This week in media musings: Piling on the Post’s new social media guidelines

We’re a little top-heavy this week, but hang in there — you should find some interesting stuff inside. (As always, explanation is here.)

— I’m about a week and a half late by now on the Washington Post’s new social media guidelines, but it dominated discussion this week and commentary is still trickling out about it, so it only makes sense to lead off with that. Here’s the quick summary: The Washington Post internally released its new guidelines a week ago Friday, the same day the paper’s ombudsman, Andy Alexander, described them for the public with an example of a Post editor who’d coincidentally (!) made some politically charged statements on Twitter that week and had subsequently shut his account down. Two days later, paidContent got its hands on the entire guidelines.

Predictably, the guidelines got hammered online. Among the more thoughtful critiques: The Columbia Journalism Review’s Megan Garber, the Times’ David Carr, Time’s James Poniewozik (probably the strongest criticism), Paul Bradshaw and BusinessWeek’s Stephen Baker. Howard Kurtz, the Post’s media critic, offered a tepid defense of his paper’s new rules. The most comprehensive thoughts on the issue came from the apparently indefatigable Steve Buttry, who used the episode to think about social media as conversationtrust at the Post and objectivity in general.

So what was everyone so upset about? For the most part, it came down to two things: The concept that “nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment,” and the subsequent admonition that Post staffers not post anything “that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.” That seems to pretty well adhere to old-school journalistic values, but it also limits journalists from posting on just about anything online except, as Kurtz put it, “the weather and dessert recipes.”

Here’s my take: The Post and its critics are operating in two different universes, and both are convinced that the public also inhabits their universe as well. In the Post’s universe, the paper operates in a “hyper-sensitive political environment,” as Alexander puts it, in which “many readers already view The Post with suspicion and believe that the personal views of its reporters and editors influence the coverage.” Their new-media-savvy critics live in a world in which “transparency is the new objectivity,” and readers trust “here’s where I’m coming from” more than ostensibly objective journalism.

I think that right now, among most Americans, the Post is right. By and large, American consumers of news are obsessed with bias — perceived or real, disclosed or hidden. The notion of objectivity remains without question their primary frame for interpreting and judging journalism. The statistics bear this out, and I doubt many journalists would tell you otherwise based on their own experiences. Here’s the but: In the long run, the new-media critics are right. We’re headed toward a world in which transparency matters more than objectivity, and it’s not a matter of if, but of when. (Look at the rise of Fox News and MSNBC, for example: Even as they complain about bias, devotees of those two channels know they’re not getting objective news; they know where their news source is coming from ideologically, and it’s the same place they come from. That’s why they like it.)

So for the Post to create social media guidelines that are born out of dealing with a bias-obsessed public is entirely reasonable. After all, that’s who they’re dealing with every day, right? But it’s also short-sighted. The time is coming (and I suspect it isn’t far off) when the tide among most Americans will shift, and they’ll actually understand that a journalist who discloses her biases is more trustworthy than one who pretends she has none. And the Post has virtually assured itself that it will be caught flat-footed once that time comes.

— Must-read of the week: Former Rocky Mountain News editor and publisher John Temple’s speech to the UC-Berkeley Media Technology Summit giving the 14-year-long blow-by-blow of how and why his newspaper failed. It’s one thing to hear self-appointed media mavens bloviate about why newspapers are dying; it’s quite another to hear it from a man who helmed one himself — and doesn’t exempt himself from blame.

— The big tech news of the week was the introduction of Google Wave. Its announcement initially left a lot of non-programmers (like myself) going, “Huh?” Fortunately, Mark Milian of the Los Angeles Times has told us what the Wave could do for journalism. I’m officially excited.

— This week in depressing (but pretty) graphs: mintlife has a nifty-looking set of visuals giving a quick-and-dirty picture of newspapers’ decline.

— If your interest in sports media goes beyond complaining about TV announcers, the National Sports Journalism Center’s new site has been a gold mine of fascinating stuff. Just within the last week, Jason Fry gave sportswriters great tips on how to use their access in a fan-driven world, Eric Deggans offered practical advice for local TV sports departments and Dave Kindred outlined a vision for a better game story. Also on the sports front, Matt Egan of Fox Business wrote a great summary of what ESPN’s local sites might mean for newspapers.

— In the wake of his talk last week at Harvard, Clay Shirky did a “news biopsy” on his hometown paper, the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. The results were depressing: He found only six staff-written local news articles. The problem? The paper’s list of 53 newsroom staffers includes just six news reporters. Jay Rosen tried an experiment like this earlier this year and generally found the same dearth of locally produced news. Obviously, if someone were to start a new local news organization in any of these towns, it would be much more thinly staffed than the newspaper. That’s the nature of institutions: They just don’t adapt well.

— Another big news announcement this week: NPR is launching a $3 million, two-year pilot project to give a dozen affiliates the tools to focus on providing more local news online. The same day, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued a report on the information gap in communities as it relates to maintaining a functioning democracy. The two events are obviously a coincidence, but it’s not hard to see the connection between the two ideas.

— I leave you with two interviews worth reading: One with The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman in which she argues that “press release journalism” is being increasingly exposed as worthless, and another with Columbia professor Dale Maharidge on journalists’ tone-deafness regarding issues of class and poverty. Enjoy.

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05. October 2009 by Mark
Categories: sports journalism, this week | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 comments