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Social Media Guidelines Renew "Transparency" Debate

By Andy Alexander

The Post’s recently issued guidelines governing participation in social media have renewed a spirited debate in the industry about the level of transparency by journalists.

The policies are restrictive in that they caution Post reporters and editors against writing anything on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn that might be seen as showing bias or taking sides in public debates. The rationale is that The Post will achieve maximum credibility on its news pages through maintaining neutrality.

But there are a number of respected journalists who believe otherwise and argue that that if journalists shared their views on subjects they cover, readers would trust them more.

One of them is Dan Gillmor, a provocative expert on new media at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. We hold different views; I’m a traditionalist on neutrality and endorse the intent of The Post’s guidelines. But in researching last Sunday’s column on social media, I had several exchanges with Dan and thought his views were stimulating about the entire question of newsroom transparency. Here are passages from a lengthy e-mail he sent me, which eventually became a post on his Mediactive blog:

“Transparency takes several forms. I strongly believe that news organizations have a duty to explain to their audiences how they do their journalism, and why. Even the organizations that claim to have no world view should be telling people the 'how' -- though too few do -- because they'd help readers/viewers/listeners/etc. understand what it takes to do good journalism, assuming they actually do good journalism. It baffles me that an industry that wants to be perceived as better than the newcomers to the craft doesn't grasp this, but it clearly doesn't.

“The 'why' is more nuanced, especially for big organizations (at least in America). The best journalistic bloggers are much more open on this; their world views and motivations are typically crystal clear, and their audiences, even people who disagree with those world views, can refract their own understanding of the topics through those lenses.

“I wish U.S. news organizations would drop the pretense of being impartial and having no world view. There's no conflict with having a world view and doing great journalism. When I go to London I buy the Guardian and the Telegraph. Both do excellent journalism. The Guardian covers the world from a slightly left-of-center standpoint, and the Telegraph from a slightly right-of-center stance. I read both and figure I'm triangulating on the essence of (British establishment) reality. Even if I read just one, the paper's overt stance gives me a better way to understand what's happening than if it pretended to be impartial. And -- crucially -- both of them run articles (and lots of op-eds) that either directly challenge their world views or, more routinely, include facts and context that runs contrary to what the editors and proprietors might wish was true. Relentless journalism's independence of thought means, in particular, being willing or even eager to learn why your core assumptions could be wrong.

“The Post had a profoundly obvious world view during the run-up to the Iraq War: pro-administration, pro-war, period. No one really denies that anymore. I'm guessing that great editors would have done a better job of covering the opposing views (and facts) if the paper's world view had been stated as a matter of policy. )

“When it comes to individual views and specifics about individual reporters and editors, I grant that this does get a bit more tricky. I'm not suggesting you post reporters' tax returns. I would suggest that when something they are, or believe, might be relevant to a reader that it's OK, and maybe important, to let the reader know. (A religion reporters' faith, as in what religion or sect he follows [or absence of faith, for that matter] seems relevant to me.)

“And I'd strongly suggest that while a random opinion or quip might be bothersome, letting journalists be human beings would have a better outcome in the end. Telling staff to hide all opinions doesn't cause readers to trust you more. It tells them you're hiding something, because they aren't stupid.”

Blogger Steve Buttry, the former editor of The Gazette and GazetteOnline in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also believes greater transparency by journalists can result in greater credibility. “I share some uneasiness with the opinionated nature of a lot of (Twitter) tweets,” he said in an interview. While not endorsing “sharp partisan opinions,” he believes credibility can be enhanced when journalists tell a bit about where they’re coming from when writing about things they cover.

During his many years as Post executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr. didn’t even vote because he felt the act of casting a ballot showed a bias (albeit a private one). Marcus Brauchli, who succeeded him about a year ago, said he is registered as an independent and votes. But, like Downie, he is a traditionalist on newsroom neutrality.

“We shouldn’t lean in one direction or another direction,” Brauchli said of Post reporters and editors. In an interview, he did not criticize those who believe otherwise or who might want to position themselves somewhere on the left or right along the political spectrum. Rather, he said, “that’s not right for us.” He said it would affect access by Post reporters in Washington’s highly politicized environment, where news sources often refuse to talk to those they believe hold political beliefs contrary to their own. And, Brauchli said, being overtly partial could negatively impact The Post’s readership.

While I agree with The Post’s guidelines, I also agree with Buttry, Gillmor and others who believe the there needs to be robust internal discussion about where Post journalists should draw the line in comments on social networks. In the days immediately after the guidelines were issued, some Post staffers told me privately that the guidelines would make them more cautious in tweeting or posting to Facebook. But since then, others have said they already have developed a comfort level with the guidelines.

“I predict this will sort itself out,” media writer Howard Kurtz, an avid social media participant, said last Thursday in his “Media Notes” blog. “There was a time when newspapers were reluctant to have their reporters go on TV for fear they would say something compromising. Now they have PR departments trying to help the bookers. A year from now, this flap will seem quaint.”

Columnist Gene Weingarten, who also uses Twitter, added that the guidelines “boil down to three words: Use common sense. I have no problem with that stricture.”

“The guy who covers national politics for The Post knows perfectly well that he cannot say, in a Washington Post chat, that he thinks all Democrats are dishonest,” Weingarten said in an e-mail. “Why? Because it would undermine the credibility of anything he writes or had written, and thus embarrass the Post and open the newspaper up to charges of being biased...It's a matter of appearances, and appearances matter.

“Well, he's not a different human being when he's tweeting on Twitter. He's still a Post writer. Members of the very same public can grab what he writes on Twitter and still use it to impeach his credibility as a writer for The Post.”

“It's not an unreasonable abridgment of my right to free speech that, in return for giving me this platform, The Post expects me to publicly behave in a way that doesn't bring disrepute to the paper.”

“What the Post needs to realize -- and what I think they do realize, given the general nature of those guidelines -- is that the protocols of behavior in social media sites are not identical to the protocols of behavior in the pages of The Post,” he wrote. “These boundaries were already slightly moved a bit when the paper went online: I have said things in my chat that I would not write in The Post -- but they are not things that bring disrepute to The Post. They are things that adapted to a new platform with more freewheeling rules.”

By Andy Alexander  | October 5, 2009; 4:10 PM ET
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Posted by: lingiait | October 5, 2009 9:41 PM | Report abuse

The ombudsman does not seem to have any impact to correct the continuous grammatical error in prominence in the Washington Post. Notwithstanding my e-mails in the past weeks to the ombudsman and current corrections; still the same grammatical error which has graced page two of the Washington Post in the past, was still present in today's Washington Post, page two, October 4, 2009. It It is ironic that the grammatical error is made right above the column which assures readers that the Washington Post is committed to correct errors. Why are you ignoring what you profess?
.It Ït seems that this does not apply to your page 2 where you have written consistently over the past weeks that one could go online t o see who " the President has meet ..." May , I suggest that a proper English sentence, the proper wording ought to be "the President has met ... " It is regrettable that i have to read a paper where some o your editors are unable to write a proper sentence

Posted by: lejeune421 | October 6, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

At the end of the day, all you can do is try to stay positive. The numbers work out and tell a story without words. The Post was airborne at last check +3.76 (0.82%), so keep thinking up. I have 3 things that need done, so gotta run. Have a good day!

Posted by: Dermitt | October 6, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Keep patting yourself on the back about the totally trivial “social media” issue. Why not just have Post employees state on their home page that the views expressed are their personal views and do not necessarily represent that of the Washington Post?

Meanwhile, the Opinion page remains a cesspool of discredited neo-conservative opinions, plus people who have obvious possible conflicts of interest expressing an opinion without either they or the Post revealing the possible bias. Apparently, this is something that you are not even allowed to comment on, since you refer complaints to Fred Hiatt, the person many of us see as the source of the problem

Posted by: hgillette | October 7, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

So the guy who covers national politics for The Post can think all Democrats are dishonest, but cannot say it in a Washington Post chat. This policy does not give the Post any credibility. All it gives them is plausible deniability.

I do appreciate the reposting of Gillmor's point of view.

Posted by: imback | October 7, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander...You cannot even get people to comment on your blog. You have a Chinese posting, an inane letter about grammar that is inanely edited, and a half dozen comments.

1. You need to stop pandering to the perceived ocean of right wing readers whose approval you servilely chase, and

2. You need to write about important issues.

You are a great succesor to Miss Howell. That is not a compliment.

Posted by: wapoisrightwingrag | October 8, 2009 12:57 AM | Report abuse

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