In defense of neutrality: Why news organizations are right to crack down on social media

“Les Metamorphoses du jour” (1829), by J.J. Grandville

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Should journalists be allowed to express their opinions on social media? Among the tiny circle of people who think about such things, it is a fraught debate. Some say no — including the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, both of which recently issued updated social-media guidelines. Others argue that objectivity is a myth, and that it’s long past time for news organizations to move away from old-fashioned neutrality.

Falling squarely into the latter camp is the veteran digital journalist Mathew Ingram, who recently took his talents to the Columbia Journalism Review. In a column posted last week, Ingram wrote that the new Times and Journal policies, like similar rules at other news organizations, are bound to fail. Moreover, he added, a ban on opinionated tweets stops media outlets from taking advantage of what makes social networks interesting. Ingram wrote:

If someone tells you that they have no opinion, even on serious issues, that they are totally objective and that they also never make a mistake, you would probably think they are either a liar or a sociopath. And yet that is what social-media policies like the ones at the Times and the Journal are asking people to believe.

Now, Ingram is among our sharpest media observers, and he makes some strong points in favor of being transparent about our biases rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist. And yet at the risk of coming off as an old fogey, I have to disagree with him. I think it makes all the sense in the world for journalists to bring the same sensibility to social media that they do to their day jobs. A reporter who makes her living providing neutral coverage of, say, the pharmaceutical industry shouldn’t mock industry executives on Twitter. Likewise, a commentator who is paid to give his opinions should obviously be free to opinionate on social media as well.

Essentially I think Ingram is making a category error. He tells us that he’s writing about how news organizations should use social media, but in fact he’s making a much larger argument. Read what he wrote again: If someone tells you that they have no opinion, even on serious issues, that they are totally objective and that they also never make a mistake, you would probably think they are either a liar or a sociopath. This statement is obviously true, but, properly understood, it applies just as readily to a news organization’s journalistic output in general, not just to its use of social media. If a reporter covering the governor’s proposed budget thinks the governor is an idiot, well, why not say so? Wouldn’t that be more transparent? Isn’t that information our audience should have in assessing the fairness and accuracy of our journalism?

No, it’s not. Here’s the problem. Providing tough, fair-minded coverage is a discipline that is undermined once you disclose your own biases. It’s not just that your audience’s view of your work changes; it’s that you change, too. No longer are you a reporter who can be counted on to provide accurate, neutral coverage of state politics. You’re the reporter who thinks the governor is an idiot, and you are going to start slanting your journalism in ways that you wouldn’t if you’d kept your opinion to yourself.

There is a fine line. Even beat reporters are expected to be provocative and edgy on social media in a way that they wouldn’t on other platforms. Their employers want this because it attracts attention and clicks. Too often, though, journalists are expected to serve up generous dollops of snark and attitude without having received sufficient guidance as to what’s acceptable and what isn’t. That’s why every news organization should consider adopting a set of guidelines. Even better: a group like the Online News Association should develop a model policy, much as many media outlets already use the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

Here’s the heart of the Times’ policy: “In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.” It’s hard to see how anyone would disagree. Even opinion journalists should refrain from endorsing candidates and making offensive comments.

Nearly all of our major news organizations have adopted a stance of strict neutrality. That doesn’t mean their journalists lack opinions. It does mean that they are craftspeople paid to do a job as well as they can; expressing their opinions would interfere with that job. Seen in that light, social media is just another platform for their work — and the standards should remain the same.

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