A few years ago David Weinberger wrote that transparency is the new objectivity. The debate has continued ever since.
Is transparency the new objectivity? This question is closely related to The Future of News topic in which new media journalists such as Clay Shirky are pitted against traditionalists such as Dean Starkman. Even traditionalists have embraced new technology, some of them more willingly than others. The news world recognizes the use of new media tools is critical to the survival of the industry, but it’s no secret that newspapers and journalists are struggling with how to deal with social media.
The New York Times first issued its social media guidelines back in 2009, and the Washington Post soon followed. The Post especially took heat for its policy. The paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote about the rules in a post titled Do Ethics Guidelines Threaten Freewheeling Social Media? The Post’s rules prohibit “writing, tweeting or posting anything–including photographs or video–that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious, or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.”
But journalists are human beings, and the Internet makes it easy for readers to learn more about their backgrounds and personal views. That isn’t a bad thing. As Weinberger wrote in his essay, “…increasingly, credentials and authority work best for vouchsafing commoditized knowledge, the stuff that’s settled and not worth arguing about. At the edges of knowledge–in the analysis and contextualization that journalists nowadays tell us is their real value–we want, need, can have, and expect transparency. Transparency puts within the report itself a way for us to see what assumptions and values may have shaped it, and lets us see the arguments that the report resolved one way and not another. Transparency–the embedded ability to see through the published draft–often gives us more reason to believe a report than the claim of objectivity did.”
We can wonder if the social media guidelines of newspapers that are made in the interest of objectivity actually make journalists more reticent to use tools such as Facebook and Twitter.
Another issue is that of breaking news on social media. In February 2012, the BBC and Sky News gave orders that no reporter should break news on Twitter. A significant discussion could be found crisscrossing through cyberspace, much of it criticism about the twin policies.
Alfred Hermida, a BBC veteran journalist is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, explained why he thinks journalists SHOULD break news on Twitter on his blog Reportr.net. He writes: “The guidance for journalists not to break news on Twitter is based on a flawed understanding of today’s media ecosystem. It assumes that journalists still have a monopoly on breaking the news.”
Matthew Ingram of GigaOM writes in his post To the BBC and Others: Twitter Is Not Your Competition, “One of the realities of a world in which distribution of content–including news–has been fundamentally democratized is that the value of a ‘scoop’ or breaking news update is declining rapidly.”
Anthony de Rosa, the social media editor for Reuters, responded to the Sky News announcement by writing a post titled Sky News Longs for Victorian Internet, Applies Dark Age Social Policy. He writes, “Not only does this make for a staid and boring feed, but it also puts Sky News reporters at a significant competitive disadvantage to places like Reuters, where we have reporters verifying and tweeting out sources of news from all over the web and from many different news outlets.”
We live in a transformative age when people and industries struggle to adapt to the rapidly changing technology around them. Eventually these debates will give way to new debates about how to deal with new changes. Until then, expect more discussions on how social media fit into the way news is presented to the world.