Washington Post, Social Networks and Transparency

wash post logoAnyone involved in the Twitter world and journalism has surely heard about the Washington Post’s decision to sharply restrict what editorial employees can say online, especially in social networks like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.

twitter logoThe newspaper has been ridiculed more than praised. My contribution to the early debate was a Tweet saying that I considered the move to be more proof — as if anyone needed it — that old-line print-journalism people have taken firm control of the Post’s news operation.

The paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, called yesterday. He’s looking into the situation, and wanted to chat further. I agreed that this deserves more than 140-character microblog posts. Here’s what I sent him this morning by email (expanded somewhat for even more nuance and to generalize beyond solely the Post’s interests):

From my perspective, this is a case of wanting to do the right thing in principle — assuring readers that the journalism they read is being done with the highest attention to honorable practices — but then getting it wrong in practice. While this isn’t a binary, yes/no question, it’s a also case where the principle collides with reality and, in my view, more compelling principles.

There are two issues, one immediate and practical and the other larger and more important, but also murkier.

The immediate one is to what extent the Post, or any other news organization that wants to be relevant in the Digital Age, should participate in social media. The Post seems to have taken the most restrictive possible position. As noted, I think that’s a mistake in a variety of ways.

The largemonkeys.jpgr issue is transparency. I’ll come back to that, but it comes down to something that may sound counter-intuitive: So long as you do excellent journalism, greater transparency will lead readers to believe you less — that is, they’ll understand better why it’s impossible to get everything right all the time — but they’ll trust you more.

Others have done a much better job than I’ll attempt in deconstructing the memo that went out to the staff; Stowe Boyd’s line-by-line analysis, while more harsh than I’d have done, makes the essential points.

The editors’ priestly-vows tone was only one reason some folks ridiculed it, however. So was what lots of us perceived as an unrealistic and ultimately damaging attempt to wall off journalists from participation in real life as a consequence of their work.

Any news organization contemplating such rules has to ask itself, and be prepared to answer, how far up the food chain the rules will travel. In the Post’s case, does this edict apply to Katharine Weymouth, CEO of Washington Post Media and publisher of the paper? To Don Graham, CEO of the parent company? To the advertising salespeople? To Andy Alexander?

The Post’s frown on social interaction has ramifications from the purely practical standpoint that social networks are central to tomorrow’s journalism. Journalism organizations have absolutely no alternative but to participate, in particular in the Post’s case because it’s as much a local newspaper, where conversation is core to the future, as a trade journal for the political class (the latter also has plenty of social networking potential).

The new policy misses that, but the paper still pretends to participate in social networks via semi-official accounts on Facebook, Twitter, et al. But social networks are about being social, and human voice is at the heart of online social interaction. Twitter posts from corporate entities are PR. They have no voice. Strip out voice, and there’s not much point in joining that conversation.

If the Post bosses are really serious about this, by the way, they’ll need to take it further. Consider this from the memo

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. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.

Never mind the truly weird equating of racism with religious or political beliefs. I wouldn’t employ anyone who expressed racist views in any capacity, period.

The bigger problem with the policy, as quoted above, is that it only covers online social networks. It doesn’t cover the social network we all have in real life, namely our “analog” contacts with others.

New shut-up orders will surely have to be extended to social interactions at parties, won’t they? Given the increasing (and somewhat disturbing) possibility or even likelihood that someone may be collecting audio or video of what people in public life say or do in public, and given the fact that journalists are players in this public arena, isn’t it now necessary to prohibit journalists from expressing opinions in any setting except, perhaps, at work? (Ask Time magazine’s Joe Klein about this.)

If the Post extends the edict to offline encounters, at logically may have to, the rights of the employees start to sound like the ones at the CIA, which unlike the Post is not an organization that helps the people you serve have a vital conversation about public policy. But it’s inevitably where the paper will have to go if this policy sticks.

Which brings me back to the more important issue of transparency. I’m convinced that it will become one of journalism’s core principles in this new era, right up there with thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and independent thinking. It has to become part of the process, because without it people will have even less reason to trust what journalists do. It will be forced on some organizations that resist; the Post seems likely to be in that camp of resisters, at least for now, because the trend is largely in the wrong direction.

The paper is in good, or at least typical, company. The journalism craft has been almost entirely opaque during the monopoly/oligopoly era of media. Some of the reasons for this made sense, including the legal ones (though lawyers are always too cautious, because that’s their job). Apart from your column and the occasionally revealing remarks people make in the scheduled online chats, the Post is almost completely opaque.

Transparency takes several forms. I strongly believe that news organizations have a duty to explain to their audiences how they do their journalism, and why. Even the organizations that claim to have no world view should be telling people much more about the “how” — though too few do — because they’d help readers/viewers/listeners/etc. understand what it takes to do good journalism, assuming they actually do good journalism. It baffles me that an industry that wants to be perceived as better than the newcomers to the craft doesn’t grasp this, but it clearly doesn’t.

The “why” is more nuanced, especially for big organizations (at least in America). They could take a page from the newcomers.

The best journalistic bloggers are much more open on this; their world views and motivations are typically crystal clear. And their audiences, even people who disagree with those world views, can refract their own understanding of the topics through those lenses.

The response I get when I say these things is typically along these lines: But if journalists say what they think, they’ll call into question their objectivity. I don’t believe in objectivity in the first place. And the public already perceives journalists to be biased, which of course they are — though I don’t believe this is the same as unethical.

I wish that U.S. news organizations would drop the pretense of being impartial and having no world view. There’s no conflict between having a world view and doing great journalism.

When I go to London I buy the Guardian and the Telegraph. Both do excellent journalism. The Guardian covers the world from a slightly left-of-center standpoint, and the Telegraph from a slightly right-of-center stance. I read both and figure I’m triangulating on the essence of (British establishment) reality. Even if I read just one, the paper’s overt frame of reference gives me a better way to understand what’s happening than if it pretended to be impartial. And — crucially — both of them run articles (and lots of op-eds) that either directly challenge their world views or, more routinely, include facts and context that runs contrary to what the editors and proprietors might wish was true. Relentless journalism’s independence of thought means, in particular, being willing or even eager to learn why your core assumptions could be wrong.

The Post had a profoundly obvious world view during the run-up to the Iraq War: pro-administration, pro-war — and it was reflected principally in the fact that the little journalism it did questioning the war rarely if ever made the front page, as opposed to relentless parroting of war-mongering from Bush administration insiders. The evidence is overwhelming, and even Post journalists have admitted as much, though not in those precise words. I’m guessing that the newspaper’s editors, who can be as good as (or better than) anyone else in the field, would have done a better job of covering the opposing views (and facts) if the paper’s world view had been stated as a matter of policy, partly because the best journalists enjoy challenging conventional wisdom even when it’s from their own bosses.

When it comes to individual views and specifics about individual reporters and editors, I grant that this does get a bit more tricky. I’m not suggesting that the Post or anyone else put reporters’ tax returns online. But I would suggest that when something they are, or believe, might be relevant to a reader that it’s OK, and maybe important, to let the reader know. (A religion reporters’ faith, as in what religion or sect he follows (or absence of faith, for that matter) seems relevant to me.)

And I’d strongly suggest that while a random opinion or quip might be bothersome, letting journalists be human beings would have a better outcome in the end. Telling staff to hide all opinions doesn’t cause readers to trust you more. It tells them you’re hiding something, because they aren’t stupid.

The principle behind the Post’s social media policy is based on instincts derived from the 20th century monopoly/oligopoly business model. The wishful thinking it represents is unfortunate. It’s not going to work in the end, and in the meantime one of the world’s great news organizations will be losing ground that will be harder and harder to make up.

(“See no evil” picture by Rose Davies via Flickr)