Going Public: Should Journalists Express Their Political Views on Social Networking Sites?

Article excerpt

It was an unquestioned principle, engraved in granite: Journalists should not reveal their views on political and social issues. No bumper stickers, no volunteering for candidates, no marching for causes. Any hint of partisan affiliation was deemed a threat to credibility.

But does that uncompromising stance make any sense in the freewheeling digital age, marked as it is by the impassioned political debate of the blogosphere and an almost religious commitment to transparency?

The advent of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, often an amalgam of the professional and the personal, has pushed the issue to the fore at traditional news organizations. Many news outlets see social networking as an essential element of their survival strategy (see "The Distribution Revolution," page 22), and some are drafting guidelines and policies for how their journalists should behave on Facebook and Twitter.

To many editors in the mainstream media, the traditional taboo against expressing political views remains essential, regardless of the venue. "It never hurts to keep in the forefront of your mind the fact that we're all expected to check our personal and political opinions at the door when we're in the newsroom doing our jobs," says Vernon Loeb, a deputy managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. To do otherwise, he adds, can create the impression that a journalist is biased.

But others see that as a complete misreading of the emerging media world, if not a formula for irrelevance. They say that transparency will actually strengthen the position of the MSM. A restrictive policy "sabotages the kind of intimate connection with readers that Twitter and other services make possible, and that newspapers desperately need," James Poniewozik wrote on Tuned In, his blog on Time.com.

Debate over the issue intensified in late September after the Washington Post issued guidelines for using social media. The Post policy, which had been in the works for some time, was implemented in the wake of a couple of tweets by Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti.

In one, Narisetti wrote, "We can incur all sorts of federal deficits for wars and what not. But we have to promise not to increase it by $1 for healthcare reform? Sad." In the other, he wrote, "Sen Byrd (91) in hospital after he falls from 'standing up too quickly.' How about term limits. Or retirement age. Or commonsense to prevail."

After Narisetti's tweets were questioned by Post executives, he shut down his Twitter account. He said that the tweets were simply personal observations but added, "I also realize that ... seeing that the managing editor of The Post is weighing in on this, it's a clear perception problem."

"My role as managing editor meant that the line between any personal and professional opinion was thin and always open to creative (mis)interpretation," Narisetti explained in an e-mail interview. "Tweeting was more of a personal use of social tools and not professional ... I figured I could live without the distraction it might cause, for now."

The new guidelines state that "Post journalists must 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 that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility."

In explaining the policy to readers, Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote that Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli "thinks The Post is more believable if it is seen as impartial." He quoted Brauchli as saying, "'it's been consistently shown in our readership [surveys] that people value us for our independence. We shouldn't lean in one direction or another direction. Our central tenet is that we don't let our personal views influence or guide our presentation of information or coverage of the issues.'" Brauchli did not respond to requests for comment for this story. …