Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Journalists may show bias without realizing it

Sorry I've been MIA for the past month or so. I just closed on my first home, so when I'm not in the newsroom coaching citizen journalists, I'm either packing or paralyzed by my indecisiveness over paint colors. But that's a conversation for another day.

The Columbia Missourian, for which I was a student journalist from 2002 to 2004, recently revised its conflict-of-interest policy to include special points about journalists and their use of social media. If you're as opinionated as I am, you may find these additions interesting:
  • Political viewpoints should not be apparent through students or staffers' public profiles on social networking Web sites. Be careful what you post. Ask yourself: What would a source think?
  • If you don’t think an editor should see (what's on your profile), why would you want a source to see it?
  • Students or staff may be "friended" by a source or a subject they cover. It may even be in the interest of students and staff to "friend" a source in order to follow their business or campaign. In such cases, students and staff are accountable for viewpoints expressed on their private profiles as well. Again: What would a source think?
The policy draft is to be reworked in another week or two.

Now, I'm a passionate person. I have strong opinions. I'm trained to keep them off the page and out of my Facebook fan page updates -- but since personal Facebook and Twitter profiles are about creating your own personal brand, I have in the past let myself show my beliefs on everything from gun control to my choice of Starbucks vs Caribou, through "liking" certain brands, following various organizations, and joining particular groups. I have since opted out of those groups that express political views, because in the three years I have been on Facebook, I've branched my network out enough to where a source could very easily see my profile through a friend in the community. I've also recently taken on the role of Opinions editor, and I don't feel comfortable with readers knowing where I stand on the issue of climate change, for example, as I run letters to the editor that might support what I believe, especially if that ratio happens to be 3-1.

But, I have to ask, how far is going too far in all of this?

I completely agree with The Missourian's revision that political viewpoints should stay off a journalist's Facebook profile. But what about the new "Like" feature, which allows you to show your support for virtually any brand, company or organization out there? For example, I recently had a great experience at a particular hospital that happens to be an advertiser at my publication (well, the fact that I was AT a hospital wasn't great, but the staff was fantastic). My question here is, is it technically a conflict of interest for me to "like" that hospital on my Facebook page, but not the others, who also advertise with us?

And what if I attend the Chicago Gay Pride Parade, one of the biggest summer events in my neighborhood? Or if I participate in the Walk for Israel with my family? I potentially may not even agree with the beliefs behind either event; I may simply participate as a way of being social, in the physical sense for once! But must I not post those photos to my Facebook page, because I am a journalist? According to The Missourian's proposed policy... I don't think so.

A quality journalist knows how to keep his or her mouth shut when needed. But journalists also know how to have fun, and most of us do have lives, contrary to popular belief. And Facebook, as a company, has been branching out more and more to offer more features, but less privacy comes with that.

Furthermore, my role at The Beacon has put me in somewhat of a spotlight. My face is one of the publication's Twitter avatars and sometimes I write a column. To quote one Ron Burgandy, "People know me." Sort of. At least, some of them, them being readers, know me enough to friend me on Facebook, particularly if I've messaged them in response to a comment on our fan page.

"I'm kind of a big deal."

I never really considered that any of the 50-something groups I belong to on Facebook - most of which I never really follow - could in theory lead to a phone call to my boss. But then I have other journalist friends who are very open with their opinions via Facebook and Twitter about topics that could be considered journalistically biased if seen by a source or reader.

Where is the line drawn? Do you agree with The Missourian's policy revise? Should other publications follow suit? Or should social media, from a personal standpoint, be considered a private, personal "life"?

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