A funny thing happens to many journalists after they leave their newspaper jobs: To judge from their Facebook and Twitter postings, they develop political leanings for the first time in their lives.
As one of those people, I can assure you that this transformation has nothing to do with a sudden interest in marginal tax rates, labor law or military spending. It has everything to do with getting out from under the social-media policies that many news outlets think will insulate them from charges of bias.
These rules go beyond traditional restrictions on political activism that, for example, prohibit reporters from giving money to candidates. I don’t have a huge problem with their logic. Asking those who report on history to refrain from pushing it in one direction has a Prime Directive-esque clarity–and the no-donations rule provides a convenient brush-off when people ask for money.
But with the advent of social media and the unhelpful trend of politicizing everything, the people running many newsrooms have decided that it’s not enough to quash overt political engagement. You now can’t do things that suggest you’ve come to a partisan conclusion about an issue, either on a public forum like Twitter or in the relative privacy of your Facebook profile. This principle is enshrined in statements like this, from the Associated Press’s just-revised guidelines (PDF):
Everyone who works for AP must be mindful that opinions he or she expresses may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news. AP employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum and must not take part in demonstrations in support of causes or movements. This includes liking and following pages and groups that are associated with these causes or movements.
My old employer’s current social-media guidelines include a similar restriction: “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.” The authors of these rules weren’t kidding around; my smart, perceptive colleague Dave Weigel had to resign after his gripes on a private mailing list about people he’d encountered covering politics leaked out.
The same thinking lay behind the memo allowing staffers to attend last summer’s Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear if they restricted themselves to “observing” but not “participating.” Again, rules like that can have consequences: Radio producer Caitlin Curran was fired from her freelance job with WNYC and Public Radio International’s The Takeaway after being photographed carrying a sign at an Occupy Wall Street rally.
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, whose earlier, accurate denunciation of crooked Wall Street behavior was quoted in the sign Curran carried, wrote a lengthy post titled “Stop Forcing Journalists to Conceal Their Views From the Public.” In it, he noted the related absurdities of prohibiting journalists from making correct statements and of ignoring that accusations of media bias are often a political tool wielded by manipulators like Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe who have a history of doctoring evidence to suit their charges.
The phrase you’ll often see in debates about this topic is “The View From Nowhere.” As popularized by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, it describes a particular, peculiar sales pitch: Trust us to be fair because we don’t have a view of our own on this subject.
Now, I don’t think that most authors of these social-media policies actually believe such a goal is possible. I never got the sense that my bosses at the Post wanted us to achieve some Buddhist renunciation of political desire; they just didn’t want us to get the paper in trouble. Nor did I hear from anybody about the leftward tilt of my Facebook friends list (although–cliche alert–some of my best friends are Republicans, I live in a heavily Democratic area, I’ve had one friend unsuccessfully contest a statewide Democratic primary, and another just launched her campaign for a county office) or my occasionally lenient interpretations of the Post’s rules (maybe it helped to have a columnist’s license to spout off).
But the practical effect of these rules is the same: To paint a portrait of journalists who never reach their own conclusions about the issues they cover.
I’m sorry to be so blunt, but if you believe that, you’re an idiot.
Like anybody else with a functioning brain, we think about the things we learn and form our own judgments about them. (See my disclosures page to read about mine.) What makes us journalists is not some magical firewall in our heads that blocks after-hours contemplation of our reporting, but a willingness to look for evidence that disproves whatever theory we’ve been working on in a story. We fail our obligation to the truth not by developing opinions, but by letting them divert our research.
Or as GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram asked in an astute post about the AP’s inane social-media rules: “Why must reporters pretend to be automatons?”
These policies look like journalism’s answer to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They cost good people their jobs and they damage the institutions responsible–you can’t be surprised to see the Pew Research Center find mainstream media outlets’ Twitter presences consist largely of self-promotional links, with little interaction with readers or pointing to outside sources, when many of the reporters involved have been fenced in by their employers.
That’s one reason to dump these rules. Here’s another, better one: They sell readers a fictional view of journalists, and news organizations should not be in the fiction business.
Tech-columnist-turned-media-critic Dan Gillmor recently suggested a simpler, saner social-media policy:
1. Be human.
2. Be honorable.
3. Don’t embarrass the company.
There. Was that so hard?