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March 03 2010

14:59

Election 2.0: Will it be ‘gotcha’ time for journalists?

Speaking to Journalism.co.uk after last night’s event on the role that new media will play in the forthcoming election, Matthew McGregor, London director of Blue State Digital – the agency behind Barack Obama’s new media presidential campaigning,  said it was important not to overlook journalists’ own use of social media in reporting and gathering the news.

The interesting thing for me about blogging is that so many journalists have started blogging to try and get their stories out quicker, to try and publish stories that they are know are interested and printable, but just don’t make it into the paper.

Local political newspapers and their blogs will be interesting [during the 2010 election campaigns]. For example, the Nottingham Evening Post has a politics blogger, who will break stories that might not get into the newspaper, but will be of national importance.

But the rise of the blogger outside of journalism will be a game changer for those in the profession covering the election, added McGregor. While the pre-preparedness of the party leaders ahead of the TV debates may save them from newsworthy gaffes, as suggested by BBC political editor Nick Robinson, the way in which journalists cover the news and interact with candidates will leave them open to ‘gotcha’ moments. The dissection of the National Bullying Helpline story is just the start.

A game-changer for local media?

The openness that politicians have with Twitter and Facebook means they can’t hide and there’s no point trying to, because authenticity can’t be faked.

Journalists covering the election from a local angle have a lot to gain from using social networks to track candidates, suggested McGregor. Candidates may well try to bypass mainstream media to connect with voters – local media needs to get in on the act in this interim space.

There’s also an opportunity for local journalists to push their election stories to a national level using new media channels, he added, echoing comments made by fellow panellist DJ Collins, Google’s director of communications and public affairs EMEA on the benefits of this to the general public.

You’re not just local anymore, especially during an election (…) and people vote a home who have moved away.

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January 11 2010

15:00

A cautionary tale: The Fiscal Times and Washington Post

Enterprise reporting partnerships with online news organizations are in vogue at major newspapers these days, and arguably no paper has been more aggressive in pursuing them than the Washington Post. But in his ombudsman column Sunday, Andrew Alexander takes Post editors to task for a series of failures that plagued its most recent partnership, with a new organization calling itself the Fiscal Times.

The Fiscal Times is not a nonprofit, but it has a lot of the markings of one. It is backed by a wealthy philanthropist, investment banker and U.S. commerce secretary Peter G. Peterson; it is staffed by established journalists, including former Post political writer and editor Eric Pianin; and it claims to run an independent, nonpartisan, non-ideological newsroom. The main difference is that the Fiscal Times is run by a privately held company controlled by Peterson and his son Michael.

So what went wrong?

On Dec. 31, the Post ran its first story from the Fiscal Times, a newsy report that support was building on Capitol Hill for a bipartisan commission to tackle the nation’s chronic deficits and mounting debts. As it happens, this is Peterson’s pet issue and the focus of the Peterson Foundation.

According to Alexander, problem No. 1 with the story was that it quoted the president of the Concord Coalition, but failed to mention that the group receives funding from the Peterson Foundation. It also cited data from a study supported by the foundation but again failed to note the foundation’s backing, according to Alexander.

Alexander goes on to cite other problems with the story, including balance and timing. But the big foul-up in his book appear to be the transparency issues surrounding Peterson’s support for issue advocacy, and I couldn’t agree more.

Is is possible for a deeply opinionated philanthropist to keep his nose out of a newsroom of his own making? I do think it’s possible. Look at ProPublica, funded almost entirely by Herb and Marion Sandler, who also launched the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. But transparency is key to credibility — and ultimately, to the viability of any news organization, for-profit or nonprofit.

What does transparency look like? Mostly, it resides with the intent of the publisher, and it might be expressed as a newsroom oversight board or other firewall structure that keeps newsrooms insulated from financial pressures. But to the outside world, it means disclosure of anything that might even hint of a conflict.

In this case, the Post fell down on the job, according to Alexander. But the Post has been around for a long time, and it certainly will recover. The Fiscal Times — like so many of the new news organizations that have sprouted up in recent years — has not developed a similar reservoir of credibility. The question is whether any governance structure, process or procedure can provide an adequate substitute.

December 02 2009

18:00

On transparency, objectivity, and the near occasion of subjectivity

Over the past several months, much has been said about transparency being the new objectivity in journalism. As news organizations figure out whether they’ll use social media, and, if so, how they’ll use it, the phrase has been popping up more and more in the blogosphere.

I agree with that sentiment to a point, and I support the idea of transparency whole-heartedly. But at the risk of sounding like the glutton who wants her proverbial cake and to eat it, too, I ask: Why can’t we have both? Why can’t we aim for both objectivity and transparency?

Objectivity is unattainable in my mind unless robots begin to replace journalists (and even then, there’s still the opinions of the humans programming the robots.) But I think it’s a goal worth shooting for. Journalists should, I believe, try with all their might to show all sides (not just two) of a story, to be fair, to be accurate, to hold their own opinions in check in the telling. Even viewpoints we disagree with should get the airing of open discourse.

I agree with those who say transparency is so important now because it is intrinsic to the way people use the Internet. We want to know why we should trust the people we’re reading. We want to know what they think. But I’d go one step farther and argue that transparency was always important, even in the days of print-only publications before the Web took off.

Avoiding the near occasion of subjectivity

Back in the old pre-Web days, we pretended the goal was avoiding the near occasion of subjectivity, not true objectivity.

We, as journalists, did things to make sure it didn’t appear that we had opinions, or beliefs, or baggage from our own lives that might impact what stories we told or the telling itself. In our effort to appear objective, we didn’t cease to feel things or believe things. We just refrained from telling our readers what we thought and felt and believed. And, somehow, we thought that would make us objective.

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot because, for the past 20 years, when I worked as a reporter or editor at newspapers, I played by the “avoid the near occasion of subjectivity” rules. I was registered to vote, but I did not enroll in an political party. I didn’t donate to political parties or candidates. I never signed a petition for a candidate or a cause. No campaign signs dotted my lawn. Even as recently as a year ago, I didn’t publicly rejoice on Facebook or Twitter when Barack Obama won.

Then in June, I took a buyout, left the newspaper business, and promptly enrolled in a political party. (Democrat. I know you’re wondering.) For the first time in my adult life, I felt like a full-fledged citizen.

Then I questioned myself: Was I objective and fair during the course of my career? I think so, although, of course, my own way of seeing the world is shaped by what has happened in my life and what I believe. I gravitated to stories that gave voice to the voiceless. Was that my bleeding heart liberal beliefs oozing in, or was that just the right thing to do? Who knows?

Did I try to be objective? Sure. Was I always objective? Probably not. There’s no way to tell. We journalists get around that concept by salving our egos with the adage: If I’ve ticked off both sides, I’ve done my job. But in reality, does that make sense? Is making all your sources mad really a measure of success? Couldn’t that just mean you did a horrendous job and failed to capture the essense of the story?

What I didn’t do is be transparent.

Now, upon reflection, I realize that was wrong. By not telling people what I thought or felt or believed, I may have been avoiding the near occasion of subjectivity, but I wasn’t being a better journalist. I wasn’t building trust with readers. Refraining to tell readers where I was coming from didn’t make me objective. It just failed to make me transparent.

I’d suggest that perhaps there are journalists out there who really don’t care who wins or loses an election or who don’t have an opinion on the president’s health-care plan, abortion, or same-sex marriage. Perhaps there are journalistic automatons who feel nothing, who aren’t captivated by the politics of the day, who lack passion or principle.

Why transparency

As for me, I don’t want people like that giving me the news. I don’t want people who feel nothing making sense of the world for me. I want journalists who both know what’s going on and care deeply about it. I want journalists who are versed in the issues and understand the ramifications of all sides of those issues. I don’t want journalists who fear the near occasion of subjectivity.

I want journalists who are bold and perhaps sometimes brash but who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. I want journalists who feel something way down in the pit of their beings, and who aren’t afraid to show it.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying you insert that opinion in a news story. I’m saying that you don’t hide the fact that you have opinion. I’m saying you disclose opinions and say, “Hey, reader, here’s where I’m coming from.” I fully believe you can still write an objective news story while having beliefs. In fact, I know you can. I spent a career doing that.

I’m just staying we pull those beliefs out of hiding and disclose them, so the readers can decide more fully if we’re being objective or not.

Will some readers accuse you of bias? Of course. But then again, that happens now.

To me, the answer to this battle over objectivity versus transparency is to stop the fight. Call a draw. Both are noble goals. Focus on transparency, and greater objectivity will follow.

Journalism as an industry needs people with passion, opinions, beliefs. Having these feelings — and expressing them — won’t harm objectivity. If anything, it will enhance it.

Photo by Gisela Giardino used under a Creative Commons license.

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