relationship that could pose a conflict of interest for a reporter or editor writing about that person. But if a “friend” is really a personal friend, it would.

Should we avoid consenting to be Facebook “friends” of people in the news we cover? Mostly no, but the answer can depend on the situation. A useful way to think about this is to imagine whether public disclosure of a “friend” could somehow turn out to be an embarrassment that casts doubt on our impartiality.

So it’s okay to be friends with people; it’s the public disclosure of that friendship that could be the issue.

The statement that one is impartial is the greatest evidence that one is not, for the best anybody can do is try. Human beings intuitively know this, and so it is that the people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA) rank trust in the press right there with trust in car salesmen. After all, if you need rules to assert your impartiality, then you’re acknowledging that your employees default to partiality. This is old media’s greatest challenge in the face of disruptions that aren’t bound by these rules.

The ethical behavior of professional journalism in a networked world is something that demands examination, because, despite the efforts of those to the contrary, the network is not a mass. There is no stage where media companies can perform, because the focus of the attention of those in the network is on each other. Therefore, there’s no need to protect the stage, and this is a difficult concept to grasp. The network is participatory, interactive and tribal by nature. You’re either in or you’re out; there is no fence-sitting. To artificially manipulate your place in the network is fraught with danger, for as easily as you can be “friended,” you can be “defriended.” Truth will out.

But the real rub is this: at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’re all going to approach a fork in the road. One path is the old; the other path is the new. Our world is either networked or it is not, and which will we choose? If our choice is to stay outside in the name of impartiality, our observations will be skewed and we’ll risk not only a greater disconnect with the people we’re trying to serve as journalists but also complete irrelevance. If we enter in, the sacred canons of journalistic ethics — which were designed to protect the institution in a mass marketing world — will have to be modified or left at the door.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)


  1. “It advises caution when joining groups, because it might suggest partiality to a cause.”

    The NYT? Partial to a cause? Yikes!

    C’mon. Consider their implicit partiality.It would be just a lot better for everyone if they got it out on the table, do really good reporting of the facts they find. Put those facts together into a compelling argument/narrative.

    Every English major , scientist and most literate people these days understand that “objectivity” is, in principle, not achievable. By clinging to a world where top of column 8 defined “the news that was fit to look at first.” they are just blind to the new value they could create. Makes sense because who would ever want to give up the power to define objectivity for the rest of us.

    But please, NYT, get through the hubris already. It’s going to make you the Lehman brothers of the newspaper world.


  1. […] — Terry Heaton writes smartly about social-networking policies for newspapers. […]

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