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WaPo’s social media policy: So it’s OK to be biased…just don’t talk about it?

September 28, 2009

I know the Washington Post isn’t the first major newspaper to develop a not-too-well-thought-out social media policy, but it’s the latest, it’s one that I’ve actually paid attention to and I’m kind of confused about what it actually means.

My problem with the policy is that it seems to treat a symptom while completely ignoring the larger issue. The gist seems to be, as WaPo blogger Rob Pegoraro puts it, “don’t do something that will make reasonable people think you’re biased.” Doesn’t that statement itself admit some level of bias? Besides that, don’t do something to make people think you’re biased? Someone, somewhere—yes, perhaps even a “reasonable person”—will always think you’re biased (which just makes that statement seem like a thinly veiled jab at “crazies” who don’t trust the Post).

The cat’s already out of the bag anyway—this whole thing started over a managing editor’s lament via Twitter that for all the debt we incur on wars, we can’t seem to increase it by a dollar for health care. (I actually think that’s a good point—after all, it’s true—and don’t really see why it’s biased. It’s more: likely to offend people who’re vehemently opposed to health care. But whatever.) Guess what? Raju Narisetti thought that before he said it and he was still a managing editor at the Washington Post.

The point? Take it away, TechCrunch: “…the idea that any kind of reporting lacks any kind of bias on some level is laughable.” I’ll second that, but I find it unlikely that we’ll be joined anytime soon my MSM.

The worst things about social media policies (and attitudes) like this are (1) They serve only to cripple journalists who ought to be building community and trust around their content (and, to a degree I’m sure WaPo and others could care less about, their own personal brands) and (2) They make the MSM organizations look like idiots. Hearing, “Hey, everyone, we’re unbiased!” from the Washington Post sounds a lot like hearing, “Hey, everyone, pro wrestling’s not fake!” from WWE.

I don’t expect MSM to come out and say, “OK, we’ve been biased all these years,” (that’s not entirely true anyway) but they ought to stop screaming about how unbiased they are, because the harder they defend themselves, the guiltier they look.

Update: Jeremy Littau has a great take on this, too, including this gem:

“The beauty of social media is that it has the capability of liberating journalism from the sham of objectivity.”

I’m about ready to hang that up over my desk.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela Dice permalink
    September 28, 2009 7:48 pm

    Washington Post and other large media companies are, perhaps, poorly framing the conversation. The idea of being unbiased has nothing to do with the person and everything to do with the amount of professional reporting that goes into a story. When I went to journalism school and started reporting, we were told to examine our biases, and by being cognizant of them, work to keep them from coloring a story.

    But that argument doesn’t seem to hold water with ever-critical readers. I agree, there needs to be a re-building of trust and a greater sense of community promoted by journalists. But until people can separate a person’s opinion from their ability to be professional, research multiple viewpoints and present them fairly and accurately (will that ever be possible?), I think it behooves reporters to present themselves as professionally in public spaces as they do the information in the content they produce.

  2. September 29, 2009 12:54 pm

    “… examine our biases, and by being cognizant of them, work to keep them from coloring a story”—that’s all I’m saying.

    I think there’s definitely been a shift in how people react to the media; that is, it’s just become trendy to question the questioners (especially for the political right, for whom the press is a convenient enemy). The problem is that there really isn’t any defense on newspapers’ part. Sure, you’ve got editors and publishers spouting off about how an impartial press is needed now more than ever, but your average reader doesn’t hear that. We need reporters updating and re-updating stories and defending their work in comment threads when readers demand clarity.

    A lot of reporters seem like they’re stuck in this “set it and forget it” mode, which isn’t surprising, given that’s how newspaper journalism always worked. The way it works now—and someone blogged/Twittered this yesterday—is that once you’ve turned in your story, you’re only half done.

    I’m not suggesting we should all just start spouting off our biases, but Narisetti’s Tweet was an innocuous one that got scrutinized and blown out of proportion by old school editors who are straining so hard to be centrist (not the same as objective) that they’ve forgotten about the fact that there aren’t always two sides to a story.

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