Questions and answers about journalists’ opinions in social media

Posted on February 6, 2012

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by Steve Buttry

An email (slightly edited) from a Digital First Media journalist last week raised a couple questions I hear frequently relating to social media:

I asked an important question at a staff meeting today, and the city editor suggested I e-mail you. It has to do with tweeting and/or posting opinions.

As a reporter (I know, you like the term journo), it is ingrained in me not to reflect my opinions. Last weekend, I scanned Twitter off and on and found many news outlets tweeting about the Occupy Oakland protest going on. A TV van was damaged, a flag burned at City Hall, etc.

My first impulse was to tweet my personal gut response: that I didn’t understand protests and flag burning in my generation and I don’t now. I also wanted to tweet that once Occupy got violent, that ended the argument for me.

But I had misgivings about whether I should post any kind of opinion at all, so I refrained.

So, is there a guideline about this? I thought about asking via Twitter, but obviously that wouldn’t work.

My response (also slightly edited):

I’ll start by reminding you (or informing you, if you haven’t seen them yet) of John Paton’s rules for employee use of social media. John does not mean by these rules that anything goes, just that we want our use of social media to be guided by good journalism ethics (rather than specific social media rules) and don’t want our exploration of new tools to be inhibited by restrictive rules based on fear and ignorance.

Starting from there, my response is based on three main principles:

  1. Opinions are not fundamentally unethical journalism.
  2. Opinions matter, and the place of opinions in journalism is being reassessed on many fronts.
  3. Decisions about using Twitter should be guided by good journalism ethics, not by special rules or practices for Twitter.

We’ll take them in order:

The ethics of opinions. Even in traditional journalism, opinions are fine for editorial writers and columnists, but can be troublesome or forbidden for reporters and some editors. So we’ve always viewed opinion differently depending on a particular journalist’s circumstances.

However, in our view of which journalists can express opinions and which can’t, we ignore lots of exercise of opinion by so-called “objective” journalists. Any reporter or editor forms opinions and acts on them every day. We call them news judgments and pretend that they are objective, but they are highly subjective and vary widely from journalist to journalist. In the execution of a single routine story, editors and reporters act on at least the following opinions:

  • That this story is more important, interesting or timely than other stories the reporter could be working on that day.
  • Which of many possible angles to the story the reporter should pursue.
  • Which of many possible sources the reporter should interview.
  • Which facts, quotes, etc. should be included in the story and which should be omitted.
  • Which piece of information deserves mention in the lead.
  • How to cast the lead.
  • Which words best tell the story.
  • Which fact(s) merit mention in the headline.
  • Which words best summarize the story in the headline.
  • How to play the story.

That’s at least 10 opinions (some of them exercised multiple times) for just a routine story. They are subjective decisions upon which good professional journalists regularly disagree. I know because I have argued with colleagues over every one of those points.

Varying opinions about opinions. I’ve worked reporting beats where I kept my opinions completely to myself, and I’ve worked a reporting beat where I had a weekly column and expressed opinions regularly. And I’ve seen the benefits of both approaches.

When I covered the issue of abortion for the Omaha World-Herald in the 1990s, I decided I needed to be diligent about never expressing or even slightly indicating an opinion about abortion to any source or colleague ever. I earned the trust of extremists on both sides of one of the most polarizing issues of our time, in large part by persistently using neutral language (difficult to do on that topic) and by taking a completely straight, neutral approach in every interview and every story. And I did a lot of stories that plowed a lot of ground on that issue: on-the-record interviews with women with pregnancy issues who had undergone abortions and others who had decided not to; an analysis of the finances of an abortion clinic; profiles of extremist protesters and abortion doctors.

When I covered religion for the Des Moines Register from 1998 to 2000, I wrote a weekly column, providing commentary and sometimes personal perspective on religion issues in the news, sometimes on the very topics I was reporting on. I heard on multiple occasions from sources with whom I disagreed that the columns actually helped me build credibility with them. They would read a column that expressed a viewpoint and then expected to see that viewpoint reflected in my stories. But my stories treated them fairly, and that built my credibility with them. This isn’t a unique experience: David Broder covered politics as a reporter and columnist for decades.

I’m not saying which approach is better. I believe my experience shows that each approach has validity.

Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media and a digital journalism pioneer, has proposed replacing the ethic of objectivity with an ethic that combines transparency about opinions with accuracy, fairness and thoroughness in reporting.

Jay Rosen (a member of the Digital First Media advisory committee) says the effort to maintain objectivity has led to a “view from nowhere” approach that is outdated and harmful to journalism.

I’m not saying we should adopt either Dan’s or Jay’s approach, but I think each makes a better argument than most can make for objectivity. If the argument for objectivity is that it builds trust and credibility, take a look at polls reflecting how the public trusts journalists and tell me how that’s working.

I think this is a good discussion for journalists to have on blogs like mine and in newsrooms like yours, and I don’t think we necessarily have to decide that one approach is right for everyone. What I do think is that each newsroom should discuss these issues as a group and each editor-reporter combo or editor-editor combo should discuss what’s the right approach for that journalist, and behave accordingly.

Special rules for Twitter. If you and your editor decide (or if you disagree and your editor says that’s the way it is) that it’s inappropriate for you to express opinions (or to express them in a particular slice of national or community issues that you cover or might cover), then it’s inappropriate to express opinions on Twitter or Facebook or any other social media. But it’s no more inappropriate to express the opinions on social media than it would be in a bar or on a television appearance or a panel discussion in the community or in news copy.

Frankly, I think your observations about Occupy (and your internal discussions about whether and how to express such opinions) could make a good column, blog and/or series of tweets. But, if you actually cover Occupy, I would also understand and respect the decision that it would not be appropriate for you to express the opinions. (And it might be appropriate for you to flag your editor about your strong opinions, so he or she can watch for how they might influence your coverage.) But if no one’s occupying your community, or if you wouldn’t be the likely reporter to cover an occupation if it happened, I would also understand and respect the decision that it was fine for you to tweet opinions about Occupy.

One last point: If your editor and you decide it’s best not to express opinions (at all or on a particular issue such as Occupy), that doesn’t mean you can’t show some personality in social media. You can show some humor (some might be inappropriate), you can tweet about your family (as I did last week about the birth of my granddaughter), you can tweet sports loyalties (perhaps not if you’re a sports writer), you can tweet about other interests such as gardening, travel, etc.

I do feel strongly that social media demand being social and that means showing yourself as a person. Again, I don’t feel that’s unique to social media, though. I built strong relationships with sources by relating to them as people. We talked about our kids and our interests. We trash-talked about sports. When I interviewed people about religion, they asked about my own faith and religious experience and I answered their questions.

Thanks for asking. I have blogged a lot about objectivity, opinion and personality in journalism and social media. I hope some of these posts are helpful in your discussions and considerations of this issue:

Digital First journalists: What we value

If journalists were objective, Roger Maris would be in the Baseball Hall of Fame

Journalists’ Code of Ethics: Time for an Update?

Humanity is more important and honest than objectivity for journalists

Objectivity and neutrality aren’t the only ways to protect journalists’ credibility

The Heart: One of journalism’s best tools