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Sunday, October 4, 2009
Generation J Toolbox

Maintain objectivity on social media sites

By Elissa Sonnenberg

During the 2008 presidential election, Orange County Register online editor Sonya Smith (Twitter @sonyanews) watched in amazement as reporter friends changed Facebook and Twitter avatars to reflect candidate preferences. Was this a generational shift toward openness and honesty or a thumbed nose at objectivity? Smith, 26, decided it was much more simple.

“I don’t think they were being transparent,” she said. “They were just being young journalists.”

Rookie reporters have always made mistakes. They believe every source; they forget to check a fact. They learn the hard way that errors eat away at trust and reliability, a journalist’s stock and trade. But today’s shifting definitions of objectivity, clouded by 24/7 social networking and an overabundance of news sources, places a specific burden on journalists navigating the Web.

“I define objectivity based on who is relaying the message to me,” said Smith, who adds that journalists need to recognize that many readers, bombarded with sometimes conflicting information, pick and choose their news based on their interests. And they approach each source with skepticism.

While objectivity — the diligent process of reporting facts, not opinions — remains a tenet of journalism education and core ethical guidelines, today’s readers aren’t buying it.

“Younger people have a distrust of the media,” said Smith, who has been disillusioned by peers she has seen accept swag from sources. “I think that it’s much worse than any journalist could expect.”

Mandy Jenkins (Twitter @mjenkins), social media editor at Cincinnati.com, agrees. “Consumers are going to believe we are biased no matter what we do,” said Jenkins, 29, who acts as a sort of traffic cop for Gannett’s Enquirer media Web portals.

Smith thinks today’s readers would rather know that a source is biased than get a message that they perceive has a hidden agenda. In an online world where “too much information” is the rule, not the exception, readers want to know more about not just newsmakers, but writers, editors and producers. Facebook and its social media brethren offer new pathways and telling insights.

Jenkins acknowledges that social media inevitably leads to a more personal relationship with readers.

“There is so much more online where you can be so much more transparent about your life,” she said. “Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I work for The Enquirer, but they also know I like to go out on Friday nights.”

Jenkins added that inquisitive news consumers can help keep reporters, and their opinions, in check.

“It puts a little bit of heat on us,” she said. “We represent where we work, 24/7. That’s the price we pay when we become journalists. If you aren’t adamant about keeping a distance, you probably shouldn’t be a journalist.”

Consider these tips for balancing objectivity with transparency:

1) WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK FOR ADVICE

Written social media/Internet policies may or may not exist in your workplace, but expectations certainly do. Better to check before blogging or posting a comment that might cost you your job, Smith said. General rule of thumb: Bigger employers typically expect more control over employees’ social media activities.

2) THINK BEFORE YOU UPDATE

Remember that embarrassing status updates can be saved in perpetuity, and you have little to no control over it. So, do you really want to tweet about how much you hate your job today?

3) CITE YOUR SOURCE

Online publishing allows you to practice responsible link journalism, and it can be a great way to earn trust from your readers and expand your network of sources. Smith advises linking to public documents where you discovered data as well as to press releases that inspired stories.

4) INTERACT WITH READERS

Journalists who see themselves as above reproach don’t learn from their peers or the public. Jenkins said readers appreciate reporters who answer questions posted in comments and those who clarify points of confusion.

5) DEVELOPING A PERSONAL ETHICS STATEMENT

Bloggers at The Wall Street Journal-owned site allthingsd.com have done just that, allowing readers to learn about everything from their stock portfolios to their marital statuses in an effort to combat reader mistrust. (But see Tip 1 first!)

6) BE OPEN TO CHANGE

As technology continues to evolve, every member of the media will face new ethical challenges as well as opportunities. Address both with the critical eye that has always distinguished good journalists.

Follow Elissa Sonnenberg on Twitter: @esonnenberg

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